Alvaro Morata becomes the symbol of Spain's topsy-turvy Euro 2020 campaign

The striker lived up to his reputation as a sporadically brilliant but erratic player and his team delivered similar inconsistencies throughout the tournament

There was a certain inevitability about it being Alvaro Morata. Spain’s Euro 2020 revolved around a striker who managed to straddle the divide between profligate and prolific. His semi-final equaliser made him his country’s record scorer in European Championships. His trip to Wembley ensured his tournament will remain remembered for the missed penalty that resulted in Italy advancing to the final. His crisis of confidence proved crucial.

Luis Enrique argued that Morata’s night was a triumph of character. “He has an abductor issue. It says a lot about his personality that, despite that, he wanted to take a penalty,” said the Spain manager. Sadly for Morata, a man subjected to harrowing abuse on social media, there was no happy ending.

Euro 2020 may have reinforced reputations: about him as a sporadically brilliant but erratic figure. Morata’s goals against Croatia and Italy were wonderfully taken but he missed a spot kick in regulation time against Slovakia and in a shootout against Roberto Mancini’s side.

It felt symbolic, too, that the other player to fail from 12 yards – and, as he blazed over the bar, in more emphatic fashion – was Dani Olmo. The Leipzig forward left the tournament with three assists, including two terrific crosses against Croatia, but having taken the most shots of anyone and still not scored.

Spain’s precision was confined to their midfield. They lived up and down to stereotypes, for producing passers in abundance but not always finishers. The precocious Pedri completed all 55 of his passes in regulation time. “No 18-year-old has done what Pedri has done in any big competition,” Luis Enrique said. “It’s devoid of all logic.”

If there is a case for arguing Pele did rather more by winning the World Cup at 17, his broader point still stood. As his manager said, Andres Iniesta had not reached the levels at 18 that Pedri has scaled. He was so good that Thiago Alcantara, who took the best Spanish penalty, was confined to cameos, only twice summoned before the 105th minute.

Italy v Spain - player ratings

Almost every other team would have needed him; Spain did not. Against an Italy team with twin playmakers of their own, in Jorginho and Marco Verratti, Spain ran the midfield. They had 70 per cent of the ball; it was possession with more purpose than they showed in the 2018 World Cup. Sergio Busquets’ passing has acquired more edge with the verticality Luis Enrique prizes.

“We demonstrated we were superior to them,” Busquets said, but the perennial challenge for Spain has been to convert superiority into goals. When their finishing was good, they twice scored five. In the other four games, they got a total of three goals. They are the side who beat Germany 6-0 last year but the one who drew 0-0 with Sweden last month when they had 85 per cent of possession.

Luis Enrique argued before the quarter-final against Switzerland that he had not seen a better team than Spain in the tournament. That accolade may depend upon the definition of best. Perhaps their conquerors, Italy, were more complete; better defensively, winning each of their five previous games, not veering between drought and flood in front of goal. Gianluigi Donnarumma has proved a more reliable goalkeeper than Unai Simon, even if his penalty saves against Switzerland were a form of redemption for his hideous error for Pedri’s own goal.

Simon’s selection formed part of Luis Enrique’s quixotic, and at times controversial, decision-making. He dropped David de Gea from the team, Sergio Ramos from the squad and only took 24 players. His faith in Pedri, choice of Pablo Sarabia and surprise recall of Cesar Azpilicueta were justified. But perhaps it all came down to Morata.

Updated: July 7th 2021, 11:41 AM
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