Recently, the Santiago Bernabeau bore witness to an absolute footballing exhibition as Spain tore apart Italy 3-0. 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.
Spain’s global dominance effectively came to an end after Euro 2012. Del Bosque’s Spain hardly produced anything spectacular after that tournament with largely underwhelming performances at World Cup 14’ and Euro 16’. Most of Spain’s golden generation have retired barring a few exceptions.
It is quite natural that most don’t expect Spain to ever reach such a level of dominance anytime soon (Me included). It must be mentioned here that after Spain’s disastrous performance in World Cup 14’, many people were calling for a new guard to replace the golden generation. In response to these outcries from Spain’s passionate fans, Del Bosque rung the changes. 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.
Given all of this, Spain’s terrific performance against Italy offers some mouth-watering insights into its future. So what’s changed over the last one year ?
Enter Julen Lopetegui
When Lopetegui was announced as the new coach of the national team, I was delighted. 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 that he worked with at in those teams are currently a 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, I believe we are witnessing a new breed of coaches in people like Zidane and Lopetegui. They seem to be more friendly towards the 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 2 years ago, I had written an article on the rising potential of Isco. At the time though, his future at Real Madrid was unclear and his national team future, even less so. It makes me so happy to say that things have really turned in the bandy-legged midfielder’s favour. Despite his undeniable talent, it is only now that he has really started to shine. It goes without saying that Zidane and Lopetegui 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. More of Isco in another post…
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 be Spain’s answer to a Ronaldo or Messi in the not-so-distant future. The best part is he is only 21.
Isco and Asensio are currently running the show for both club and country and this is likely to continue for many years. 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 was used to devastating effect against Italy with Italy unable to pick up Asensio or 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.
Return To Winning Ways ?
The team’s encouraging performance against Italy offers signs that Spain could well be on its way to the top again. That said, I do believe this new generation will take some time to reach its peak and also find a true solution/s to the striker dilemma.
With key members of the old guard like Pique, Ramos, Alba and Iniesta to guide the new generation, a new era of brilliance appears to be on the way. Saul, Carvajal, Thiago and several others have what it takes to get Spain to the top again. Personally, I think Spain will put in a great performance at the World Cup next year but they are still some way off from hitting their peak. I could be wrong though. Expect them to be contenders at the next Euro.
Viva Espana !!