The beauty of matches such as this, played at great speed with much riding on it, is they often present you with football fundamentals in their purest forms. The white-hot heat of the occasion melting it all down, easily separable from the impurities of context and bias.
Deep into the first half, as Italy failed to turn this Euro 2020 semi-final into the transitional basketball match they wanted because they could not cope with Spain when they lowered the tempo, we had one. In this sport, at this level, knowing where to stand is harder than knowing where to run.
Both these teams have players who do both and, generally, the collective that do it better triumph, which is how things played out. But only one individual on the pitch had the capacity to do both.
We are, of course, talking of Pedri. You probably had close to a fifty-fifty shot of guessing which sprightly ball-carrying distributor made the middle of the Wembley pitch his own and won hearts doing so. The one without the Volkswagen badge.
At full-time, the 18-year-old had completed all 55 of his attempted passes.
After 120 minutes, that 100 percent dipped to 65 out of 67. What did not waiver was his ability to both maintain his position and injection of anything Spain did at pace. Both the grounding in the lightning storm and the lightning itself.
There is an important point to make before going forward, which is that, of course, Pedri ended up on the losing side. But the words we write and the songs we sign cannot just be reserved for the winners. And you would have to adopt a fair amount of ignorance to label him a loser.
At the same time, Pedri, even so young, is nothing new. You might say we are at the Sex on Fire stage: the mainstream adulation for everyone’s second-favourite midfielder. The real ones were there from the King of the Rodeo stage, as he glided through his LaLiga season ahead of this great public awakening.
He was the wow in an otherwise wow-less 2020/21 season for Barcelona, who knew they were getting a player when they signed him from Las Palmas last summer without knowing they were getting a player *right now*. This semi-final was his 62nd start of the season, and he featured in all but one of Spain’s 619 minutes of play at this European Championship.
We talk about wisdom beyond years a lot in football. It’s generally just being good when you’re young, but it does feel more specific to the positions that require less impulsiveness. But you could argue the smartest aspects of Pedri’s play tonight, and other nights, is how he can turn that on and off.
He started moves from deep and held his place, while also moving out to advanced positions on the left to inter-play in tight spaces or attempt to get on the end of moves. Some of which he began from his right foot. This was not simply a midfielder padding backwards and sideways.
Yet much of that, his conversion and our adoration of him matters for nothing, to him or Spain right now. For all their control, the moments that Italy managed to jolt them won out. Federico Chiesa’s opening was the result of being too over-run at the back because they had committed too many forward. Roberto Mancini figured the best way to scupper Luis Enrique’s desire for control – Spain’s 67.72 per cent is the highest average percentage in the tournament – was to get them to engage. Like a boxer whose best hope is to slug it out and lowers their guard to invite the scrap. And though penalties was not how he would have planned it, he didn’t look like a man who did not get what he wanted at the game’s conclusion.
As Italy celebrated towards their fans, the cameras fell upon Pedri. This time, he looked all the boy he is, cradled by Thiago Alcantara as he sobbed into his shoulder. Even in the perfect numbers lay one mistake: a through ball to Mikel Oyarzabal that was just behind the forward. One that, played that little bit better, could have given Spain the lead in the opening 10 minutes.
The reality of situations like this is that, actually, it does not matter that we spotted minutae, or that the game decided to reveal itself to us tonight. History and hindsight always falls in the victor’s favour. This will no more be Pedri’s night than Alvaro Morata’s, who took the game to extra-time and missed the penalty that mattered. Spain’s first semi-final defeat at a European Championship in five appearances at this stage.
But the dust will settle and Spain will move on for better knowing Pedri can be made a totem of this new, exciting side we got a glimpse of this summer. He made a tumultuous season for Lionel Messi that little less tumultuous. He has given Spanish fans reason to believe the glory years of a decade ago might be coming around again. And he has given some of us a better understanding of football’s beauty. His tournament is finally over, but his influence is only just beginning.
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