DOHA, Qatar -- Jordi Alba came running up to them with the bad news. Lads, we're out. All the talk about whether Spain might be able to engineer an easy path in the knockout rounds, and that they might be able to topple Germany into the abyss ... now it was them on the edge of elimination. A sudden whirlwind and they were behind, unable to get control. Japan had scored twice to take the lead in their final Group E game. "And if they had needed three they would have got three," Luis Enrique said after the match. The seleccion had entered "collapse mode," the coach said.
Collapse mode. It makes it sound like an option, a tactical Plan B -- precisely one of the things that Spain are accused of lacking. Like it's something they can choose to do, an option, one of their things. And maybe it is, if not deliberately, which is what makes defeat against Japan concerning.
Ultimately, it worked out very nicely on Thursday night. So nicely, in fact, that those of a conspiratorial or even just a playful mind could imagine that this actually was a plan. A clever trick. Right lads, collapse mode! and with that everyone plays at being awful. Hugo Sanchez was among the many people who suggested that Spain might have done this deliberately. After all, the outcome was actually pretty good. Germany's comeback against Costa Rica meant that Spain did survive in the end, going through in second place. All those things they might be able to engineer, they actually did in the end -- in an elaborate and dramatic way.
They had knocked Germany out, a potential challenger cleared from their path. Kai Havertz had put Spain back in and Spain did nothing to return the favour.
They had gone into the easier half of the draw. In theory, at least. (Although look at the whole thing and that's not so clear, even beyond the risk of making assumptions anyway). They play Morocco on Tuesday in the round of 16, and then possibly Portugal -- instead of Croatia, and then possibly Brazil beyond that.
They get an extra day's rest. (And this is a recurring theme -- it is genuinely worth asking why the team that win the group "earn" a day less of rest than the team that finishes second).
They maybe even got a timely reminder. An alarm, as defender Pau Torres called it.
Or, to follow the conspiratorial line, it was proof that they can manage everything and bend football to their will, so good are they.
It would have been brilliant if it had been deliberate, but that expresses a control of the situation far greater than was real. And control is the word, one that obsesses Spain manager Luis Enrique. It is not that they pulled themselves out of trouble, it is that Germany did -- although it is also true that in the final minutes Spain didn't need to, and by then, they really might have settled for second place. Luis Enrique was furious at how they had played, and he told them so after the game.
The question now is whether this was a one-off, and how much of an impact that Japan defeat will have.
For a week or so, some of Spain's players -- and, in fairness, a lot of people who are not Spain's players -- have said that there's no one at this World Cup who plays like them, no one better. In 90 minutes at Khalifa International Stadium -- quite a lot less, in fact -- that vanished. As one front-page headline back home put it: "Spain on the couch." Luis Enrique tried to say that this might be the punch in the face they needed to realise that this is a World Cup; the risk is that instead, it's the blow to their confidence they don't.
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There was something about this game that raised old questions about mentality. Does a team where the coach is the leader have enough of those on the pitch? There was a kind of panic when they felt themselves going out, Pedri admitted. There was not much of a reaction, not much spark. Then there was the physical question. When they were pressed by Japan, they were not been able to match the intensity.
Yet maybe there's something a bit more about systems; less about physique and psychology, more about style of play. Maybe even about levels.
Here's a stat that might surprise you: since they were champions in 2010, Spain have only won three World Cup games out of 10 played: against Australia, Iran and Costa Rica. They tread this fine and very strange line between being unbelievably good and, well, not. They have scored six times against Croatia, Germany and Argentina in recent years, but struggled against Greece and Kosovo.
It's hard to know what they will be except that, in intent at least, it's clear what they are. Clearer than for any other team. And that was expressed best not by Spain's players, but by Japan's.
Spain manager Luis Enrique backs Lionel Messi to win a World Cup before he retires.
Japan defender Maya Yoshida appeared postgame with Spain forward Alvaro Morata's shirt over his shoulders, smiling. The decision to give Japan's goal, after the ball looked like it had gone out, had taken ages. "Oh, it's so long a time, Mamma mia. I was praying a lot," he said. There was something else in his mind, he admitted, too. "Since 1998, when there have been two big teams in a group they have never both gone through," Yoshida continued. "That was the evidence, so we had massive confidence. That stat gives you belief. It was just me, I didn't tell anyone: I read some article and stuck that in my head."
But it was less about faith or the figures; it was more about a plan. Clear, simple and effective. "Are you surprised? I am not surprised," the Japan captain said. They had waited until half-time, and then they applied what they had learnt.
"If you play fast players on the counter-attack and you close space, it is always difficult. That's our plan, we had to defend well because their possession was really good and we tried to make counter attack and they were struggling," Yoshida explained. "We had watched the game between Spain and Germany and both goalkeepers have really good distribution. Against Germany, we tried to not press too much because [Manuel] Neuer is one of the best distribution goalkeepers. This time, we did. We could press high. In the second half we did press high and we made good counter-attacks. That was a great plan."
Read that line on the goalkeepers again and it's very telling. We saw the weakness, in other words. And they won't be the only one. Looking at Morocco, it is tempting to suggest that while Spain are certainly favourites -- and to judge by the draw, they may feel that they really should reach the semifinals -- they may be precisely the kind of team that the seleccion have difficulties with, and that the same approach may be applied.
It is clear after all what Spain will do, not least because their manager keeps saying so. The risks in their style are ones they embrace; on balance, they think, it is better that way. Even when they are under pressure.
"The temptation could be to start playing long balls, to defend deep, to close off space," Luis Enrique said. "But do you know what? If we play like that, Spain doesn't stand out."
"The players I choose aren't players to play long balls, to boot it up the pitch, to all defend. The players I have chosen, and the players I hope to be able to win things with in the future, are players whose game is to have the ball, to have it in the opposition's half, to open the pitch out if they press us, for the goalkeeper to have the ball and even if the fans have a heart attack, draw in their striker so that we can bring the ball out the way we want. That's all based on a clear footballing idea: we're better than opponents if we play like that. If we play long ball, lots of teams are going to beat us."
And if they don't, maybe they will too. Japan, at least, had taken note. Takefusa Kubo was even more explicit.
"We had a plan: we know that Spain don't have the physical capacity that Germany have and we left that until the second half to surprise them," he said. "Until half-time, we only pressed a couple of times and I didn't fear them in the first half either: they weren't especially dangerous. In the second half, we pushed high. We know that Spain, because of pride or the plan or their tactics, would not go long. Any other team would have done that with the high pressure but Spain didn't and that led us to score two goals."
Any other team, Kubo said, would have sent the ball a tomar por culo. Roughly translated: booted it the f--- out of there. Spain didn't, and for a few frightening minutes, it was they who were out of there. Now, they have a second chance.