The hosts were on hand to deny their much-fancied opponents a smooth passage into the quarterfinals of the footballing showpiece.
The Russian press and supporters had turned a corner post the hiding they were given by Uruguay in the group stages. After sailing past Saudi Arabia on an opening day and giving a solid performance against Egypt, the mood of the country was in general positive considering that this was a Russian team that showed speed, flair, desire, something that went lacking in Brazil 4 years ago.
However, they were brought down to earth in the most dramatic fashion when one of the tournament big boys Uruguay showed them why the World Cup is for the very best. No one gave the home team a chance when they knew 2010 World Champions Spain were their Round of 16 opponents.
It may be so for the Russian teams of the past, but not this team. Stanislav Cherchesov has moulded this team that was in tatters as early as 2016 to one that is ready to give every last breath for the motherland on the pitch. Leonid Slutsky’s Russia made the headlines for all the wrong reasons in France and their squad was an ageing unit that needed serious refreshment.
Fast forward to today and you see a much-changed side. The team is ready to put in the hard yards as exhibited by the state that the maximum average distance that a Russian player covered was 118 meters per minute, a number that may have been half of that 2 years ago.
It was exactly this workhorse attitude that powered the hosts to a shocking upset of Spain in the Round of 16 match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. In what might just be the tipping point for Russian football, a few things did stand out.
Spain will struggle to fill the void left by Andres Iniesta
For nearly a decade, the name Andres Iniesta is assumed to be a given on a Spanish national team first 11. The Barcelona man is an epitome of selflessness, passion, skill and humility, traits that every footballer should learn from. He was part of the duo that kickstarted the revolution in Spanish football in 2008 all the way to 2012. He was the man who scored that history writing goal in Johannesburg to give Spain their deserved maiden world cup title. With age his speed may have waned but his near unbelievable ability to pick a pass has not dipped at all.
Fernando Hierro’s decision to drop the veteran to the bench raised a few eyebrows. In hindsight, Hierro replaced Iniesta with Marco Asensio to offer greater protection on the left flank given the problems that Alexander Samedov and Aleksandr Golovin can cause on the flanks. But when the Spaniards lacked that killer pass to breach the Russian defence, Iniesta was the man for the job.
His introduction changed the complexion of the game as Spain were finally more direct with their passing and Iniesta’s slaloming runs with Isco were what the Spaniards needed. He drew a sharp save out of Igor Akinfeev and instantly the Russians knew that they had a problem on their hands, but somehow galvanised themselves to keep him at bay over the course of 120 minutes.
With the Russians progressing, it brings down the curtains of one Spain’s and football’s greatest ever servants and history will always remember the name ‘Andres Iniesta’
Russia show organization and threat from the flanks
Cherchesov knew that Spain would play a possession game and they were unlikely to see much of the ball. He set up his side to outnumber their opponents in midfield with a 3-5-2 formation. Former Chelsea man Yuri Zhirkov and Mario Fernandes were tasked to provide the width for the team and ensuring defensive shape while retreating. Fernandes’ overlapping runs along with Samedov were one of the few bright moments in the first half for Russia as they tried to stretch the Spanish backline and allow Daler Kuziaev and Golovin space to unleash their craft.
Artem Dzyuba’s imposing presence up front ensured that he could bring his fellow attackers into play and keep Ramos and Pique busy. With the likes of David Silva or Isco not offering much defensively, it was a definite Achilles heal that Cherchesov sought to capitalise in the course of the match. Formations of course are pointless if the players do not show desire when playing. This Russian team were chasing the ball with intent regardless of the threat of being lost in the Spanish passing carousel. They chased lost causes, ran as if it was the last ever match of their lives and threatened to break on every available opportunity. When teams put this kind of Herculean effort on the pitch, it seems everyone in the stadium backing the team, which is exactly what 144 million Russians did.
Spain doesn’t appear to have a Plan B, AGAIN!
The Spanish campaign to the World Cup was one where there was a mix of the traditional Spanish footballing virtues of pass till death and a newfound directness introduced by then manager Julen Lopetegui. However, the acrimonious circumstances that plagued Spain before even a ball was kicked in the World Cup saw the team go back to their pre-2014 mode of metronomic passing.
It worked a treat in their opener against Portugal. However, there were definite weaknesses for the taking. A common way to counter the Spanish possession game was to put all 10 of your outfield players behind the ball and restrict passing angles. Often the Spaniards would never look to cross or make direct runs against their opposition full backs. The same was seen here despite the threat that Diego Costa carries. Rarely did the Spaniards look to punt crosses in from the flanks for Costa to latch on to considering that he is a master of making the right runs into the box.
All it saw was the Spanish maintaining a high defensive line and racking up possession statistics as they passed the ball around vertically more than horizontally. Only when Rodrigo and Iniesta were brought on did la Roja switch to a more direct approach, something that Russia did struggle against.
The Spaniards in full flow are one of the most artistic footballing teams on the planet, but teams find ways to counter this game and it’s time Spanish football quickly find a way to add a different dimension to their gameplay or risk being figured out in each tournament.