Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
A world-class defender in a past life, Fernando Hierro’s safety-first approach to this one should come as no surprise. But the novice manager’s undue caution certainly inspired a shock, allowing resolute Russia to execute their plan-of-frustration to perfection.
Stanislav Cherchesov had always planned to drag Russia kicking and screaming into the brave new world of back-threes. “We have not achieved anything with with four at the back,” he said, upon assuming Leonid Slutskiy’s mantle. But a combination of retirements, injuries, and inadequate replacements queered his plans. The hosts tackled all three group-stage games with two centre-backs: Sergei Ignashevich, out of retirement for one last job, and his much younger understudy Ilya Kutepov.
The second-phase prospect of Spain prompted a rethink, however. Fyodor Kudryashov, one of the aforementioned inadequates, was reinstated along with the back-three in which he once flopped. Although, given the positional reserve shown by both Mario Fernandes and Yuri Zhirkov, it was really more of a back-five.
Coupled with a very narrow midfield four, Cherchesov’s goal was to choke off the half-spaces from which the likes of Isco and David Silva thread their through-balls. A complementary low-block, designed to render them moot anyway, only exacerbated Spain’s quandary.
Hierro’s side, therefore, were tasked with dragging Russia’s massed defence out of position, creating gaps for Diego Costa’s impressive diagonal runs. Alas, Spain did not move the ball nearly quick enough to make this goal a reality. Combination play on their preferred left-flank was too slow, notwithstanding the unparalleled tight-space dribbling of Isco.
And, although a switch-of-play from Isco to Nacho won the opener-inspiring free-kick, those too were laboured and infrequent. Ignashevich’s own goal, committed under pressure from Ramos, also proved the folly of Spain’s crossing allergy. Hierro’s side attempted only four wide deliveries from open play before half-time.
Key to Spain’s torpidity was Hierro’s decision to select both Sergio Busquets and the tireless Koke at the base of his midfield. With striker Artem Dzyuba sitting on the more cultured Busquets, Spain were forced to play through the Atletico midfielder; who, for all his energy, is not possessing of Thiago Alcantara’s technical proficiency.
Koke ended the game having attempted more than twice Busquets’ tally of passes; music to Russian ears. Spain’s band of three attacking midfielders, therefore, rarely found space between the lines. Indeed, the only through-ball attempted in the first 90 minutes emanated from the boot of right-back Nacho. Costa, who dashed diagonally off Kutepov, was foiled by Igor Akinfeev from an acute angle.
Nacho’s positioning was arguably the most tactically interesting facet of the game. With Marco Asensio largely staying wide on the right touchline, in a vain attempt to stretch the play, the Real Madrid defender often tucked inside accordingly. Here, presumably, Hierro was thinking again of Russia’s transitional threat, with Nacho the Guardiola-style barrier against Aleksandr Golovin’s counterattacking bursts.
Yet, despite Hierro’s self-defeating caution, Russia threatened sporadically on the break anyway. Here, Dyzuba’s aerial dominance was vital, exploiting Spain’s age-old vulnerability to physicality. Early on, for example, Golovin went close from the D, after Dzyuba won an aerial duel at the expense of Sergio Ramos. The Zenit striker won a whopping 11 of his 14 high-ball battles, underlining Russia’s overall aerial superiority: 70% of aerial duels won, contrasting neatly with Spain’s 79% control of possession.
Spain’s left-wing focus, and Jordi Alba’s attacking abandon, also afforded the Russians transitional opportunities down the same flank. Right-back Mario Fernandes duly bombed forward at turnovers, to compete for Daler Kuzyaev’s diagonals. And one such cross-field pass resulted in the corner from which a Dzyuba header — who else — won Russia’s penalty-kick equaliser.
Level at the break, and having taken only four touches in the hosts’ box, Hierro seemed certain to make half-time changes. But, instead, it was Cherchesov who acted, removing Zhirkov in favour of centre-back Vladimir Granit. The ex-Chelsea veteran was punished for Spain’s set-piece opener, his slow reactions leading to the foul on Nacho.
Cherchesov then staggered two mobility injections, introducing first Denis Cheryshev and then Fedor Smolov, in a bid to improve his tired side’s suddenly ineffectual attacking transitions. Golovin, too, was shuffled into a central role, in a bid to improve the first pass out of defence. Yet, despite several own-half errors in possession from Spain, fatigue prevented Russia from capitalising on their counterattacking opportunities.
Cherchesov, therefore, tried things. Hierro, on the other hand, limited himself only to like-for-like switches; until extra-time, that is, when Asensio made way for the more direct Rodrigo, a striker-by-trade. Both Koke and Busquets, culpable for two of those own-half errors, bafflingly remained in situ; as did the managerial tyro’s initial 4-2-3-1 shape.
And, although the energy provided by both Rodrigo and Iago Aspas created two decent chances for Spain, Russia never looked in real danger of forfeiting the penalty lottery from which they eventually emerged triumphant.
Fittingly, it was Koke who blinked first in the shootout. The 26-year-old’s continued presence on the pitch, ahead of those possessing of the power to unlock from deep, summed up his manager’s paucity of ambition. Safety-first is Hierro’s natural modus operandi. But, here, on the grandest stage of them all, it turned his first managerial posting into eternal ignominy.
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