For all their neat and intricate passing, if Spain are to be judged as real Euro 2020 contenders, they must solve their problem up front. They have had 28 attempts through their opening two matches and have just two points and one goal to show for their efforts.
On Saturday evening in Seville, Alvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno did their best to unpick the Poland defence, and while it worked once in the first half, Spain had the clearest reminder of what they're missing right in front of them: Robert Lewandowski.
After their 0-0 draw with Sweden in the opener, this was an opportunity for Spain to prove their credentials as Euro 2020 hopefuls. But again, they frustrated, and while it ultimately finished 1-1, Poland had their fair share of decent opportunities to snatch a victory. Poland will be the far happier side with that result.
"They closed down a lot of the avenues we'd usually use to get forward, they stopped our transitions and pressed us high so it was a tough game tonight," Spain manager Luis Enrique said afterward.
Spain finished with 69% possession -- a little below the 85% they had against Sweden in their 0-0 opener -- and despite having scored only one goal, have the highest combined expected goals (xG) out of any team in this tournament with 5.70. They even missed a penalty against Poland with Moreno's effort striking the foot of the post and Morata fluffing his lines on the follow up.
"Missing the penalty increased the tension a little bit, but even though we did create some chances, we weren't able to create clear cut opportunities," Enrique said. "The Moreno chance at the end of the first half could have been decisive, but I'll stick to the positives with the attitude and motivation of the players."
Morata is a confusing striker. He has had €180 million spent on him cumulatively in his club career, and is working at a pretty good strike rate of 19 in 42 for Spain. The evening's performance was a neat two-part summation of how exhilarating and frustrating it must be to manage him.
The 28-year-old, who is on loan at Juventus, has weathered plenty of criticism. He himself said in the build-up to this match he struggled to sleep after his two misses against Sweden. But Enrique has stuck by him. On Friday, Spain's manager was reeling off stats about why Morata was so impressive (there was more than a touch of Jose Mourinho in the way he was attempting to silence critics through the use of numbers). He pinpointed how Raul and Fernando Torres had fewer goals than him after 41 appearances -- he then ran through the likes of France's Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, and Belgium's Romelu Lukaku, who also fell below Morata's scoring rate at international level. His trust in Morata was so absolute that he even named him in his starting lineup on Friday, saying the team will be "Morata and 10 more."
Rather than being the team's focal point, with his 10 other teammates, he was emblematic of their wastefulness. He has scored in four of their past five European Championship games, but still you're left feeling a little cheated at his performances. It started so well for Morata on Saturday. Having endured a difficult relationship with the offside line in the VAR era -- he had 13 strikes for Juventus ruled out for being offside in 2020, including a hat trick of disallowed goals against Barcelona in the Champions League -- he finally got a glimpse of luck as Bartosz Bereszynski's left foot kept him onside as he stroked home Moreno's cross in the 25th minute. He ran straight to Enrique to celebrate and show his appreciation for his manager's faith.
But then things started to unravel, as they often do with Morata. He squandered two clear chances in the second half, first failing to convert the rebound off Moreno's penalty, and then hitting a point-blank chance squarely at Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. The link-up play with Moreno -- who came into the side for Ferran Torres -- was effective, but over the 90 minutes he too was far too profligate.
Moreno looks best when he runs at the defence, and he had so much joy for Villarreal last season, just operating off the right of the middle. Spain haven't yet harnessed this and must find a way to get him into the box more, though he too was guilty of squandering two brilliant chances -- first an opportunity late in the first half as he attacked the near post and shot wide, and then the penalty. His individual xG was at 1.43 versus Poland, which is the highest for any player not to score in a Euros match since 1984, when Spain's Santillana failed to score against Denmark and left with an xG of 1.5.
The 4-3-3 system Luis Enrique plays is neatly aligned with the need for a prolific No. 9. This system, and their way of playing, is crying out for a young Fernando Torres or David Villa. Spain have tried in vain to solve this problem with Diego Costa and Rodrigo coming and going, while Celta Vigo's Iago Aspas was curiously omitted from the 26-man squad, leaving just Morata and Moreno as traditional options.
In defence of Morata and Moreno, they could do with more support. The neat tika-taka passing between Spain's midfield three does not naturally lend itself to utilising the width that Jordi Alba and the outstanding -- and wasted -- Marcos Llorente offer. You feel if they're unwilling to play a No. 10 behind Morata, then they need to push Koke further forward or at least find a way to get more out of Dani Olmo. Just 24% of their passes so far in Euro 2020 have gone forward, the lowest percentage of any team in the competition. But Enrique, who is prone to rotation, is being uncharacteristically systematic in these championships -- even making the similar substitutions from the first to the second game. Quite simply, they lack physicality and that game-changing player who can attack through the middle and cause havoc, like Poland's Lewandowski.
Spain captain Jordi Alba described Lewandowski as the "best in the world" postmatch. It was Alba who had to sprint back in the first half as Lewandowski threatened to go the length of the field after intercepting a pass on the edge of his own box. The Lewandowski we see with Poland is a little different to the free-scoring one at Bayern Munich. While his scoring rate in the Bundesliga for Bayern was a ridiculous 41 goals in 29, it's a little different in Poland colours. He doesn't have the same level of service, but his ruthless opportunism and ability to make a nuisance of himself is just the same.
Of course, for a striker like him who is the best in the world, goals are vital. He understands the national team does not have the same dynamics and players as Bayern Munich," said manager Paulo Sousa afterwards.
"He has other things he needs to do, and he recognises this and understands this. We want to fill him with goals. He had two chances in the last game, and didn't have the capacity so score there, but he is crossing, fighting and helping the team," Sousa added. "He's a player who is leading through different ways."
Lewandowski fed off scraps against Slovakia in the opener, but against Spain he almost took it upon himself to create his own opportunities. You saw him grafting out on the wing, attempting to force Spain into errors, and once Poland pressed as a unit in the final third, it produced the goods. They could have had two goals by half-time.
First, Karol Swiderski missed from six yards out after Lewandowski's cross. Later, Poland struck the post through a superb Swiderski effort and Lewandowski uncharacteristically missed the rebound, firing straight at Unai Simon. But it was his second-half goal that gave Spain a reminder of what they're missing. It was a half-chance, but one he created through his own movement and physicality. It was a pinpoint cross from Swiderski again, and he outjumped and bullied Aymeric Laporte -- hardly a diminutive defender -- to head past Unai Simon. It was a moment of ruthless class, and a reminder of the importance of a star No. 9.
Poland play to their strengths, and Lewandowski thrives on the pressure of being the country's talisman. He has this wonderful ability to preempt moves before they materialise -- his movement is not necessarily in hope, but more expectation. His goal means Poland now need a result against Sweden to get through to the knockout stages.
Spain have played some beautiful football, and if these Euros were decided on the ability to keep the ball, then they'd walk it. But when you're coming in at 1,956 touches per goal so far in Euro 2020, compared to Italy's 246, then that stat alone lays bare their issue.
"The type of players we have in this team are players who can play good attacking football and can press well. I don't think we lacked attitude or character," Enrique said. "I was expecting more, I was expecting six points and no goals against, but that's like any manager. But this is the situation. Now we're coming into the crunch match, if we want to progress we have to win the third game. That's the reality of football."
Slovakia are next up for La Roja, and they need a win if they are to go through as winners of Group E. Looking further ahead, to really emerge as serious contenders for Euro 2020, they must solve their problem up front and find that clinical final touch.