Updated: Jan 1, 2020
Something strange happened this spring. A team that most casual fans probably hadn’t given two thoughts were suddenly everyone’s favorite ‘dark horse’ for the World Cup. And it’s not hard to understand why. Spain has long been a sleeping giant of women’s soccer, full of potential that has never quite been realized. But in the past year, things have started to change. Barcelona advanced to the final of the Champions League, while Atlético Madrid took home their third straight league title, and drew 60,000 fans to a game in the process.
Meanwhile, the national team started to string together some genuinely impressive performances—often outplaying highly-regarded opponents like the US, Netherlands, and England—though not necessarily emerging with victories in the process.
And that’s the key thing. If Spain are really going to live up to their ‘dark horse’ moniker, they’ll need to start translating classy performances into concrete results. There’s no denying the talent on this team. The question is whether they’ll be able to make good on the potential this time around, or whether it will take another cycle for potential to become reality.
Spain is no stranger to this phenomenon. Their men’s side spent decades as a favorite of pundits who kept declaring them just about ready to take a step forward and join the inner circle. Eventually, it happened. The question is whether the women are on the cusp of a similar transition, or are merely at the beginning of a long and frustrating road.
Spain’s strengths are real…but so are their weaknesses
Spain’s strengths are obvious: technical ability, tactical awareness, smooth possession. The midfield duo of Vicky Losada and Alexia Putellas is among the very best at the tournament, and are fresh off working together to take their club team, Barcelona, to the Champions League final. Much has been made of Spain’s decision to part ways with Vero Boquete—their all-time leading scorer, and still an excellent player as made apparent by her recent performances with Utah Royals in the NWSL. But with Losada and Putellas, Spain is spoiled for options in central midfield.
Their principal target will be Jenni Hermoso, a top-level striker who has ben pouring in goals for Atletico. Hermoso is far more than a goal-poacher, and likes to play supplier herself, but Spain will probably do best if she sticks to a pure striker role, since they lack any other obvious goal-scoring threats. Their other best hope in an attacking role is Patricia Guijarro, a rising star in the game, but also someone just coming off injury, and who has not yet proved she is ready at the highest levels.
The result is a team with a lot of nice attacking options, but which won’t necessarily translate those into goals as often as they’d like. When everything is clicking, Spain move the ball with lightning speed through a series of one-touch passes, and it all looks as pretty as any nation in the world. The problem is: it doesn’t always click. And when it doesn’t, they lack the cutting edge to manufacture goals through more direct means. The result is a team that will inspire people with their beautiful play, but whose success may ultimately depend more on how effectively their defense can stifle the game.
And this is the dirty little secret of the case for Spain: even with all the beautiful passing, their greatest strength as a team is probably their defensive solidity. The key player here is Mapi León, a rising star in the global game, who was a huge part of Barcelona’s successful season. She is a superb defender, as well as an important link to the attack from her wide left position. They’ll also depend on players like Marta Torrejon, Irene Paredes, and Andrea Pereira to lock down the defense. But even with solid internationals across the back and in goal, Spain is ultimately not quite strong enough to hold off the very top teams on the ability of their defenders alone.
That means that they’ll need to blend their strengths together—using possession primarily as a technique to deny the opposition the ball, and thereby deny them chances. The great danger is that they’ll allow themselves to be drawn forward, trying to dance the ball into the net, and leave themselves exposed.
How will Spain fare?
Spain have gone from underrated to overrated quickly enough to give you whiplash. No sooner had the ‘dark horse’ narrative begun to percolate than knowledgeable observers jumped in to push back, highlighting all the reasons to doubt their potential. All of which is fair. But at this point, the backlash might have exceeded the original claim, putting Spain right back into the underrated category.
Whether the metaphysics of their rating interest you, there’s no denying that Spain will be an exciting team to watch. Ultimately, 2019 is likely to end up being a bit too early for them. With a friendlier draw, they might well have advanced quite far, but they have very little margin for error now. If they can’t overcome Germany—one of the top teams in the world—the very best they probably can hope for is a Round of 16 draw against the United States, England, or Australia. That’s a lot to ask, and probably more than this team will be able to manage.
But don’t count them out just yet. There’s enough potential in this squad that if everything comes together, they could go a very long way.