There were times in Spain’s game against Morocco when Fernando Hierro’s worried face was the only way to accurately describe how his side were playing.

Though Spain left it late, the draw extends their unbeaten run to 23 matches, a streak that is unmatched in world football at the moment. Such a streak should have given their play an intimidating edge but it hasn’t. Morocco – the first team to be knocked out of the tournament – went after them and the Spanish defence obliged.

As good as that winning streak sounds, there is another number that should worry Hierro more. Spain have now conceded 12 goals in their last six World Cup matches, as many as they had in their previous 18 combined. That number is relevant because at the heart of the Spanish defence, you still have Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. Jodi Alba is another veteran there.

They shouldn’t be making the mistakes they are. They should instead have the co-ordination that comes out of playing together for years together and that should make them solid and tough to beat. But each time Morocco ran at them, they looked slow, they laboured.

Loose defending

Yes, Morocco played the hard game – they committed 17 fouls, earned six yellow cards – but not for one moment did they back down. In between all of that, they managed to fire off some pretty good shots at goal too. Spain, on the other hand, seemed loose. They should not have allowed Morocco to run riot; they should have controlled the game not just when they were attacking. For all the pedigree in their team, the approach rattled Spain.

“We knew these three games were going to demand a lot,” Hierro said after the game. “After so much suffering, we must have some self-criticism. This is not the path to what we all want.

“We know we must not give up so many chances. All the good and bad things in the game were down to us. We must fix these details, as every chance they make is dangerous. We have a margin for improvement and will work on that these [coming] days. We know we can pose danger in attack, but we must do better defending counter-attacks.”

Hierro hit the nail on the head. Spain dominated every aspect of the game – they had more possession (70% to 30%), more shots (15 to 6), more corners (7 to 1) and they looked sublime while going forward. The interplay between Isco and Iniesta showed why they are so feared by defences. In a World Cup that had been dominated by the park-the-bus tactics, Spain’s ability to link up with sharp, shot passes is a valuable skill to have.

It isn’t tiki-taka but these boys know how to keep possession and how to make it count. But the urgency while defending was lacking, the fight that Sergio Ramos usually brings to the table was restricted to a few eye-to-eyes. The best way to intimidate the opposition is to simply outplay them. Spain did that while attacking but their wobbly defence gave the opponents hope and sometimes that can inspire a team to keep running even on empty.

“If we want to be positive, we have won the group,” Hierro further added. “We must be more demanding if we want to go as far as we are aiming for. We must expect more of ourselves, even little things, set-pieces, we cannot keep giving away so many chances.”

Second chance

But because they are still alive in the competition, Spain have a chance to rectify their mistakes. On paper, they are better than Russia, who they will face next. The challenge, though, is to somehow find the ‘A’ game before that.

Isco has been directly involved in 12 goals in his last 15 international appearances for Spain, scoring 10 and assisting a further two. And he has been a bright spark for La Roja but even he knows that it will only get tougher from this point on.

“This cannot keep happening. Now the life and death games begin, we cannot keep gifting goals. We must focus much more. We are not doing what we know best, which is to control games, keep the ball, make sure it does not turn into an end-to-end game.

“Now is the most important [time], any small thing can send you home. We must not go crazy, we are through, but we must do better, not make such mistakes on the ball, as any small thing can send you home.”

In those words, lies Spain’s hope. They know they aren’t playing their best football; they know that they aren’t even close but that has still got them to the last 16.

But if they can somehow find their best football, who knows where that might take them. They need to realise that and use it to their advantage because from this point on, there are no second chances.