Spain – Norway: Spain Have Total Control But Let Norway In The Game (2-1)
After being played off the pitch in the first half, Norway found more success after the break, using a man-oriented high press. Since Spain were ineffective in front of the goal the whole match, Norway were close to stealing some undeserved points, something Spain have only themselves to blame for.
Tactical analysis and match report by Max Bergmann.
After disappointing performances at the World Cup in Russia and in the Nations League, Spain had to find back their form. Even though recent performances have not been very impressive, Spain still have some of the best players in the world in their squad. Norway on the other hand were the clear underdog in this match. They have not been able to reach a World Cup or European Cup since 2000.
Spain manager Luis Enrique decided to line his team up in a 4-3-3 formation. With Sergio Busquets, Spain entailed a single pivot in midfield playing centrally behind two advanced midfielders. At the back, captain Sergio Ramos organised the back-four while Alvaro Morata took over the role as the only striker up front.
Veteran manager Lars Lagerbäck set his team up in his beloved 4-4-2 system. With two lines of four, Norway aimed at keeping a compact shape to defend the Spanish attacks. The strikers Joshua King and Tarik Elyounoussi were tasked to receive long balls in possession and threaten the opposition goal.
Spain’s 4-3-3 formation in possession against Norway’s 4-4-2 defensive shape.
Possession football is still alive
Spain were able to completely dominate Norway in the first half. The side of Enrique used a well-structured system of positional play and created promising chances after switching play.
In possession phases, Busquets dropped between the central defenders and formed a back-three. This created a numerical superiority against the two Norwegian strikers. The advanced midfielders Daniel Parejo and Daniel Ceballos positioned themselves between the opposition strikers and midfield line. That allowed the back-three to overplay the first line of press to either of the central midfielders. Further up the pitch, the wingers Marco Asensio and Rodrigo tucked inside while both fullbacks moved up the line and provided full width.
Therewith, the two wide forwards occupied the halfspaces If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. between the opposition midfield and defense, creating a box-like formation together with the two central midfielders. That way, the spaces Norway left in both halfspaces were very effectively exploited.
The further the Spanish team progressed up the pitch, the more fluid the positioning of their attacking players became. Rotational movements were supposed to penetrate Norway’s deep block. Occasionally, striker Alvaro Morata dropped into midfield while the wide forwards provided depth.
Whenever Spain lost the ball, they immediately counterpressed to regain possession. As the Spanish team were often in superior numbers in ball near areas, their strategy was successful. Norway on the other hand were often pinned deep down in their own half and therefore lacked offensive passing options after winning the ball.
Norway’s defensive setup
As Norway missed to close down all passing lanes, the side of Lagerbäck could not force the Spanish players into duels. Therefore, Spain were able to make use of their good combination play and Norway could not utilize their physical advantage.
Moreover, left winger Stefan Johansen was focused on marking the tucked-in winger Rodrigo. As a consequence, the midfield of Norway was very narrow but left plenty of space on the flanks. Spain aimed at exploiting this space with high fullbacks. The side of Enrique created two-versus-two and three-versus-three situations in wide areas to break through on the flanks.
By switching play, Spain tried to catch Norway’s defenders with bad positioning. In one of those situations, in the sixteenth minute, left back Jordi Alba used a one-two to get behind the opposition defense and put in a cross. In the following, right winger Rodrigo scored the leading goal being left alone at the second post.
Whenever a Spanish player possessed the ball on the wing, the Norwegian defense did not even attempt to outnumber the Spanish. Instead they often allowed Spain to put in crosses. The concept of Norway’s defense was to create numerical superiority within their own penalty area to defend the crosses.
However, the downside of this strategy was that Spain could occupy the box with multiple players as well. Due to the good quality of crosses, several of these attacks ended in dangerous chances. Only the finishing of Spain lacked precision, which prevented Norway from conceding further goals.
Norway using long balls and set pieces
The Norwegian style of play resembled the Icelandic approach at the World Cup 2018. In possession, the team of Lagerbäck used long balls towards their striking duo. Mostly, attacker King acted as a target man to lay off or shield these balls to allow his teammates to move up the pitch and support the attack. But often the midfield did not provide the needed support soon enough or the Spanish defenders won the aerial duels which both resulted in a lack of penetrating power of Norway.
Even when Norway could hold onto the ball in the opposition half, the side of Lagerbäck missed players in areas near goal. Often one central midfielder supported the winger and the ball-near striker on one side of the pitch. But that left only one attacker in the penalty area. Therefore, putting in crosses into a one-versus-three situation was not a promising approach and it was very fruitless.
As a result, Norway’s set pieces remained the only real threat. The Norwegians used long throw-ins of Håvard Nordtveit to create chances up front. Often one player on the first post would attempt to extend the ball towards the second post. But Spain defended most of these situations with ease by winning the aerial duels.
Nevertheless, there was one exception. Norway had a corner-kick in the second half and centre-back Iñigo Martínez could only stop the tall substituted attacker Bjørn Johnsen with a foul. Striker King converted the resulting penalty and thereby scored the equalizer. Totally against the run of play, this game was tied after 65 minutes.
Spain’s struggles with a man-oriented press
Norway had played a bit better in the second half and turned this into a more open and end-to-end game. They deployed a man-oriented high press in Spain’s half. Therefore, one central midfielder, in the form of Markus Henriksen, moved forward to mark pivot Busquets. The fact Busquets did not drop between the center-backs as in the first half, shortened the way for Norway’s midfielder and thereby facilitated the press.
That way, Norway were capable of preventing Spain to play out from the back many times. However, when the Spanish found a midfielder who could receive and turn, Spain were able to break pressing lines and get behind Norway’s midfield. This often left only their four defenders against the three Spanish attackers in the back. With clever through passes, Spain created chances from these situations. Nevertheless, the side of Enrique did not convert them and therefore had to tremble with an even scoresheet.
Just as Norway could start to think about getting a result, they committed an individual mistake that would cost them the match. The defense played a awful back-pass, to short for goalkeeper Rune Jarstein, who then fouled striker Morata. As captain Sergio Ramos scored from the penalty spot – guess what? Panenka again – the Spanish could win this surprisingly tight match.
All in all, it was a well-deserved win for Spain as the side of Enrique created scoring opportunities en masse. Due to a bad conversion of chances, Spain allowed Norway to come back in this match.
Future opponents might study the way Spain pressed in the second half, even though the Spanish found ways to overplay the Norwegian press and therewith held the upper hand. Nevertheless, because of their passionate defending and clever set pieces that they have to be taken seriously in the European Championship Qualifying.
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