Toothless Spain breaks passing record, still crashes out of World Cup to Russia on penalties

It has been called “death by 1,000 passes.” Sunday in Moscow, the expression applied more literally than ever – just not how Spain originally intended.

The Spaniards crashed out of the 2018 World Cup in the Round of 16 in stunning fashion, at the hands of Russia on penalties. It labored through 120 minutes that ended 1-1, then lost the shootout.

It had smashed a World Cup passing record in those 120 minutes, completing 1,029 of its 1,137. Russia had just 202. But Spain was utterly impotent. It was completely bereft of ambition. It passed its own World Cup campaign to death, and perished in one of the biggest upsets in knockout round history.

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Russia tops Spain in shocking World Cup upset
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Igor Akinfeev saves a penalty from Spain's Iago Aspas during the shootout REUTERS/Albert Gea
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Sao Paulo, Brazil - July 1, 2018 - Fans react at the end of the match during the broadcast of the FIFA World Cup soccer match outside a Russian restaurant. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain fan looks dejected after the match REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Vladivostok, Russia - July 2, 2018. Russian supporters watch the match in a fan zone. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain fan looks dejected after the match REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain fan looks dejected after the match REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain's Iago Aspas has his penalty saved during the shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain's Iago Aspas has his penalty saved during the shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Vladivostok, Russia - July 2, 2018. Russian supporters watch the match in a fan zone. REUTERS/Yuri_maltsev
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia fan celebrates after winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Fyodor Smolov scores a penalty during the shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Vladivostok, Russia - July 2, 2018. Russian supporters watch the match in a fan zone. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia fans celebrate after winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Igor Akinfeev saves a penalty from Spain's Iago Aspas during the shootout REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Igor Akinfeev saves the penalty of Spain's Iago Aspas to give Russia victory REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Zurich, Switzerland - July 1, 2018 Fans watch the match at a public viewing event in front of the Spanish Restaurant El Toro. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Igor Akinfeev saves a penalty from Spain's Iago Aspas during the shootout REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain's Andres Iniesta looks dejected after losing the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain players look dejected after losing the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Zurich, Switzerland - July 1, 2018 Fans watch the match at a public viewing event in front of the Spanish Restaurant El Toro. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Saint Petersburg, Russia - July 1, 2018. Russian supporters celebrate the victory in a fan zone. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Zurich, Switzerland - July 1, 2018 Fans watch the match at a public viewing event in front of the Spanish Restaurant El Toro. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain players look dejected after losing the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain fans look dejected at the end of the match REUTERS/Albert Gea
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout with a banner REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout with a banner REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain fans look dejected at the end of the match REUTERS/Albert Gea
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Igor Akinfeev saves Spain's Iago Aspas shot during the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain fans look dejected at the end of the match REUTERS/Albert Gea
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia fan celebrates after winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Saint Petersburg, Russia - July 1, 2018. Russian supporters celebrate the victory in a fan zone. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia fan celebrates after winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Saint Petersburg, Russia - July 1, 2018. Russian supporters celebrate the victory in a fan zone. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Aleksei Miranchuk celebrates winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia fan celebrates after winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain players look dejected after losing the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain players look dejected after losing the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Igor Akinfeev saves the penalty of Spain's Iago Aspas to give Russia victory REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain's Nacho looks dejected after losing the penalty shootout REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia fans celebrate at the end of the match REUTERS/Albert Gea
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia players celebrate after the match REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Aleksandr Golovin scores a penalty during the shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Fan displays a banner in reference to Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov at the end of the match REUTERS/Albert Gea
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Denis Cheryshev and Fyodor Smolov celebrate after the match REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain players look dejected after losing the penalty shootout REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Igor Akinfeev saves Spain's Iago Aspas shot during the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Mario Fernandes celebrates winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Mario Fernandes celebrates winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Igor Akinfeev saves Spain's Koke shot during the penalty shootout REUTERS/Carl Recine
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Fyodor Kudryashov and Andrey Lunyov celebrate winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Albert Gea
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout REUTERS/Grigory Dukor
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain's Sergio Ramos, Isco and team mates look dejected after losing the penalty shootout REUTERS/Albert Gea
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Russia's Artem Dzyuba and team mates celebrate after the match REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Spain vs Russia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - July 1, 2018 Spain's Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta look dejected after losing the penalty shootout REUTERS/Albert Gea
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The 1,000 passes were deathly boring, too. They proved once and for all that possession stats are anything but indicators of attacking soccer. Spain played as cautiously as any team at the World Cup. And it paid the price.

