Oh we got narratives! New ones! Old ones! Tired ones! Exciting ones! If you can find better narratives than here…fuck it!
Not for the actual game, because it was pretty turgid for most of it, but for the story. Morocco gets to the quarterfinals for the first time, only the fourth nation from Africa to get to this stage. It’s the same story that it was for Spain as four years ago, when they spit it at this exact stage in Russia against Russia, and also on penalties after being unable to break down a parked-the-bus-and-plane side. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was. It’s this story:
We’ve seen all this before. Spain have gone without a striker so long that it’s become a running joke, and also colored how people remember the trophy-laden Spain teams. Those Spain teams didn’t pass any less than these do, but they also had David Villa or Fernando Torres to at the very least occupy central defenders and create room for their midfield. It’s not just about finishing chances, it’s about the type of runs that a true central striker can make. It’s those runs opening up other spaces.
You can get away with a false nine, but you have to have either or both of midfielders or wide forwards who run beyond that false nine. Otherwise you’re just crowding the midfield even more and making it easier to defend.
Spain didn’t have a direct threat until Niko Williams came on in the second half, and they looked wholly different when he did. But Marco Asensio is a midfielder. Dani Olmo is one of those weirdos who doesn’t really have a position, but he doesn’t get behind a defense either. Ferran Torres doesn’t really do anything (beware any player that Pep Guardiola decides he can’t salvage within a season). Spain had basically three players trying to drop in between the Moroccan defensive and midfield line, where Pedri and Gavi already were. One or two doing that is good, to link and provide triangles. All three? Not so much. And Spain had no direct or long-ball threat either to try and back Morocco up.
Also, never sub in a guy simply to take a penalty. Penalties have enough piled on them without adding the idea that this player’s entire existence depends on him making one.
For Morocco, it creates an interesting debate for U.S. fans. This isn’t to shit on Morocco’s tactics or declare them unworthy of the World Cup quarterfinals. They play what’s best for them and what gives them the best chance. They did it expertly, even if Spain made it awfully easy.
Anyway, Morocco is where the U.S. would like to be, the quarterfinals. There was a time when the U.S. had to do this, too. Remember they attempted it against Belgium eight years ago, and couldn’t do it nearly as well as they gave up a million shots and only Tim Howard turning into Ares kept them from getting embarrassed.
But the fact that the U.S. has more of a hybrid plan now, where they can go at England as much as England went at them, and the Dutch didn’t want them getting out on the counter, in a sense that’s a step ahead of where Morocco is. The U.S. almost certainly has more talent than Morocco does, which is weird to say but is the truth. But to go from a team that simply has to bunker in against the big boys to one that tries to play with them isn’t an instant transition. You can’t flip a switch. The U.S. is in the middle of that transition, which means it might not get the results it wants or ones that a well-drilled Morocco team can get.
So which would you want as a U.S. fan? Again, this U.S. team isn’t in any way built to play the way Morocco does. It doesn’t have those players. But in a vacuum? One got a team to the quarters. The other got the U.S. pretty much held at arm’s length and heading home. Come 2026, there may come a game against Brazil or Argentina or another true heavy (debatable if Spain is actually that right now). What would the U.S. do then with everyone in their prime? What would you want?
Progress is not linear, and to try and turn into a team that can really play at the highest level can mean results that aren’t ideal along the road to get there. And yet we all would want the joy of heading to the quarters. That day will be coming. It’s just important to realize what each team is, what they’re trying to be, and how they get there.
There’s a lot about this one that’s easy to reach for. And you know I want to, because the main story was one I was sort of calling for a while ago. I thought Rafael Leao would be the choice to replace Ronaldo in the lineup. Fernando Santos thought it would be Goncalo Ramos. A hat trick later, it’s clear to see who’s the functionally alcoholic writer and who’s the international manager (but Leao scored, too!).
The lowest branch ever is to say that Ramos scored all the goals that Ronaldo can’t now, given that none of them involved him standing still at the penalty spot. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. The first goal feels like the kind of goal Ronaldo used to bang in pretty regularly, but it’s also hard to picture this current version being able to get across the defender so quickly and sharply.
