Kolkata: Nearly one minute after kick-off against Spain, Georgia had not been able to touch the ball. From the land of possession play that was hardly unusual. But what happened 47 seconds into Spain’s first knockout round contest was. Nico Williams crossed into the box where Alvaro Morata, a big, strong centre-forward waited. Georgia cleared. Soon after, Dani Carvajal’s delivery was aimed at Pedri. Spain were using the pace and skill of their wide players Williams and Lamine Yamal and their full backs were playing up the pitch.

Spain’s forward Lamine Yamal attends a training session in Donaueschingen, Germany. (AFP)

And not just that. Aymeric Laporte tested the brilliant Giorgi Mamardashvili from range as did Marc Cucurella before Rodri scored from outside the area. It was 2-1 when Fabian Ruiz headed Yamal’s superb cross, 3-1 when Williams went on a strong, solo run and 4-1 when Dani Olmo fired from distance. Spain had 35 shots on goal, 13 on target.

It was a continuation of what Spain have been doing in the tournament. Croatia were swept away 3-0, the goals coming through a combination of Morata’s strength and skill, Ruiz’s technique and Yamal’s cross that Carvajal flicked home. Italy were given a masterclass in fluid passing but also Spain trying to pull the trigger far away from Gianluigi Donnarumma’s goal. And despite 10 changes against Albania, Spain began with Jesus Navas haring down the right and trying to find Joselu with a cross.

Not too long ago, Spain and cross couldn’t be written in the same sentence unless it meant they were angry. But, armed with a contract extension till 2026 World Cup, coach Luis de la Fuente arrived in Germany with a team that wasn’t about keeping the ball. The kind of tournament Yamal and Williams are having is proof of that. Croatia having more possession against them was another.

Spain having less of the ball than their opponents had not happened in 136 internationals going back to the 2008 European championship. Be it running rings around Costa Rica in the 2022 World Cup and winning 7-0 or 0-0 against Sweden, Spain are used to having the ball. Even when they lost as was evident against Japan (82%) and Morocco (73%) in Doha and Russia (79%) in the 2018 World Cup.

It had been that way since Pep Guardiola found an array of diminutive creative midfielders at Barcelona. With a dizzying array of passes Barcelona would send teams off kilter. Long balls were a no-no, crosses anathema to their being, almost. This was a world of false nines and swift interplay in front of goal that left defences in disarray and global audience delighted. Everyone tried to play like them. Few could.

Luis Aragones imported the idea to the national team which had a clutch of Barcelona players and most of the others from Real Madrid. The Real Madrid-Barcelona divide notwithstanding, many of these players had matured together through different national age-group teams. It started a four-year cycle in which Spain won two European championship titles – the only team to do that – and a World Cup, Andres Iniesta scoring the winner somewhat fittingly.

Over the years, Guardiola has tweaked his model. Under him, Bayern Munich were more physical, right-back Philipp Lahm was given a new life for club and country in midfield and back-pass to restart a move was no longer deemed anti-football. The biggest change came at Manchester City when Guardiola signed Erling Haaland, predator and possession play living happily ever after.

You couldn’t say the same for Spain. Vicente del Bosque realised the need for a No 9 and took Diego Costa to the 2014 World Cup but by then the masters of the passing game had grown four years older. Xavi not starting in the 0-2 defeat to Chile at Maracana confirmed what Netherlands had shown earlier. Something needed to change.

It didn’t till de la Fuente took charge after Morocco ended Spain’s World Cup. As per fbref.com, after the Euro 2024 Round of 16, Spain have averaged 59% possession. Germany, Portugal and England have had more. At 2982, Spain didn’t even have the most touches. Portugal (3391), England (3199) and Germany (3147) were ahead.

Spain have kept the ball more in all but one of their four matches but they have also been more direct in their play. Of course, the presence of strong, speedy and skilful attacking players have helped but it is one thing to have a roster brimming with talent and quite another to make them into more than the sum of their parts. Look no further than England.

“We are here to win, not to play well or play in a certain style,” said Rodri. “We are making a team with many ways of playing. Our rivals know we can hurt them with possession, with positional attack built on many passes or also – if they give us the chance – we can run very fast,” said de la Fuente.

Contrast this with what Morocco coach Walid Regragui said after the win in Doha. “We knew Spain depended on their ball possession and we played with that in mind. They didn’t pose any danger.”

A low block and looking to exploit the high line with fast counter-attacks was the best way to play Spain till this version arrived. “I don’t want to offend anyone but we have the best team at this tournament,” said de la Fuente.

Germany, without a tournament win against them since 1988, would be their toughest test yet but Spain go into Friday’s quarter-final knowing that no team has been able to deal with them yet.