Tiki-taka no more: Spain's remarkable ball possession streak ends at Euro 2024 against Croatia


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BERLIN — Greedy for the ball no more, Spain has won a game by playing unlike Spain.

After La Roja's 3-0 victory over Croatia 3-0 at Euro 2024 on Saturday, the match statistics showed something extremely rare: Spain had only 46% possession.

Stats analyst Opta said it was the first time in 136 competitive matches that Spain had less of the ball than its opponent. Opta said that had not happened since the Euro 2008 final against Germany, which Spain won 1-0, also with 46% possession.

That includes World Cups, European Championships, Confederations Cups and the Nations League.

"The important thing is winning and playing well, not the possession stats," Spain midfielder Fabián Ruiz said after scoring a goal and setting up another against Croatia.

It's a remarkable shift in focus for a team that had become synonymous with possession, almost obsessed with holding onto the ball above all else. The strategy had served Spain well. Spain won the 2010 World Cup under coach Vicente del Bosque, then Euro 2012 as defending champion — both while dominating possession.

The passing style came to be known as tika-taka, championed by Spain coach Luis Aragonés before del Bosque took over, and borrowing heavily from the style practiced by Barcelona at the time.

But when the passing style perfected by midfield greats Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta stopped winning titles, their successors passed the ball even more with diminishing returns.

At the past two World Cups, Spain was eliminated in games where it completed more than 1,000 passes and none of its players scored. It lost in penalty shootouts both times, to host nation Russia in 2018 and surprise team Morocco in 2022.

Those defeats stung, and Spain's new coach Luis de la Fuente has revolutionized the team's priorities since taking over from Luis Enrique after the 2022 World Cup.

De la Fuente stressed those new strengths after Saturday's encouraging start to Euro 2024.

"One of the virtues we have is great versatility and real tactical options as games progress," De la Fuente said. "I think we're turning this national team into something with many options. We can have possession and elaborate attacks or be quick on the break, and that's something we can be pleased about."

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AP Euro 2024: https://apnews.com/hub/euro-2024

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CiarÁn Fahey

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