“We weren’t that good before and we’re not that bad now,” said Oihane Hernandez after Spain’s 4-0 defeat against Japan, a sentiment repeated by several of her team-mates over the course of the days that followed.
“The game against Japan is not a game that will be forgotten,” reflected manager Jorge Vilda. “It has caused a deep groove, but sometimes they are also necessary for the evolution and growth of the team.”
If you look at that game — a result which meant Spain missed the chance to finish top of Group C — and the round-of-16 match against Switzerland, you wouldn’t recognise Spain as the same team.
Against Japan the performance was one of their worst in years. They were badly positioned in defence, they didn’t stop a single Japanese counter-attack. They had possession of the ball, but didn’t know what to do with it. They had no ideas in attack either. Everything failed. Spain have the current Ballon d’Or winner, Alexia Putellas and, in Aitana Bonmati, a strong contender to take the title from her. But while both of them started that fixture, neither of them really showed up.
Criticism followed because, simply, Spain had not been up to the task.
During the days that followed the players and coach were defensive in front of the media, but there was a belief the internal rage would be used to transform the team on the pitch.
They had a day off the next day and everyone tried to switch off and not to think too much about what had happened.
Then, on Wednesday, it was time to analyse what had gone wrong. The fear was that their next opponents Switzerland would have taken note and would play against them in the same way the Japanese had done.
The pressure to perform was intensifying. Spain, it should be pointed out, had never won a knockout match at a Women’s World Cup.
Vilda decided to shake up the team, much to everyone’s surprise. He switched Misa out of goal, one of the players he has relied on most. He put in Cata Coll, who in February returned from an anterior cruciate ligament injury and who has played virtually no minutes this season, being Barcelona’s reserve goalkeeper behind Sandra Panos, who many think is Spain’s best goalkeeper but was overlooked entirely by Vilda for this tournament.
He made a change at left centre-back, too. Ivana Andres is still training on the sidelines due to a calf problem. Rocío Galvez was not convincing in her debut against Japan, when she was Spain’s worst player. It was time for Laia Codina, another debutant.
Perhaps the biggest call of all was to omit Putellas.
But, despite a heart-stopping opening few minutes to the game against Switzerland, it didn’t take long to see something had changed.
Spain played with speed and were more direct than has often been the case. They found the spaces, they widened the pitch and they believed in what they were doing. Irene Paredes was once again a wall in defence. Codina, despite scoring the most absurd own goal of the World Cup, was a good partner for Paredes and also scored one of Spain’s five goals.
The key player, though, as she so often is and as she was in Spain’s opening win over Costa Rica, was Bonmati. She scored twice, provided two assists and led the team. Her creativity is one of the main reasons Spain have now scored 13 times in four matches.
It was Bonmati who was the most forthcoming in explaining the Japan defeat to the media after that match and she showed those leadership skills again here. She was constantly giving instructions on the pitch, as if she were a coach.
She set the tempo of the match and was unpredictable, difficult for the defence to control. It is striking that her best two performances at this tournament have been against Costa Rica and Switzerland, with the common denominator being that Putellas did not start either of those matches.
She is a beacon for Spain, but if they are to continue this form against better teams than Switzerland she will need others to follow her.
Vilda took a risk with his starting team and, on this occasion, his plan worked to perfection. The team actually had less possession than against Japan (70 per cent this time, compared with 77 per cent in that group match). But here they had a cutting edge. Against Japan they managed just two shots on target, here they had 10.
In addition, with the debuts of Maria Perez, Codina and Coll, all the players except the third goalkeeper, Enith Salon, have had minutes at this tournament.
One of the keys to Spain rediscovering their game is their mentality.
This is a team that sometimes seems fragile in that regard. When results don’t go their way, they struggle to find the key to unblock themselves and show their best side. This can be explained to some extent by the fact there are so many Barcelona players in this squad. Barca, of course, barely lose a game — none at all, in fact, last season.
That inability to bounce back from a setback is a factor that has affected the Liga F champions and has been transferred to the national team.
“I’ve never been beaten 4-0,” Bonmatí said after the game. “I’m not used to it, I’ve thought about it this week. Sometimes you have to have these days to realise that not everything is so easy and to go out with more enthusiasm the next day. Like we did today.”
In recent days, the team’s training sessions have been very intense and the players enjoyed themselves a lot. So much so that many of them did not want the final one before the Switzerland game to end.
What they did clearly worked, helped by taking the lead in the fifth minute against the Swiss.
“We have made history,” Bonmatí said afterwards, referencing the fact this is Spain’s first Women’s World Cup knockout win.
Vilda knew it, visibly moved at the end of the match.
Now they have the chance to take one more step into uncharted territory, with a quarter-final against the Netherlands or South Africa in Wellington on Friday.
(Top photo: Saeed KHAN / AFP) (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)