Spain need to be Spain, not Barcelona, if they are to succeed at Euro 2022 and beyond

Spain have some of the best players in the world, but they can’t seem to gel as a team. Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Barcelona’s rip-roaring 4-0 triumph over Chelsea in 2021’s Champions League final wasn’t just about establishing themselves as a new force in European football; it was the start of a buzz around the Spain national team. Based on 45 minutes of football at the Gamla Ullevi in Gothenburg — as well as Barca’s unprecedented 30 wins from 30 games in the Primera Iberdrola — Spain were suddenly seen as the team to beat at the 2022 Women’s European Championship.

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It’s easy enough for anyone to cast an eye over the Barcelona squad — with players like Sandra Panos, Irene Paredes, Alexia Putellas and Mariona Caldentey — and see the Spanish vertebrae that lines its spine, just as anyone can regard the Spain squads Jorge Vilda has assembled since he took charge and see the distinctly Catalan flare. Yet the two are not interchangeable. Even if you were to start a purely Spanish XI for Barcelona and then play the exact same team for Spain, the football would simply not be the same.

Barca’s success just heaped more pressure onto a Spain team that had little pedigree when it came to holding their nerve. Across the length of their history, the women’s national team have played four knockout games at major tournaments (three Euros and one World Cup) and have won zero. Indeed, the closest the team have come to success is when they lost to Austria, on penalties, five years ago.

Spain’s misery when it comes to knockout games is simply part of the larger picture of their struggles at tournaments: the team at their best in friendlies and qualifiers, rather than when the pressure is on. Ahead of a quarterfinal matchup with hosts England on Wednesday (stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S. at 3 p.m. ET.) they are far from favourites, and Barcelona’s success is partly to blame.

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Since 2015, when he first took the job, Vilda has consistently struggled to blend his players on the pitch. As the team have shifted from predominantly Barcelona with Atletico Madrid providing the rest of the squad, to a healthy mix of Primera Iberdrola representatives with an increasing number coming from Real Madrid and the Basque Country, the problems have persisted.

As Luis Aragones and Vicente del Bosque found during their stints in charge of the all-conquering men’s team of 2008-2012, mixing the fluid Barcelona style with the more direct Madrid style is no easy task, but it is a necessary one. Although Vilda has found times when he could call up younger players and all but opt to play a “Spain B” team, there is still a fondness for the in-form Barca players — yet their understanding with their counterparts from the capital is lacking.

Instead of rotating his favoured midfield of Putellas, Aitana Bonmatí and Patri Guijarro, looking to see how he can integrate others and finding a desperately needed Plan B in case of injury — a nightmare came true this summer when Putellas ruptured her ACL on the eve of the tournament — Vilda has stood firm. Admittedly, the midfield trio is one of, if not, the best in the world but they are players who spend all year in each other’s pockets, so there is no more that can be learnt from starting them every game.

When casual fans tuned into the Arnold Clark Cup — a four-nation friendly tournament played in February — expecting to see Barcelona squaring off against Germany, England and Canada, there was confusion: where was the fluency? Where was the distinctly Barca feel? Even with that favoured Catalan midfield three, the team looked confused and directionless.

Keen to lean on the Barcelona style, Vilda has kept continuity with players from the lauded club team, yet they have never been able to replicate their domestic form for their country. Indeed, the more Vilda has tried to lean into the Blaugrana style, the more the team have looked lost.

Then, in February, it was the representatives from Real Madrid and Real Sociedad who came off the bench and offered up what La Roja had been missing all along.

Stylistic diversity is needed

It’s of little surprise that three of the five goals Spain have scored at Euro 2022 have been from dead-ball situations (two set pieces and one penalty, all in the 4-1 win over Finland) as the team can’t find a clean route through the stubborn defences they’ve faced. Although many would be surprised to learn that four of those goals have been headers — two of which have come from players 5-foot-4 or under — it makes sense because the team have been unable to get the ball down and make meaningful connections so they opt to cross into the box instead.

When passing lanes are closed off for Barcelona, the players still link up to find a route through; when the same happens to Spain, the team become crippled.

Clearly, the need for players outside of the Barcelona core is critical and no easier to highlight than when looking at Spain’s winner in the 1-0 victory against Denmark. Having replaced Leila Ouahabi, Olga Carmona offered more in attack from the left flank and whipped in a cross which was met by former Real Madrid teammate Marta Cardona, who headed home in the final minute.

It’s too simplistic to point out Ouahabi’s 12 years spent at Barcelona in relation to Olga’s home in Andalusia or Cardona’s Zaragoza roots, but it does showcase a need for players outside of the Barca bubble. For players who will approach problems in a different way from those who’ve been educated at La Masia. Just as Barcelona need players like Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen, Switzerland’s Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic or Sweden’s Fridolina Rolfo who add footballing diversity to make the whole team stronger, Spain need to pull themselves away from simply trying to be Barcelona and embrace the various footballing identities from across the whole country.

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But what now?

There is, of course, no quick fix for Vilda or the Spanish football federation; the team are not going to suddenly pivot to an alien way of playing just because they have reached the knockout rounds of Euro 2022. The team will likely persist as they have so far, though perhaps Vilda will look to strike a better balance across the pitch, as he did for their decisive group game against Denmark when he changed some of his usual starting XI.

Having drawn criticism for how late he made changes in the 2-0 loss to Germany, the 41-year-old coach was far quicker to go to his bench against Denmark and, should Spain still be in the match against England at half-time, he may do similar again.

However, the coach is not one to have a big bag of tricks he can rifle through and if something needs to change, the onus will be on the players to make the call on the pitch. Which is, again, not something that seems overly likely, especially with a figurehead like Putellas sidelined.

Against England, Spain will have to do something they have never managed before: win a knockout game. The tournament hosts are high on confidence after two morale-boosting routs and 14 goals in three matches, plus they are being spurred on by a crowd of some 30,000 England fans. But Spain will have to try and find something that has so routinely evaded them on the biggest stages.

After their loss to Germany, Ouahabi said: “What we have to do is play our way, believe in ourselves, be strong.” Yet playing that way is what makes Spain weaker. That way is too much like an inspired Barcelona that downplays the strengths of many of the footballers available for the national side.

There is no question that Barcelona boast a tremendous amount of talent, most of which is homegrown, but Spain can never be Barcelona, just as Barcelona can never be Spain. The sooner Spain find a way of playing like Spain, the sooner this generation of talent can finally begin to shine.