Luis Milla’s side did not start the tournament as favorites; that heady honor was bestowed upon Brazil’s wonderkids. However, Spain was almost certainly a medal favorite going into the tournament in London and they had a fair shot at a footballing Triple Crown after winning the European Championship at the senior and U19 levels. But that is why the games are played; Spain did not manage a goal in the tournament and were unceremoniously dumped out of the group stages thanks to losses to Japan, Honduras and a goalless draw with Morocco. It seemed at times that Spain underestimated their opponents or overestimated their ability; a mentality that has to be lost at all levels of Spanish football if they want their dominance to continue.
What went wrong? This is not meant to give excuses for La Rojita, there are no excuses for a squad this talented to perform like they did. This is just a football supporter trying to rationalize this shocking turn of events for himself and others. The following three points should take nothing away from Japan and Honduras. The two teams to qualify out of Group D thoroughly deserved it.
1. Luis Milla
Spain’s manager took the blame for the exit, and he had some reason to. Some of his squad selections were questionable and it seemed as though the team started the tournament flat, speaking to a lack of preparation. He told the Spanish Football Federation website:
“I am very disappointed because I think we deserved more. The person responsible is myself.”
“We need to sit down and analyse everything that happened. Perhaps we lacked something in our preparation, but last year we did the same before the U-21 European Championship and ended up winning the title.”
“The fans will think the coach has been a disaster, which this has been a total failure, and I understand that. But we need to be calm now and analyse what went wrong.”
This is all true, but it is disconcerting that Milla felt that his side deserved more. His side did not manage a goal in three games, a statistic that speaks volumes about the team’s performances. After Spain’s final Olympic match against Morocco, Luis Milla said, “If we’d qualified for next round, we’d have won a medal.” This sense of entitlement and over-confidence is uncharacteristic of Spanish football in recent years and is a dangerous mindset. The fact of the matter is, that had Spain managed to make it through the group stage, they would be playing Brazil next, a mouth-watering match but one that Spain was never going to win on current form.
2. Thiago Alcantara
“Perhaps we lacked something in our preparation, but last year we did the same before the U-21 European Championship and ended up winning the title.” – Luis Milla
The main difference between this Olympic squad and the Spanish side that won the U21 European Championships last summer is the absence of Thiago Alcantara. FC Barcelona’s youngster missed the tournament because he is still recovering from a tibia injury. Thiago was the heartbeat of last summer’s squad and his movement and vision in the midfield is something that Spain sorely missed. Koke and Javi Martinez did their best, but neither player could have the effect that the Barcelona playmaker has on games. It was the chemistry of Javi Martinez, Juan Mata and Thiago Alcantara that impressed me so much in Denmark last summer, with the Brazilian-born youngster providing the link between the two. That link was obvious in its absence in London.
Before the tournament, I was excited to watch Spain’s attack. The dynamic creativity provided by Juan Mata, Isco Alarcon and Iker Muniain playing behind prolific scorers like Adrian Lopez and Rodrigo Moreno had football fans eager with anticipation. These players all finished the tournament scoreless. The typical Spanish movement off the ball was lacking in the attacking third. I think this is partly due to the aforementioned overconfidence but fatigue has to have played a factor. Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Herrera and Iker Muniain were obviously not match fit for the tournament, with the former coming off the bench in all three games.
Javi Martinez, Jordi Alba and Juan Mata each had shortened summers, with just over three weeks off in between the European Championships and the Olympics in London. This meant that they did not have much time to prepare with their teammates and were still fatigued after a marathon season, with all three going deep into European competitions with their respective club teams. Javi Martinez had started sixty-one games this season prior to the Olympics in addition to Mata’s fifty-six starts (sixty-eight appearances) and Jordi Alba’s fifty-six starts between Valencia and Spain. These three were hailed by many, myself included, as the players to push Spain over the edge in this competition, when in reality they were dead on their feet.
Players like Ander Herrera, Iker Muniain and Adrian had all started in more than fifty matches this season as well. Twenty more matches than the youngsters had ever played in any of their previous seasons. These realities make it much more clear as to why Spain stumbled in London although it will not help it sting any less.