Spain booked their place into the final of the European Under 21 Championships after an empthatic 3-0 victory against a hard-working Norway side. Isco again showed why he is attracting a whole host of European clubs, with yet another superb performance. Here are five quick observations…
Spain (4-3-3): De Gea; Montoya, Bartra, Martinez, Moreno; Thiago, Illarramendi, Koke; Tello, Rodrigo, Isco
Norway (4-1-4-1): Nyland; Elabdellaoui, Berge, Strandberg, Hedenstad; Johansen; Berget, Eikrem, Henriksen, King; Pedersen
Spain made a number of changes to the side that beat the Netherlands in their final group game and perhaps most surprisingly was the selection of Rodrigo as the lone striker, ahead of the tournament’s top goal scorer, Alvaro Morata. Spain were their usual 4-3-3 shape with Koke and Thiago either side of Asier Illarramendi – although Thiago initially started in a slightly deeper role than usual for the opening 10-15 minutes. Cristian Tello kept swapping sides with Isco on the wings, who had the freedom to roam around in between the lines. Instead of staying wide, the Malaga attacker drifted inside, giving the Spanish midfield extra numbers and allowing whichever full back was playing behind him, the space to push forward.
Norway in attack
There were no surprises regarding Norway’s strategy. They sat deep in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Stefan Johansen again putting in a good shift as the holding player, sitting 10 yards ahead of his back four to sweep up any danger in between the lines. The Norwegians were happy to sit very deep and applied minimal pressure on Spain when the ball was in their half. Once they won possession, Norway looked for long diagonal balls into the space behind the Spanish full backs – who always looked to push forward when Spain attacked. Joshua King on the left, and particularly Jo Inge Berget from the right, looked decent on the counter but unlike in other games, their central midfielders were less willing to push up and join in any attacks.
Spain saw plenty of the ball right from the opening exchanges and the biggest benefactor was Isco. Spain pushed both Martin Montoya and Alberto Moreno forward, allowing Isco to play very, very narrow. He relished his free role, just as he did against Russia, and Spain looked most dangerous when he cut inside from the left touchline, allowing Moreno to overlap him. Isco’s central positioning (22 in the diagram) meant he often occupied Johansen, Norway’s deepest midfielder, and this meant there was space either side for Spain’s midfielders to exploit. Isco’s first half influence was superb and he finished the first 45 minutes with two shots, five key passes and three successful dribbles to his name.
Spain were knocking on the door with numerous chances as the first half developed. Rodrigo saw his effort tipped onto the post after a Montoya rocket rebounded into the path of the striker and from the same attack Spain should have won a penalty after Marc Bartra was bundled over – instead the defender was booked for diving. Illarramendi also had a long range shot somehow dealt with by Orjan Haskjold Nyland in the Norway goal but Spain scored from the resulting corner after Norway switched off with just one minute of the half remaining, allowing Rodrigo to score a poacher’s effort from inside the six yard box. Spain’s dominance was reflected in the fact that they had 14 shots in the first half. Illarramendi was dominant in the middle third and Isco was superb on the ball, but despite scoring, Rodrigo remained frustrating to watch and Tello always seemed to be on the periphery.
Iker Munian replaced Tello with 15 minutes left, meaning Isco moved again to the right wing. In need of a goal, Norway replaced the unusually quiet Magnus Eikrem with Havard Nordtveit, meaning a change of formation to a 4-2-3-1 (see diagram),, with Markus Henriksen now operating from a more advanced role. However, Johansen was forced to limp off just minutes after this substitution, after taking a knock, and Spain capitalised with two late goals. Isco made it 2-0 on 87 minutes with a sublime piece of skill on the edge of the box before poking the ball, with the outside of his foot, into the top corner and Morata added a third on 93 minutes – making his record at this tournament four goals in four games. With Rodrigo again not really impressing, Morata must surely start the final and it looks hard to see anybody beating this Spanish side. They are yet to concede in Israel and have lost just once in the last four years.
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