Spain manager Luis Enrique cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines on Monday as his transitional side were unable to find a way through a resolute Swedish defense in their Euro 2020 opener in Seville.
Whistles from the volatile home crowd greeted the final whistle as Spain failed to capitalize on the chances they created, while Sweden celebrated the relative success of implementing an unpopular game plan to good effect. Points were shared, but the subsequent plaudits were not.
Statistical records but no goals
The statistical report made for positive reading. Spain had dominated possession, registered more passes in the opening half than any other team in the tournament since such records began, and had enough chances on goal to have won the match. The problem was in the most vital statistic, the 0-0 scoreline.
Luis Enrique is no stranger to controversy or making big calls. The recent personal tragedy that has dominated his life has put such trivial footballing decisions into true perspective. Enrique had no issue with not including any Real Madrid players in his squad, a decision that invited pressure from the start.
Key to this decision was the omission of Sergio Ramos. As the all-time leading appearance holder for the national team, few players can match the dedication, passion and absolute talent that Ramos produces. Injuries may have restricted his recent involvement, but they have not changed his game.
An integral figure during Spain's dominant era of success a decade ago, time has not diminished Ramos' ability to compete at the highest level. It would take a brave man to call time on his international career, and Luis Enrique is one of the few figures with the audacity to take such drastic action.
Spain lacking a natural leader
Entrusted with the fortunes of the national team, Enrique must do what he feels is right for the team in order to get the best out of his group of players. With Atletico Madrid upsetting the natural order in Spain this season, there was an opportunity for the national team to follow their lead.
But without Sergio Ramos on the field, Spain lack a definitive leader and a character who wears his heart on his sleeve. A dominant figure in the center of defense, Ramos can dictate and control those ahead of him, demanding the right reaction during moments of frustration, while instigating crucial moments of play at both ends of the field.
In the absence of Ramos, Enrique was without a leader on Monday night. Replacement captain Sergio Busquets meets the criteria in terms of talent, but he is a very different character. Testing positive for COVID-19 in the build-up to the tournament, the armband was passed to Jordi Alba. He performed well and created opportunities, but he did not lead.
While the Barcelona duo have been entrusted to wear the armband during the tournament, it looks like Enrique will need more inspiration from elsewhere if his side are to succeed.
Koke and Pedri were creative and influential, but Alvaro Morrata ultimately failed to deliver as Spain were unable to turn their possession into goals.
Fine margins make the difference
There was a routine to the match. Spain passed the ball for long periods, comfortably finding openings within Sweden's rigid 4-4-2 that highlighted why such a system is seldom used at the highest-level in the modern game. But Enrique's side then failed to convert any of the chances they created.
Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Each missed chance added to the frustration felt by the players and Enrique, and as captain Jordi Alba again jogged back to the halfway line after another failed attacking move, there was no response from him.
Head down, Alba was focused on his game and his game only, relinquishing any additional responsibility bestowed on him through his elevated status as captain.
Expectations are high in Spain, which comes with the territory, and is amplified by the fact that the game against Sweden was played in Seville. But the criticism that followed the draw does not take into account the fine margins upon which it was based. If Spain had scored one goal, they would have taken a victory and clean sheet from a dominant performance.
And that was all that was missing, the conversion of one chance created. Sweden offered little, and only raised their game to disrupt the Spanish defense when the confidence of their effective negativity had frustrated their opponents to an extreme level. On another day, Spain win, comfortably.
Tactically, Spain did things right. The concern is over what was missing to make the difference. Goals? Obviously. A leader? Clearly. Players taking the initiative and the responsibility for the failings that were restricting their confidence and belief as the game went on? Absolutely.
Sergio Busquets' influence clear from his absence
Luis Enrique needs Sergio Busquets back in his side, not only to pull additional strings in midfield, but to lead as his lieutenant on the pitch. Circumstances have worked against the manager in this regard, but his decision to omit Sergio Ramos from the squad left little alternative should Busquets become unavailable to fill this role.
Spain return to Seville to take on Poland on Saturday night. In the meantime, Luis Enrique will have to answer many questions about what went wrong against Sweden. A negative start to the tournament will be difficult to shake off, but that is the level of expectancy in Spain. Only a win against Poland will suffice.