Don't blame Morata: Enrique's grand Spain design needs a killer touch
Football can be cruel; we know that. But it seems especially mean to Alvaro Morata.
The man who was booed by his own fans, who dragged Spain through against Croatia, was finally dropped for the Euro 2020 semi-final against Italy. A purely tactical choice, but one perhaps at odds with Luis Enrique's hot-blooded defiance towards the naysayers who wanted Morata out of the team.
How amazing it was to see Morata then come off the bench and equalise with 10 minutes to go, bellow a quick "Vamos!" into the camera and get the ball back to the centre-circle. And how inevitable it felt when his tame penalty was saved, as Spain's draining campaign ended at last in another shoot-out.
Morata should not be blamed, though. Rather, Spain's failings in attack have been prevalent throughout. That might sound strange since, before the semi-finals, they were the top-scoring side in the tournament with 12, and they ended it with 13, their best goals return at a single European Championship.
But they should have had more, and not just at Wembley Stadium. They came into the contest with nine scored (excluding penalties and own goals) from 15.6 expected goals. That difference of -3.56 was the worst of any side at these finals. By the end of the semi-final, their tally stood at 10 from an xG of 17.1.
They had been looking promising, too. Spain may not have enthralled at these finals – just ask Rafael "they're horrible to watch" van der Vaart – but they mastered that critical art of getting better as the tournament went on.
From the drudgery of two group-stage draws – where they averaged a shot on target for 458 passes against Sweden and then let Poland have a point – La Roja sharpened up. They dismantled Slovakia in the crucial third game and put Croatia to the sword in the last 16 (even if they tried hard to throw it away). In the quarter-final against Switzerland, they fired in 28 shots across 120 minutes and only Yann Sommer's brilliance forced the contest to go to penalties.
In a damp, cool evening in London, against many observers' favourites for the trophy, Spain looked fully warmed up. The passing from midfield was crisp and purposeful; the introduction of Dani Olmo as the false nine left Italy's central trio outnumbered and scrambling after white shirts. Olmo could have scored, and Mikel Oyarzabal really should have, scuffing a shot within reach of Gianluigi Donnarumma. Italy took 45 minutes to attempt a shot, Emerson Palmieri skimming the crossbar from a tight angle.
Even after Federico Chiesa put the Azzurri ahead with an excellent finish after an hour, there was little panic within the Spain ranks. Rather, there was an acceptance, an expectation that chances would come, as they have all tournament. They duly did, Oyarzabal missing the ball when a simple headed finish presented itself, and Olmo fizzing a shot wide. Ultimately, it was Morata who went from scrutinised starter to super-sub, turning in midfield, exchanging passes with Olmo and leaving Donnarumma dumbfounded with a clinical finish.
Perhaps inevitably, though, it was on Spain's midfielders that everything rested. The game seemed to ebb and flow depending on which of them had the ball at any given moment. The three were like brothers from the same footballing lineage: teenager Pedri, experienced Koke, veteran Busquets. They certainly kept the ball like a family secret. Pedri completed all 56 of his passes before extra time; Busquets only misplaced four of his throughout. You'd be forgiven for thinking Koke played for Barcelona, such was his understanding with the Catalan duo.
Yet midfield control wasn't enough. At Euro 2020, it has never been enough for them. It would be unfair to suggest Italy were playing for penalties but, as soon as they came, you felt there was only one winner. Giorgio Chiellini laughed, jostled and bear-hugged Jordi Alba at the pre-shoot-out coin toss. He seemed to know. Morata did, too, the Juventus striker nodding ruefully after Donnarumma guessed right to save his spot-kick. And everyone in Wembley and around the world knew Jorginho would bury the winner.
Few had any clear idea about what Spain would achieve at these finals. Luis Enrique proved he can cultivate a strong-minded squad and navigate the rigours of a tournament; even his infamously poor relationship with the national press should not detract from a positive few weeks. They look a realistic bet for at least the latter stages of the World Cup next year.
But those concerns in attack will only grow if they cannot become a more ruthless side between now and November 2022. Like their immaculate midfield, Spain are building, patiently, expertly, but without knowing quite where it will lead.