Toothless Spain breaks passing record, still crashes out of World Cup to Russia on penalties

It has been called “death by 1,000 passes.” Sunday in Moscow, the expression applied more literally than ever – just not how Spain originally intended.

The Spaniards crashed out of the 2018 World Cup in the Round of 16 in stunning fashion, at the hands of Russia on penalties. It labored through 120 minutes that ended 1-1, then lost the shootout.

It had smashed a World Cup passing record in those 120 minutes, completing 1,029 of its 1,137. Russia had just 202. But Spain was utterly impotent. It was completely bereft of ambition. It passed its own World Cup campaign to death, and perished in one of the biggest upsets in knockout round history.

The 1,000 passes were deathly boring, too. They proved once and for all that possession stats are anything but indicators of attacking soccer. Spain played as cautiously as any team at the World Cup. And it paid the price.

Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets complain to the referee during Spain’s Round of 16 World Cup match against Russia. (Getty)
Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets complain to the referee during Spain’s Round of 16 World Cup match against Russia. (Getty)

Andres Iniesta and Fyodor Smolov canceled each other out in the opening round of the shootout. Gerard Pique smashed Spain’s second in off the post, but 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich wrong-footed David De Gea to equalize. And then Igor Akinfeev denied Koke to give Russia the advantage.

De Gea had two chances to match Akinfeev. But he couldn’t get enough of a hand to Smolov’s opening penalty, and let Aleksandr Golovin’s slide underneath him. Akinfeev, Russia’s captain, then sent Spanish players crumbling to the turf in despair with an incredible kick-save on Iago Aspas.

Russia is moving on to face either Croatia or Denmark. The right side of the bracket looks wide open. Spain is going home. And it only has itself to blame.

Spain’s early dominance pays off

There was a thought that Spain, aside from its opener against Morocco, had been scoring some very un-Spanish goals at the 2018 World Cup. But the opportunities to score scrappy or lucky goals are some of the many beneficial offshoots of all the possession and probing.

Spain’s attacking-half control yielded a free kick near the right corner 10 minutes in. Sergio Ramos’ clever back-post movement had Ignashevich scrambling. And if the Russian defender hadn’t had the ball carom off his calf and into the net, he probably would have been whistled for a penalty.

The goal, one might have thought, should have opened up the game. Russia had to come out of its uber-defensive shell. Spain would have more space going forward. But the reality was just the opposite.

Spain’s unambitious control

Russia’s approach didn’t change one bit after the early Spanish goal. Spain’s did, though. It was very content to keep the ball, whether of not it was putting pressure on that bunkered Russian defense.

The result was an extremely dull half-hour, which is just how Spain likes it. La Roja mostly suppressed Russian counters. They strung together 30- and 40-plus passes without Russia completing a single one. The final first-half tallies had Spain with over 400 passes and Russia with just over 100.

But there’s a balance to find between control and a keep-away game, and Spain couldn’t strike it. It was far too conservative with a mere one-goal lead. Even when Russia’s forwards and midfielders did take chances, and when Spain did play through the press, it rarely went to goal.

In 83 minutes, Spain had 711 passes to Russia’s 162. It had already broken 2010 Argentina’s single-game record of 703.

But it hadn’t had a single shot through 45 minutes. It struggled to penetrate. It rarely infiltrated the penalty box or the dangerous areas just outside it:

All it took was one fluke to punish the lack of ambition. One mistake. And Pique complied with Russian hope late in the first half.

Russia equalizes, Spain stays stagnant

The hosts escaped their defensive half opportunistically, and won a 40th-minute corner. From it, Artem Dzyuba eluded Pique, rose to win the header, and smacked that header right into a flailing Pique arm. It was a clear-cut penalty. And Dzyuba buried it.

The equalizer took us back to square one. Russia receded in the second half. Spain seemed content to play in front of Russia’s midfield line, rather than between the lines. When it did find a splitting pass, it rarely looked for the final one, instead staying cautious.

Its three changes – Andres Iniesta for David Silva, Dani Carvajal for Nacho, and Iago Aspas for Diego Costa – didn’t change the shape or balance of the game. The second half was much like the first, absent the own goal and the pen. It petered out into extra time.

Spain was more dangerous with Aspas, and eventually fourth sub Rodrigo, on the field. And it had a convincing penalty shout with five minutes remaining. Pique and Ramos were both hauled down by Russia defenders on a set piece. The referee’s whistle, though, was non-existent, and the VAR did not advise him to take a second look.

After another half-chance or two, penalties beckoned. And Spain flamed out.

Russia’s upset paves way for surprise finalist

Spain was the presumed favorite on the right side of the knockout round bracket. But it was always vulnerable – to a bad game, to a fluke, to all kinds of things. And those possibilities explained why it was advantageous for Switzerland and England to finish second in their groups rather than first.

With Spain out, a shocking reality now has seven nations salivating. One of Croatia, England, Colombia, Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland will be in the World Cup final.

All of those teams will still be obstacles for one another. Winning three straight games isn’t easy. But there’s a big difference between, say, a France-Uruguay-Brazil route and a Denmark-Russia-England path to the final.

The right side is now alarmingly open. If England falls, a potential first-time winner will eventually be one win away on July 15. In a World Cup of surprises, the ultimate surprise seems increasingly likely.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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