Greece – Spain: Sarabia Sinks Greeks To Put Spain On The Brink (0-1)

The road to qualification prioritizes results over performances: a stumbling block for Spain in the past. But the visitors rose to the task that awaited them. Breaking down a deep 5-4-1 block, they held onto the win, setting up a tense duel with Sweden where everything is on the line.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

Spain’s fate ahead of this fixture hung in the balance. Three points adrift of the top spot in the table, not everything has gone to plan. They have continuously imposed their will to assert their status as favorites, yet such dominance has not always translated to the scoreline. So with no room left for error, would Luis Enrique’s troops hurdle the stumbling block over which they fell at the first attempt? 

Indeed, at the outset of the qualifying campaign, Greece pulled off an impressive result, holding their opponents to a 1-1 draw on enemy turf. Eight months on, normality has taken hold, leaving the team best of the rest behind the front two competitors. Facing a four point deficit to the Spaniards before kickoff, the hosts were now in a straightforward scenario. Take all three points or accept elimination.

Of recent, Greek manager John van ‘t Schip has selected an extra man at the back. Persisting with this setup, he lined up his players in a 5-4-1 formation. Hence, Liverpool left back Konstantinos Tsimikas featured from the left of the back three while Dimitris Goutas debuted for the senior team on the right. Ahead of them, captain Anastasios Bakasetas made way for Petros Mantalos in the middle of the park.

Enrique set up the away team in their usual 4-3-3 system. Abiding by his maxim of experimentation, he made six changes to the side that began the 2-1 loss to France in the Nations League Final. Among those alterations, Espanyol’s main marksman Raúl de Tomás earned his debut on the left of the front three. Elsewhere, Dani Carvajal operated on the right of the back four for the first time in over a year.

Principled possession

Sitting off in a 4-1-4-1 block when they traveled to Granada in March, Greece fell back on a similar strategy this time around. Dropping into a 5-4-1 formation, they presented Spain with a familiar task.

Spain’s 4-3-3 offensive structure with double width on the flanks and interchange on the left wing.

One of the hallmarks of Enrique’s team is their ability to interpret and execute established patterns of play without fail in order to create a dominant game state. This contest turned out to be no exception. If Aymeric Laporte drives past the halfway line with the ball at his foot, Koke moves higher between the lines while the two wide men hold the width on the flank. If Gavi drops deep in the left halfspace away from the ball, José Gayà pushes higher, and de Tomás (ideally) rotates inward.

Spain’s typical plan comes with a twist

However, a new feature in the attack emerged due to the reconfiguration of the front three. Since de Tomás is a trained striker, he operated flexibly from the left wing. The forward often roamed into central areas while Álvaro Morata dropped back into the room between the lines or shifted out permanently to the left wing.

4th minute: Spanish offensive sequence on the left flank. Gavi drops back as the ball switches to Iñigo Martínez, triggering Gayà’s advance to his outside. De Tomás sprints inward diagonally and Morata immediately drifts wider to become free in a wider channel. Note Gayà’s supportive run after the pass, which attracts the attention of Emmanouil Siopis and pins him centrally.

Pablo Sarabia’s role was more conventional on the right flank, but Spain’s focus in the final third did not alter. Several times, they looked to thread passes in behind to the central member of the frontline. In other moments, underlapping runs from the central midfielders paved the way forward. Hence, the gap between the wing-back and central defender near the ball was still the target room for penetration.

Greeks seek a solution

The low risk ball circulation of the Spaniards did not attempt to create a glutton of chances at every opportunity, picking moments to go around or over Greece’s block. Around twenty minutes into the match, it became evident that the latter approach was quite fruitful.

On the right flank, Giorgos Masouras tended to move a little higher up the pitch than Mantalos. From time to time, breaking away from the rest of the midfield handed the winger good prospects to press Martínez and force the play backward to Unai Simón. On the other hand, the back five could not always cover the room he left open in his back, leading to the phase of play before the opening goal.

The rotation on the left flank between Gavi, Gayà, and de Tomás drew the midfield forward as the central midfielder dropped back. Thanasis Androutsos ended up in a 2-on-1 underload, keeping an eye on the inverting winger, only for the left back to race into the gap behind him. The Greeks averted danger from their goal on that occasion, but the threat was far from over.

Sarabia whipped in a corner from the left, leading to the ball dropping on the edge of the six yard box. Martínez laid claim to it first, drawing contact and eventually a penalty. Having initiated the chaos, the right winger then stepped forward, stroking his effort into the back of the net. Spain were on their way to three points.

Van ‘t Schip adapted his side’s structure around half an hour into the game. Masouras moved forward into the frontline, and the rest of the midfield shifted laterally to the right, creating a 5-3-2 block. Nonetheless, Spain’s control over proceedings was still not in question. So 45 minutes away from elimination, could the Greeks find the right tools to turn around their bleak fortunes?

Spain cool off on the press

Before the start of the second half, van ‘t Schip made two substitutions. Christos Tzolis came on in place of Masouras, while Anastasios Douvikas replaced Vangelis Pavlidis, signaling the home team’s ambition to put up a fightback. Indeed, while Spain became more imprecise with the ball, the Greeks enjoyed longer spells in possession. 

Though the Greeks lacked a goal threat, the back three placed Enrique’s men in a dilemma over their defensive mechanisms. Their high pressing scheme involves going man for man in the middle of the park while one winger stands higher than his counterpart on the other flank. But because a fullback then must push forward to cover the free man on the wing, the additional member in the first line of the buildup created a sizeable risk if the Spaniards wished to rely on their standard plan of action.

51st minute: A defensive sequence from Spain’s 4-3-3 block. Sarabia pushes forward to close down Georgios Tzavellas, then retreats to support Gavi on the left wing towards Tsimikas. The back four can then cover the long ball from the center-back.

So as the game went on, Spain adapted their approach. In the second half, they dropped off a few yards, initiating their press through the running of Morata. The winger on the side away from the ball kept an eye on the central member of the back three, then he or a central midfielder would shuttle wide if the play switched out to Tsimikas. The fullbacks held back on both flanks, allowing the Greeks to make headway into enemy territory.

Enrique sees out the victory

Watching his men lose their grip on the game, Enrique called on players from the bench. His first double change saw the introduction of Rodrigo Moreno and Dani Olmo in the 57th minute. Just after the hour mark, Gavi came off for Sergio Busquets, pushing Rodri to the right of the midfield. At the same time, Fornals took the place of Morata, forcing Moreno into the middle of the front three.

In the end, the adjustments pulled through. Spain dialed back their pressing even more but hardly faced a barrage of pressure from the hosts at the end of the game. The Greeks could not muster a comeback, ending their hopes of qualification.


Though it was far from their best display under Enrique, Spain have secured the result they wanted. The victory, along with Sweden’s 2-0 loss to Georgia, leaves them top of the table, putting their destiny back in their hands.

The defining question ahead of their showdown with the Swedes will be game management. Given that a draw will secure pole position, taking a low risk approach to this contest could fit their style of play. Yet, the worst risk can be taking none at all. Should Enrique find the correct solution to defeat his kryptonite, qualification is theirs.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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