Spain – Costa Rica: Spain Set Their Sights On the Summit (7-0)

Spain’s style is one of the most discernible in international football. If you let them carry out their standard patterns, they can wear you down. But Costa Rica resigned themselves to defeat from the off, allowing La Roja to show off why they will be eyeing up another lengthy cup run. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

The Spanish are the closest they have been to the success of their Golden Generation, banking on the clarity of their game model to steer them through trials and tribulations. Front and center of this project is still Luis Enrique, a man whose squad selection has favored a small, stable camp over big names. Style over stardom has been the hill on which he is willing to live and die, but it must translate to productivity on the pitch to manage his critics. Who would he entrust to ignite this campaign?

Aymeric Laporte was on the left of the center-back pairing. However, Rodri got the nod next to him as opposed to Eric García. Therefore, Enrique did not have to drop him to the bench in place of Sergio Busquets, who sat in his usual role at the base of the midfield. On either side of the veteran were his club teammates Pedri and Gavi. Ferran Torres was another of the five men to rep Barcelona from the right of the front three. On his inside was not Álvaro Morata, handing over his spot to Marco Asensio.

No matter the exact outlook of the challenge, the odds were not in favor of Costa Rica. From the outset of the new century, they have set about evolving into a staple part of the competition. Under Luis Fernando Suárez, their latest entry was via the back door with a 1-0 win over New Zealand in June, reaching their fifth World Cup out of the last six editions. But to mimic the feat of a quarter-final appearance from 2014 would be another beast altogether as rank outsiders of the group.

Their preparations took a blow due to the cancellation of a warmup friendly with Iraq. The disruption did not alter the plans of Suárez, whose selection of a 4-4-2 formation aligned with expectations. Anthony Contreras joined Joel Campbell in the front two, stepping in for Bryan Ruiz. Yeltsin Tejeda and Celso Borges, two other members from the 2014 World Cup squad, formed the double pivot in the middle of the park. Óscar Duarte, Francisco Calvo, and Keylor Navas held down the rearguard.

Costa Rica fail to study the playbook

Spain naturally assumed the role of protagonist. Costa Rica set up in a 4-4-2 shape off the ball, mainly sitting in a medium block in their half of the pitch. From time to time, this staggering was less clear. Rarely did Suárez’s men muster the pressure to engage in a higher block, but if they did, the team often shifted toward a 4-3-3 formation, where Jewison Bennette pushed higher than Keysher Fuller.

7th minute: offensive sequence from Spain. Jordi Alba’s deep halfspace positioning complicates the work of Campbell. Laporte feigns to find the passing lane to Busquets, drawing out Borges, then hits the ball to the left back. Fuller then pushes out diagonally to close down the ball carrier and Borges falls back to track the movement of Pedri in the channel. Contreras does not drop to cover Busquets, who is free to pivot at the base of the midfield and switch the play out to Torres on the ball far side.

But in either case, systemic problems without the ball plagued their efforts. Passivity and a lack of vertical compactness produced little resistance at the last stand. Flashes of pressure, mainly courtesy of Bennette from the left flank, lacked the organization to steer play into danger. To add to their woes, the sharpness of the Spanish schema in possession of the ball rendered their work even more futile.

Enrique’s men were under no duress to stray from their standard plan. The Blaugrana trident set the tone in the middle of the park with their pendulating midfield chain, decoy runs through the channels, and craft on the ball. To make matters worse for the Costa Rican pivot, Asensio roamed deeper into pockets to generate overloads. Should Spain find their finishing boots, it would be an arduous night.

Spain saunter into control

Once Spain entered the final third, combinations on the wings worked asymmetrically to fit the profiles on both sides of the pitch. To the left, Alba had the freedom to move higher up the flank, ushering Dani Olmo into the halfspace and Pedri to weave his magic at the base of the wide triangle. On the other hand, César Azpilicueta stayed deeper and more narrow on the right edge of the attack. Ferran Torres was high and wide to his outside, and Gavi constantly roamed higher between the lines.

Asensio’s function as a false nine starred near the penalty area. He did motion vertically to get free from the central defenders, mess up the work of the double pivot, and consolidate their progression between the lines. But his value also emerged in the halfspaces. Instead of getting the ball directly, his lateral ball sided support offered indirect central access via the flanks. On the right, his work took the form of countermovements to offset Gavi— as was the case against the Swiss in September. On the left, Alba profited, marauding free to find red shirts with his deliveries. The scoring soon commenced.

7th minute: final third combination from Spain. Asensio and Pedri swap places, drawing cover away from the midfielder. Olmo’s narrow position pins Carlos Martínez, and Alba’s width lures Fuller out, stretching the midfield. Once Pedri is free to receive, Asensio and Olmo offer passing options between the lines. Alba’s run doubles up on Martínez, whose tracking of Olmo gives the left back room wide.

In the 11th minute, Asensio and Pedri baited out the Costa Rican midfield, inviting Busquets to break the lines and release Alba on the flank. A ball side halfspace underlap from the forward gave Olmo the keys to the center of the field. He connected to Gavi, infiltrated the box, and swiveled to slot home the first goal. Navas imminently took the ball out the net again, failing to parry a strike from Asensio, whom Alba assisted, around the post. The left back, for good measure, earned a penalty, handing over duties to Torres. He stroked a shot to the right of Navas, killing off the contest within half an hour.

Seventh heaven

Suárez swiftly switched the setup to stem the flow of goals. Costa Rica lined up in a 5-4-1 system, where Fuller dropped onto the right of the backline as a wing-back. Calvo and Martínez moved out more preventively to control the space between the lines, and Duarte tracked Asensio. It was a useless ploy. Spain’s inside-to-outside passing circuits adapted effortlessly to sustain their hegemony. Seizing on a second of insecurity, Torres secured his brace within minutes of the restart: 4-0 to La Roja.

Enrique was at liberty to rotate half of his outfield players. They gleefully contributed to the goal haul. Debutant Álex Balde broke open the field from left back to pave the way to a goal for the Spaniards from Gavi: the youngest World Cup goal scorer since Pelé in 1958. Nico Williams’ drive from the right flank invited Carlos Soler to ram home a sixth strike on the stroke of injury time before Morata combined with Olmo to bag a seventh. The respite of the final whistle was a relief for Costa Rica.


In the end, this fixture was all too easy for Enrique’s men. In stark contrast to the goal-shy display against Sweden at the start of EURO 2020, Spain could not have asked for a better outcome from this clash. A seven goal haul is an impressive retort to the critiques of a lack of incision in the final third, while their ball dominance and counterpressure paved the way to a complete shutout at the other end of the field. Germany will offer a far sterner test on the weekend, but a 2-1 defeat to Japan at the outset of their campaign might have already decisively shifted the battle in favor of the Spanish.

Spain’s joy is the root of pain for their opponents. Not only on the scoreline but also in their tactical prowess, one could easily argue no nation has been more inferior to their adversary than Costa Rica so far at this World Cup. The switch to a back five could not stop Enrique’s men from running amok and shifting the ball at utter will for most of the contest. Improbable progressors out of this group at its beginning, this outfit will seek to tighten their rearguard before their next game against the Japanese.

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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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