Does Ronaldo get across the front post for Ramos’ second in the same way? It’s the kind of run he still makes, that he basically waits around to make, so probably. But maybe not? It was pretty striking that when Ronaldo did come on, he was given one through-ball by Bruno Fernandes that he couldn’t get to that showed his age. As I saw one Tweet, the next one he attempted to get on he started five yards offside. In other words:
What is undeniable is that Portugal played freer and more dynamically by light years than they had at any point in this tournament. Joao Felix looked like a completely different player, happy to dribble through multiple defenders, take the ball under pressure, and pop up all over the field. He was consistently running into or dribbling into the space that Ronaldo would probably be standing, while Ramos was trying to get behind the defense and creating space for Felix to get into.Fernandes was pulling more strings than ever playing behind two strikers who provided more options than yelling at him or standing right next to him. There was just more snap to everything Portugal did.
It’s obvious when Portugal are a better side. The problem is that Ronaldo can’t come on when they’re leading either. He’s not a player who can play on the counter. Look at how much he struggled to get into the wide open spaces today, and that’s against a Switzerland team that had already given up.
But against Morocco in the next round, when chances aren’t going to be falling from the sky, that’s probably his spot, game tied 0-0 in the 70th minute and Portugal running out of ideas. The kind of striker you bring on when you’re pretty sure you’re just going fire crosses into the box on repeat. But can Ronaldo settle for that without rocking the boat? Even he can’t ignore how they looked without him.
(Of course he can. It’s Ronaldo, and reality isn’t something he has to bother himself with).
You know I want to put Leao’s goal here just to toot my own horn (haven’t had that rib removed though), but Ramos’s going corner pocket from a tight angle was far more important. This is storming the gates:
Considering Spain never actually approached Morocco’s backline, there was very little chance for VAR to do anything.
Not as such, though this accursed tournament got another highlight courtesy of Cameroon legend and FA president Samuel Eto’o that will assuredly have FIFA officials face-palming.
It’s not totally on Lalas, as almost all of Fox’s analysis in the studio is pretty rudimentary. Which isn’t a shock, given that their NFL or MLB coverage rarely, if ever, rises above awkward frat-laughing or the easiest possible analysis. Before every match, the studio analysts pick a “player to watch” and almost every time it’s both teams’ biggest star. It’s what anyone on the street would pick. It doesn’t teach us anything. These people are supposed to be in the know and are supposed to pick things we, the lay fan, might not know about and to tell us things to look for we wouldn’t thought of.
Naturally, Lalas picked Ronaldo before Portugal-Switzerland, and he wasn’t even fucking playing! It’s the easiest narrative possible! That’s all Lalas ever does when he does bother to try and talk about actual soccer. It’s a Fox thing as a whole. Why not pick Ramos, as he’s taking that spot? Probably because Lalas has no idea who Ramos is nor has he ever watched Benfica play.
Spain - This is how Spain will probably go out of every tournament, unless they win it. But because it’s what we associate with Spain, we lose sight of the fact that this is a team in transition. Gavi, Pedri, Olmo, Williams, Balde, Fati are all under 25, and all will be the flex-point of the Spain team going forward, maybe as soon as Euro 2024. And they will probably make Spain a serious threat for a trophy in 2024 or likely 2026 (or even possibly at home in 2030, but that’s hard to project out).
Spain gets way more shit, maybe because of where they’ve fallen from, but they don’t really do things all that much differently than Croatia. Croatia control the ball most of the time through their superlative midfield. Most of Croatia’s game are hard to watch because they’re more worried about control than aggressiveness. Give them space and they’ll kill you, like Croatia did to Canada or Spain did to Costa Rica. Deny them space, and they’ll just keep the ball and make keeping a lid on things their first priority. But Croatia are underdogs, and are good at penalties, and Spain are…well, Spain.
Switzerland - The minor player to the narrative-machine that Portugal became right before the game. They clearly weren’t prepared for a Portugal attack from all angles. And they did what they kind of always do, fill out the second round and then go home when the tournament gets serious. Their upset of France at the Euros remains a pretty hilarious anomaly. Look, they had an MLS attacker as the focal point of their attack (Xherdan Shaqiir). And not even a good one, based on last season. You know how this goes, and so it went.