Andres Iniesta and Fyodor Smolov canceled each other out in the opening round of the shootout. Gerard Pique smashed Spain’s second in off the post, but 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich wrong-footed David De Gea to equalize. And then Igor Akinfeev denied Koke to give Russia the advantage.

De Gea had two chances to match Akinfeev. But he couldn’t get enough of a hand to Smolov’s opening penalty, and let Aleksandr Golovin’s slide underneath him. Akinfeev, Russia’s captain, then sent Spanish players crumbling to the turf in despair with an incredible kick-save on Iago Aspas.

Russia is moving on to face either Croatia or Denmark. The right side of the bracket looks wide open. Spain is going home. And it only has itself to blame.

 

Spain’s early dominance pays off

There was a thought that Spain, aside from its opener against Morocco, had been scoring some very un-Spanish goals at the 2018 World Cup. But the opportunities to score scrappy or lucky goals are some of the many beneficial offshoots of all the possession and probing.

Spain’s attacking-half control yielded a free kick near the right corner 10 minutes in. Sergio Ramos’ clever back-post movement had Ignashevich scrambling. And if the Russian defender hadn’t had the ball carom off his calf and into the net, he probably would have been whistled for a penalty.

The goal, one might have thought, should have opened up the game. Russia had to come out of its uber-defensive shell. Spain would have more space going forward. But the reality was just the opposite.

 

Spain’s unambitious control

Russia’s approach didn’t change one bit after the early Spanish goal. Spain’s did, though. It was very content to keep the ball, whether of not it was putting pressure on that bunkered Russian defense.

The result was an extremely dull half-hour, which is just how Spain likes it. La Roja mostly suppressed Russian counters. They strung together 30- and 40-plus passes without Russia completing a single one. The final first-half tallies had Spain with over 400 passes and Russia with just over 100.

But there’s a balance to find between control and a keep-away game, and Spain couldn’t strike it. It was far too conservative with a mere one-goal lead. Even when Russia’s forwards and midfielders did take chances, and when Spain did play through the press, it rarely went to goal.

In 83 minutes, Spain had 711 passes to Russia’s 162. It had already broken 2010 Argentina’s single-game record of 703.

But it hadn’t had a single shot through 45 minutes. It struggled to penetrate. It rarely infiltrated the penalty box or the dangerous areas just outside it:

All it took was one fluke to punish the lack of ambition. One mistake. And Pique complied with Russian hope late in the first half.

 

Russia equalizes, Spain stays stagnant

The hosts escaped their defensive half opportunistically and won a 40th-minute corner. From it, Artem Dzyuba eluded Pique, rose to win the header and smacked that header right into a flailing Pique arm. It was a clear-cut penalty. And Dzyuba buried it.

The equalizer took us back to square one. Russia receded in the second half. Spain seemed content to play in front of Russia’s midfield line, rather than between the lines. When it did find a splitting pass, it rarely looked for the final one, instead of staying cautious.

Its three changes – Andres Iniesta for David Silva, Dani Carvajal for Nacho, and Iago Aspas for Diego Costa – didn’t change the shape or balance of the game. The second half was much like the first, absent the own goal and the pen. It petered out into extra time.

Spain was more dangerous with Aspas, and eventually fourth sub Rodrigo, on the field. And it had a convincing penalty shout with five minutes remaining. Pique and Ramos were both hauled down by Russia defenders on a set piece. The referee’s whistle, though, was non-existent, and the VAR did not advise him to take a second look.

After another half-chance or two, penalties beckoned. And Spain flamed out.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

 

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