Tactical Insights

Lamine Yamal is only 16, but is seizing his chance for Spain


Every so often, a columnist gets to say: “I told you so!” Well this is my turn and I’m just going to say: I warned you that Lamine Yamal is phenomenal.

Not even a week in, and Euro 2024 is already a tournament of good headlines, big events, surprises and fun. But Lamine takes the biscuit: his clever, enjoyable, admirable and record-breaking performance in Spain‘s 3-0 win against Croatia would have stood out if he was in his mid-20s.

This Catalan kid is a bundle of invention, intelligence, daring and wit, but remember: not only is he just 16, but he’ll remain at that tender age until after the tournament is finished. (He even admitted last week that he’s had to bring his homework along for the ride in Germany.) And frankly, I warned you about him.

Last year I wrote about how Lamine’s international debut (and first goal) came at a younger age than Pelé, Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, five years younger than Alfredo Di Stefano and six years younger than Zinedine Zidane. His precocity beat equivalent records in NFL, international rugby and NBA, making him not just special in football terms, but a mould breaker.

Since I wrote about him in this space in September 2023, he’s gone on to rack up 50 appearances for Barcelona three years earlier than Messi did. Now, it must be said that nobody, or at least nobody who’s sane, is predicting that young Lamine is, by deduction, going to match or supersede Messi, but you use these markers to give context to what you’re witnessing.

Against Croatia, a side Spain often find indigestible and hard to open up, the teenage winger had already looked confident and at ease in his space before he enjoyed his two biggest moments of the game. He’d gone toe-to-toe with Manchester City‘s Josko Gvardiol — someone Dani Olmo called “one of the best defenders in the world” — and helped Dani Carvajal staunch the attacking advances of Croatia’s No. 4, but then came Lamine’s first goal contribution.

From a corner on the right side, Lamine received the ball outside the box, made a little move and then did one of the things that makes him special: He made the right decision.

So many young players, especially wingers, think that the ball is “theirs” and that their sole job is thrill the fans. It means they end up craving the addictive elixir of crowd adoration, yearning to hear the “oooohs” and “aaahhhs” of fans who, brought up on YouTube clips, think that the sight of some caviar skills is almost as important as scoring or winning. Lamine isn’t built that way; in fact he makes a supernatural number of good decisions when he’s in possession. He has little to no predilection for showing off and shows zero ego; his mentality is all about doing the most effective and important thing with the ball.

Back to the match action in question, and this time he fed Pedri, the pass played in such a way that his Barcelona teammate had space and time to set up Fabián Ruiz and, a couple of five-a-side dribbles later, the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder scored.

When I spoke to Spain boss Luis de la Fuente last week, and praised the bravery shown in being so absolutely sure that a 16-year-old kid could handle international football, Spain’s coach used the phrase that Lamine is “one of those players touched by God’s magic wand.”

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Moreno: Lamine Yamal the outstanding player in Spain’s perfect start

Ale Moreno reacts to an outstanding debut Euros performance from Lamine Yamal in Spain’s 3-0 win over Croatia.

I can only assume that Croatia didn’t see our interview. Lamine had been ripping things up for club and country so much for over a year that he’d been giving a goal contribution (goal or assist) for Spain once every 64 minutes. (Have I mentioned that he’s 16?) So what were Croatia thinking when they completely failed to mark him, press or even pay enough attention to him when he became the youngest footballer ever to assist a goal in the Euros?

I’ve often written about the phrase “find the dope,” which was prevalent in the Boot Room of managers at Liverpool FC when they were the dominant club in England, Europe and the world. The concept is that if you were playing for those versions of Liverpool, you had to be sharper, smarter and more wolf-like than your opponent. More alert. The Anfield faithful preached that when the ball went out of play, or when half-time or full-time was beckoning, an opponent (usually under pressure and needing to draw breath or regroup mentally) would “doze off.”

It happens over and over again. Just think back to how many the “big” club and international sides score in added time after the first half or at the end of a game. That’s not just skill, that’s mentality.

On Saturday in Berlin, Croatia were the dopes and Lamine the wolf. The third goal, which he created brilliantly, looked like it was coming as soon as referee Michael Oliver pointed to the corner. Croatia thought that the half-time whistle was going to save them, didn’t concentrate and when Lamine received the ball, he was in acres of space.

Mentally, they were already in the locker room licking their wounds. Was it because Luka Modric‘s team was tired? Was it because, subliminally, they still think of him as “just a kid” and therefore less of a threat? I truly don’t know, but he was in splendid isolation and told me after the match that he’d “seen Dani Carvajal running towards the first post, so I just put the ball there.”

It’s so simple to say and yet so hard to do — unless your opponent switches off. Which Croatia did.

But there was more to come. In the second half, this kid who’s already now, by some significant margin, the youngest footballer to play in a UEFA European Championships, nearly added “tournament’s youngest scorer” to his list of accolades. Really, he was high, wide and in a pretty handsome position when he was finally fed the ball by Pedri in the early part of the second half and only a wonderful save from Dominik Livakovic — one that I doubt will be bettered all tournament — stopped Lamine from making it 4-0 to Spain.

So now comes the onslaught, and I don’t specifically mean for Italy or Albania.

In the last Euros, Pedri (aged 18) was the deserved winner of the Young Player award and Lamine is a strong candidate, if Spain keep up their momentum, to emulate him as a 16-year-old. As such, the world’s media, waking up as slowly as Croatia did for Spain’s third goal, will now want a “piece” of him. There were photos, features, interviews and more camera crews at Spain’s training camp — what he did on Saturday has made him, I’m sad to say, a “commodity” in the eyes of many.

Spain’s staff and players have, over and again, used the phrase “look after him” and “protect” him, but this kid is tough, smart and won’t be easily swayed from his path.

When Lamine was about four years old, he yearned so badly to play football that he would join a game in the local park with his dad and some cousins. He once told me that they’d kick the ball off his face and it would hurt, but he’d never duck out of the game or complain. He was tough even then.

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Hutchison delighted to see Spain shed ‘boring’ possession approach

Don Hutchison loved what he saw from Spain in their 3-0 win over Croatia to kick off their Euro 2024 campaign.

I’ll give the final word on this subject to Carvajal, the man to whom Lamine served up his wonderful assist.

Spain’s vice-captain told me a few days ago: “I was speaking with Nacho and reminded him: ‘When I was 16, I was playing in the Real Madrid youth team and won the Copa de Campeones and I was the happiest young guy in the world!’

“But now this kid is going to play in a European Championship as a starter? And as someone who is going to play a key role for us!! It’s incredible. It speaks volumes about how talented he is. He has a unique talent that’s difficult to explain. With such a young player, you have to be extra careful, because elite football takes a lot out of you. He has to be very keen to learn to become one of the best in the world.”

Perhaps even the best.

Lamine has woken a few people up thanks to what he did against Croatia, but above all, the teenager reminds all of us why it is we absolutely love football. For that alone, well played, kid.



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