It is often said that getting to the top is hard but remaining at the top is harder. There have been several great generational teams in world football that have made their mark in history. These teams are often remembered for the way in which they revolutionised football. Spain’s national team did the same with their famed tiki-taka style of football from 2008-2012. However, it is hard to remain at such a god-like level forever with the same players. Great teams have an expiry date too and Spain’s disastrous performance at World Cup ’14 sounded the death knell for Spain’s golden generation.
Things had grown stale and there were several outcries for a new sense of vigour, passion and inspiration within the Spanish national team. Vicente del Bosque, who was still the coach at the time, rung the changes in response to these calls. However, despite many new faces, it never felt like the transition to a new era had truly been made. A sense of stagnation was the general vibe around La Furia Roja. The famed tiki-taka of old still persisted but without any of its original inspiration. The result was another under-whelming performance at Euro ’16 and Del Bosque stepped down as the coach.
However, the winds of change have been at work. Last year, the Santiago Bernabéu bore witness to an absolute footballing exhibition as Spain tore apart Italy 3-0 during the World Cup Qualifiers. Interestingly, Spain played without any strikers in this game with coach Julen Lopetegui opting for a 4-6-0 formation. It’s not as if Spain hasn’t done this before. Under Vicente Del Bosque, this idea was used to great effect; especially during Euro 2012 where Fabregas played as a false striker. That Spain though was different.
The vibe around the present team is something new. While there appears to be strong elements of the old tiki-taka, there is a feeling of freshness and reinvigoration. Also, Spain’s general performances since the Italy game have been terrific and there is an air of swagger about this team. So what’s changed since Euro ’16?
Enter Julen Lopetegui
Lopetegui’s announcement as coach of the senior national team was a brilliant decision by the Spanish FA. They couldn’t have chosen a better candidate to lead Spain into the future. He may not have been a well-known name in global footballing circles prior to his appointment. However, fans in Spain will be familiar with his exploits as the coach of the Spain U-21 and U-23 teams that were victorious in Europe. More importantly, a good chunk of the players he worked with in those teams are currently part of the senior national team.
Lopetegui knows most of these players very well and I believe that this will be a key ingredient to Spain’s immediate and long-term success. His approach to the game also appears to be modern and open-minded. Many of the game’s illustrious coaches from yesteryear all had unique approaches to the game. Yet, despite all their innovation, they stuck to some tried and tested methods of their own. While this initially brought success, it almost always hit a gradual or even rapid decline following their peak.
Nothing is ever permanent in football; more so in the modern game. At present we are witnessing a new breed of coaches in people like Zidane and Lopetegui. They seem to be friendlier towards players and do not rule with an iron hand. They also build the team’s identity around the players rather than have a rigid philosophy in which players are forced to modify their natural game. Hence, the players are able to fully express themselves on the pitch in unique tactical schemes that are designed to bring out their best. This makes their teams deadly as the opposition doesn’t know what to expect, with a new playing scheme employed in different games.
The Dawn of Isco & Asensio
Around two years ago, the future of Isco at Real Madrid was unclear and his national team future, even less so. Suffice to say, things have really turned in the bandy-legged midfielder’s favour. Despite his undeniable talent, Isco has had to work really hard to earn the trust of the top brass at Real Madrid. As is often the case at Real Madrid, the price tags associated with players tend to influence starting line ups more often than not. Hence, Isco had always found himself in and out of the team until the arrival of Zidane. The Frenchman, and latterly Lopetegui, however, really believed in his abilities and their faith has been vindicated. His virtuoso performance against Italy had even the opposition players and coach applauding. Such is the sheer gravitas about his play.
Over to Asensio. If there was ever a steal deal of the decade, then Real Madrid’s capture of Asensio would have to be it. Bought from Mallorca for roughly 5 million Euros, Asensio has gone from strength to strength. What’s striking about his meteoric rise from relative obscurity is that he isn’t considered as a youngster for the future. He is already knocking on the doors of the first teams of both Real Madrid and Spain’s senior team. Blessed with great dribbling ability and shooting, he could well become Spain’s first true contender for the World’s Best Player award in quite some time. The best part is he is only 21.
