Gerard Pique’s winning goal in Spain’s victory against the Czech Republic on Monday was a thumping reminder of Spain’s persistent goal-scoring drought. After Spain was held scoreless for 86 minutes and with the team fresh out of ideas, Pique and Sergio Ramos were summoned forward to provide aerial threats for one final barrage of crosses.
It didn’t take long for Iniesta to find his Barcelona teammate for the winner, but after dominating possession and passing the ball all over the field, the desperate measures required for Spain to score one goal are concerning. Without a striker to rely on, Spain leaned on its centerbacks to deliver a goal and rescue the result.
This has been Spain’s biggest weakness since its disappointing title defense at the 2014 World Cup. With David Villa on his last international run, Spain featured turncoat Diego Costa as its striker in Brazil, and the ex-Brazilian failed to deliver anything of substance. Costa has only one goal in 10 caps for Spain and after being left out of the squad for friendlies in March, Vicente del Bosque kept out of the Euros, too.
Costa is just one of several strikers Spain has cycled through during the past few years. Del Bosque has selected Soldado, Negredo, Llorente and now Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz with this summer’s squad, but the goals still haven’t come. Spain has even gone without a striker altogether with David Silva and Cesc Fabregas in False 9 roles to no avail.
Morata offers good pace, skill on the ball and determination on defense, but his finishing is not on par with the top strikers in the world. Aduriz was a more than deserving selection after a 32-goal season for Athletic Club, but he is more of target man than someone who can squeeze through the tight spaces Spain is forced to play in.
Although subpar striker play is to blame for Spain’s lack of goals, so is the way its opponents play. Spain is almost better off playing teams of similar quality that attack and go for all three points than it is against Georgia or the Czech Republic and other teams that park the bus and simply try to survive for 90 minutes. When a team possesses the ball for 70 or 80 percent of the match, there are few opportunities to counter, and when the opposition has resigned itself to playing without the ball, there is almost no room to operate around their box.
The Spaniards still play some beautiful stuff in midfield and their creative players are among the best in the world, but with defenses so compact and dug in, they can’t walk the ball into the net. This often forces a team that prefers a tiki-taka style to lump in crosses and to force the ball into fruitless slivers of space. Luckily for Spain, it is one of the few European nations that still possesses reliable full backs, and Jordi Alba and Juanfran are capable of decent defending and making important runs down the flank to open things up.
When all else fails, Spain gets desperate and sends Pique and Sergio Ramos forward, leaving Sergio Busquets back as the break stopper in case of emergency. It is a far cry from the beautiful football Spain is typical associated with, but it is a necessary adjustment that its opponents and its strikers force it to make.
Against the Czech Republic, it worked. Iniesta, who looked like the best midfielder in the world in this game, delivered a brilliant cross that found Pique’s forehead and Spain took a valuable three points in its opening group game, putting a stop to a troubling trend of horrible opening performances under del Bosque. But for Spain to defend its title as the European Champs, it is going to need a lot more production from the men leading its line.