Luis Enrique's Spain was up against another big Nations League test in Portugal. They showed more defensive solidity, with Carvajal helping the team defend transition situations. However, they still lacked punch up front and struggled to create chances.
Luis Enrique, this time went for an eleven that was heavy on players who developed in the Valencian and Madrid communities. Hugo Guillamón lined up at center back alongside Pau Torres, while Carvajal and Gayá started in the fullback roles. The midfield trio consisted of Rodri, Koke, and Soler, with these latter two often switching positions. Finally, the front three again featured Sarabia and Ferran Torres as more traditional, natural foot wingers, with Morata as the striker.
OFICIAL | ¡¡YA TENEMOS EL ONCE PARA— Selección Española de Fútbol (@SEFutbol) September 27, 2022
Esta es la alineación de @LUISENRIQUE21 para el partidazo de esta noche ante @selecaoportugal.
¡¡Necesitamos GANAR para estar en la #FinalFour!!#VamosEspaña | #NationsLeague pic.twitter.com/Lb7up4ytIo
Luis Enrique has been testing significantly more conservative fullback roles to improve the defense. The wingers provide the width and deep runs, while the fullbacks often stay deeper and closer to central areas to defend against potential counterattacks.
Carvajal was a clear example, operating essentially as an inverted fullback. He could not make deep overlapping runs with wide wingers and his more defensive role but still found ways to impact Spain's offense on the underlap and the half-space areas.
With conservative fullbacks, wide wingers without excellent dribbling, and midfielders who lacked creativity and energy, it's no surprise Spain struggled greatly to move into the final third during the first half. The right side with Guillamón and Carvajal often managed to move the ball into midfield, but any promising passing sequences would often die when Ferran received the ball isolated amidst a sea of Portugal shirts. It was a Spain with surprisingly little combination play.
On the other side, Portugal tried to generate counterattacks on Carvajal's side through the threatening pairing of Nuno Mendes and Diogo Jota, but Spain's defense managed to win most of the duels. All in all, this led to a quiet first half.
Things got more lively during the second half. Busquets replaced Guillamón, and Rodri moved to the center-back position, but even then, Spain and Carvajal, in particular, looked shakier on the ball during this period. One of Carvajal's turnovers led to a Ronaldo chance that Unai Simón stopped. Portugal looked more dangerous at this stage of the game, with Mendes and Jota leading the charge.
Luis Enrique then started using his bench to change the game state. Gavi, Pedri, and Yeremy Pino came in for Koke, Soler, and Sarabia. The Busquets - Pedri - Gavi midfield trio was more creative and energetic, and Spain started combining more easily. However, the final ball still proved elusive due to the conservative fullbacks and wingers who were not having an impact.
Things improved when Nico Williams came in at the 73rd minute. His 1v1 ability and energetic runs were a much-needed boost for Spain's attack, and that's when they started pinning Portugal against their own goal.
With the offensive boost and Portugal subbing out Jota, Carvajal had a bigger impact in the final 20 minutes. He stepped forward and started winning duels constantly in the opposition half, allowing Spain to counterpress effectively and shut down potential counterattacks. Meanwhile, he continued operating in inside lanes, trying to find good passes for the forwards. His efforts came to fruition in the 88th minute, with an outstanding switch of play that floated through the box into Nico Williams, who set up Morata to score the winning goal.
This game showed how Carvajal has evolved beyond the traditional fullback role in the last four years. He's comfortable playing inside and interprets well how and when to do so. And his defensive contribution is quite valuable for a Spanish defensive line that's been struggling lately.
All in all, this Spain team has been far from their best. In all fairness, they lack vital players who would be starters under Luis Enrique, such as Laporte, Oyarzabal, Ansu Fati, Olmo, or Gerard Moreno. Apart from Oyarzabal, it's likely that all of them will make it into the World Cup squad, and that should make Spain stronger at defending their box and attacking the opponent's box. Currently, however, it's hard to see them as big tournament favorites.