For all the expectations that Spain might still be well below their best, it makes a significant difference when Andres Iniesta is still so clearly in his prime.
After the playmaker had once again put so many passes through angles most other midfielders just wouldn’t be able to conceive, his Barcelona teammate Ivan Rakitic put it best.
“To speak about Andres is to talk about the magic of football, the enjoyment.”
Iniesta is also clearly making the entire Spain team enjoy their football too. Part of this is obviously because opposition sides don’t feel the need to defend as deep against a Xavi-less side that are not quite as dogmatic about possession, but the defending European champions do seem a little freer in attack.
Put another way, it is as if they are not bound by the parameters of perfect position. Rather than patiently waiting for the right ball, Iniesta has been able to play the most imaginative balls. There was no purer example than with the divine outside-of-the-foot delivery that set up Alvaro Morata’s second in Spain’s 3-0 win over Turkey.
This was very far from the side that had been forced through so many laborious games since the 2010 World Cup, and were expected to maybe have to labour through this group. They were so gloriously, and have lifted themselves to the top of the group, primarily thanks to a player on top of his game.
Throughout all of this, there has been a lot of talk about Iniesta in comparison or conjunction to other great players; whether he is as good as Zinedine Zidane, how he is finally getting recognition as more than just one half of a historically good partnership with Xavi.
There is obviously more to it than that, and more to a player who should be judged on his own supreme merits.
None of this is to say that he is ‘better’ now than he was in that 2008-2012 side either. That triple-trophy team were probably the finest in international football history, and Iniesta was an essential part of it, the innovator that gave the passing a more piercing edge. If Xavi set the pace and David Villa finished, Iniesta was so often the link in between. How many times in Euro 2008, for example, did we see him play that angled pass through that looked so easy but is really so difficult to so consistently pull off with such penetrative damage?
Now, it’s not that he’s changed, but that it’s just different.
It’s the same with the often misplaced Zidane comparisons, even if elements of their game are similar.
Whereas the French number 10 so often altered the pace of the game to suit what he felt was best, with Marcel Desailly recently arguing that he actually often slowed it to pick out the perfect move, the big difference with Iniesta is that he always speeds things up. With Zidane, it was his strength and control that gave him all the time in the world, and he never felt the need to hurry. The game would conform to him. That was part of his grace.
Part of Iniesta’s greatness, by contrast, is how swiftly he does the same things. It is the way a sudden slinking movement can take suddenly take him past two defenders to then slip a striker in. The speed of his passing is a natural continuation of the fleetness of his feet. He is mercury rolling.
In that sense, Spain’s more open style may suit the more creative elements of his game, as he is less bound by the need to keep the ball before the opening arrives. He is able to try and force those openings more, to just attempt more, to be even more innovative.
And a player of his imagination being allowed to truly test the limits of his creativity is - as Rakitic put it - “the magic of football”.
It is not just impressive that he manages to play such a wide variety of through balls at that pace, but also that that has stayed so constant for eight years.
This might be what really marks Iniesta apart, and why this tournament can really be a crowning moment in terms of his place in the pantheon if Spain do go on to win it.
Iniesta will forever be identified as part of that elite band of players who have scored the winner in a World Cup final, but it is arguably the European Championships that have seen him at his best. He has certainly had more of his better games in a Spanish shirt in the continental competition, and looks likely to end up in three consecutive teams of the tournament, and could yet win two consecutive player-of-the-tournament awards.
If that happens, it will be hard to dispute that he is the European Championships’ greatest ever player, that this is his trophy.
There is obviously a lot of football still to be played, but Iniesta has already played some of the best of it.
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