Isco and Asensio may face some challenges in becoming undisputed starters at Real Madrid. Yet, it is clear that they will in all likelihood be running the show in the National team for years to come. What about the playing style of the team ?
La Furia’s New Identity
A key question on most Spain fans’ minds since Lopetegui’s appointment as head coach has been the team’s playing style. Many were concerned that a departure from the tiki-taka style that brought Spain so much glory in the recent past would not be in the team’s best interests. Going by what we’ve witnessed over the past 1 year, it’s clear that Lopetegui has addressed this question very well.
Spain’s greatest strength continues to remain its midfield generals. So, a total departure from tiki-taka was never going to be the solution. Even so, Lopetegui has understood that dominating possession in a game must lead to goals. This is where Lopetegui has really addressed Spain’s problem over the last couple of years by introducing some direct, dynamic outlets for Spain’s midfield possession. While this is still in the experimental stages, he is definitely taking steps in the right direction. Players like Asensio and Vitolo are already playing crucial roles by adding that extra speed and X-Factor to the attack.
Another key question on the fan’s minds has been the role of the striker. As mentioned earlier, the use of a false forward produced devastating effects against Italy as they seemed unable to pick up Asensio nor Isco. However, Spain still has several true strikers to call upon if a different approach is needed. The likes of Morata, Diego Costa, Alcacer etc. will all probably play crucial roles in this regard.
Spain’s Recipe for Long Term Success
Julen Lopetegui’s slick management skills and his prior experience of having worked with the current crop of players, have played a huge role in Spain’s renaissance. However, Spain’s success at youth level football through the different age groups has formed the true core of its success at the national level over the last decade or so.
Success at the youth level is no guarantee for similar glory at the senior level. However, it is telling that many of Spain’s youth players are making the step up to the senior national team.
There was a time in world football when the Netherlands was well known for its great youth set-ups at club and country levels. France had also gained a great reputation for the Clarefontaine Academy.
Yet, like life itself, football evolves and changes with time. The fact that Spain and Germany have been consistently vying for top honours at the senior level is down to the level of planning put in by their respective federations. It must also be noted that both these countries place a lot of emphasis on their Under-23 teams.
The Under-23 team is technically not a ‘Youth Football Team’. Currently, an Under-23 FIFA World Championship does not exist and Olympic football is probably the closest to such a tournament. It is then interesting to note that quite a few of Spain’s senior players played at the youth level and the Under-23 level. Football at this level can be thought of as more tactical and physical. Most importantly, the overall gameplay is far closer in nature to senior level club and country football. At the junior levels, it is quite common to observe individuals trying to tear through the defense when a simpler option is available. Consistently pulling off such feats at the senior level requires a good team structure.
Hence, Spain’s success at the senior levels is down to this possession based style that has come to define its teams over the years. For all of the individual talent out there, football at the end of the day is a team sport. It is this team concept that has been so thoroughly imbibed in the likes of Spain’s and Germany’s best players from a tender age.
Also, international football’s most successful teams usually consist of a golden generation of players from one club. Bayern Munich and West Germany in the 70s, Ajax and Netherlands in the 70s and more recently Barcelona and Spain; all these teams are classic examples of this trait. Spain’s current generation may stem from different clubs but they all thoroughly embody the nation’s footballing identity.
Return to Winning Ways?
With a new generation of talented players coming through and a strong sense of national footballing identity; can Spain once again herald another glorious era? The swagger with which the national team has played in recent times would have any Spanish fan watering in their mouths. However, it may be a little too early to say.
During the 2000s, Brazil wowed football fans world over with their other wordly footballing skills. The way Brazil dismantled Argentina 4-1 in the Confederations Cup final in 2005 had everyone believing that the World Cup in Germany was theirs to lose. Brazil however flattered to deceive at the showpiece tournament despite starting as clear favourites.
With key members of the old guard like Pique, Ramos, Alba and Iniesta to guide the new generation, a new era of brilliance might be on the way. Saul, Carvajal, Thiago, Odriozola and several others have what it takes to get Spain to the top again.
Yet, the current Spanish team still has some way to go before hitting their peak. Tougher tests also await this team. None more so than this coming summer at Russia.