What is it about Spain that makes them so… Spanish?
If someone switched all the uniforms and disguised the players with Groucho Marx glasses, there’s one team at this World Cup you’d still have no trouble picking out by how giddily cava-drunk you feel watching the ball spiderweb its way around the pitch. In an era when national styles were supposed to have been globalized away, Spain only get more special.
It’s not just their talent (Brazil and England have that by the barrel) or technical skill (bonjour, Les Bleus) or structure (these days even the United States can do a decent imitation of positional play). That all helps, sure, but there’s something more mysterious that sets Spain apart.
Take Pedri and Gavi, the pair of teenage phenoms brandishing the last two Golden Boy trophies on either side of the Spanish midfield. Whatever the national secret sauce is, these two have been bathing in it since birth.
Spain has never been short on midfield talent — scientists may never know how a country the size of California could produce Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Santi Cazorla, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets in the span of eight years — but back when those guys were young, their pass-and-move patterns still felt almost accidental, like someone spilt a glowing beaker labelled Tikitakanium in the maternity ward and a mutant possession game sprang up.
Pedri and Gavi’s generation has Spanish football down to a science. They grew up analyzing Xavi and Iniesta’s every move. They’ve followed the evolution of Pep Guardiola’s ideas, from Barcelona’s improvisational genius to Manchester City’s chilly mechanical perfection. They’re coached at this World Cup by another former Barcelona manager, Luis Enrique, who’s such a stickler for detail that he deployed Rodri out of position based on the number of touches and aerials his staff expected their centre-backs to have against Costa Rica.
Football — especially international football — can never be totally planned, but this Spain leaves as little as possible to chance.
Just look at this crystalline pass network from the first hour of their World Cup…
Almost too perfect, right? But even in a 4-3-3 that looks like some kind of Euclidean proof, there are interesting little asymmetries that hint at what really makes Spain brilliant.
See how Gavi is a little higher, with a green vertical line indicating that he received more progressive passes from his centre-back, while Pedri is better connected with his full-back and striker? In mirrored positions on either side of a geometrically precise system, there’s still room for the kids to be themselves.
Because the truth is that for all they have in common — sure, they’re both crazy talented Barcelona midfielders who can’t remember a world before YouTube — Pedri and Gavi aren’t actually very similar players.
Pedri is a tightly wound little ball of ice-cold nerves, all vision and technique.
According to official listings, he’s an inch taller than Gavi but on the pitch, you would never believe it. He plays in a constant crouch, always ready to change direction in unexpected ways, as Costa Rica’s Keysher Fuller found out early on…
The surprising thing about that play was that Pedri needed to turn the wrong way in the first place. He’s a savant at scanning, the almost imperceptible shoulder checks and neck swivels that keep midfielders aware of their surroundings in the most action-packed part of the pitch. Along with his ballet dancer’s feet and low centre of gravity, that awareness lets him receive in small spaces and turn inside to look for an incisive pass.
By his nature, Pedri is the more cautious Spanish midfielder, but that’s what makes it easy for team-mates to trust him with the ball in tricky situations. Even though Luis Enrique subbed him off early to save him for more competitive games, FIFA’s advanced data shows Pedri with the second-most passes received between the lines against Costa Rica after Marco Asensio — who, of course, had the good fortune to receive balls from Pedri.
In less than an hour on the pitch, Pedri went a perfect 22 for 22 on attempted line-breaking passes, far more than Gavi’s 8 for 11 over 90 minutes. The most memorable one almost broke open the scoring less than five minutes into the game, when Pedri received a pass with a sumptuous little scoop-turn into space at the top of the box that a less aware player wouldn’t have dreamed of trying. He curled a ball over five Costa Rica defenders but Dani Olmo couldn’t finish it from the edge of the six-yard box.
Gavi, on the other hand, is a flaming arrow in search of a target.
Compared to Pedri, he gives the impression of being in constant motion, running everywhere with limbs flailing and tongue stuffed into one cheek like a guitar player trying to nail a solo. Yes, he’s technical (at one point, he beat a Costa Rica defender with a backwards sombrero just for the hell of it) and yeah, he’s smart, but he’s also just so damn energetic in the way only an 18-year-old can be.
Unlike Pedri, who stays low to carve out space for himself, Gavi stands tall and leans into the game to go find new space or create some for his team-mates. FIFA’s tracking data counted 23 times that Gavi offered for a pass in behind the back line, tied with the winger Ferran Torres. Pedri made that kind of run only once.
Instead of dropping to the ball, Gavi’s first instinct is to back away between the lines, giving Rodri a chance to thread the needle with straight-ahead line-breaking passes. When he receives, Gavi tends to take the safer turn to the outside and play the ball to Torres instead of looking for Asensio in the middle.
But Gavi always follows up the outlet pass with a seam run between the opposing full-back and centre-back, dragging defenders out of the way for Torres and giving him a valuable passing option up the wing. It’s his off-ball movement as much as his passing that makes Gavi essential to Spain’s possession game.
It was one of those Gavi seam runs that created Spain’s fourth goal…
Luis Enrique knows the difference between his midfielders. There’s a reason Pedri plays on the same side as Jordi Alba, who likes to get up the wing, and Dani Olmo, an inverted winger, while Gavi plays with the more reserved Cesar Azpilicueta and Ferran Torres on his natural side. Part of what makes Spain unique is that attention to how players turn and pass and move, how they interact with one another.
The unifying idea that makes these different players fit together, the shared obsession that makes Spain so Spanish, is space. “That’s what I do: look for spaces,” Xavi once said. “All day. I’m always looking… Space, space, space.” Notice that he doesn’t say whether he’s looking for space on the ball or off of it — it’s a common currency in any situation.
Having a national style isn’t about everyone playing exactly the same way. Pedri may show for a pass, Gavi may take off running to create new lanes. Pedri may turn inside to look for combination play, Gavi may switch direction and let the ball run by him to attack at speed. The important thing is that they know where the spaces will be and so do their team-mates.
Good luck to the rest of the world trying to stop them.
(Photo: Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)