Can Spain Rediscover their Dominance under Lopetegui?
This is a huge summer for Spain as for the first time in a decade, they head into a major tournament without Vicente del Bosque at the helm. The veteran boss retired on something of a sour note as Spain’s Euro 2016 campaign went much the way of their bid to defend the 2014 World Cup. Early exits in both tournaments suggest the golden era is well and truly over but there have been signs that La Roja could reign supreme again under new boss Julen Lopetegui.
Having won three straight major tournaments between 2008 and 2012, a feat no other international side has managed, it was an impossible ask to expect Spain to simply continue to maintain such a golden standard. That said, few could have seriously predicted the sudden decline that followed with a 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands in Brazil and a group stage exit followed up by a timid last sixteen defeat against a less talented but seemingly more motivated Italian side at Euro 2016.
It wasn’t quite the death of tiki-taka but it was clear that the Spanish national team was veering down the wrong path with some performances eerily reminiscent of the pre-2008 era when they rarely delivered on the big stage. To put things in some perspective, it’s not that long ago that Spain even eclipsed England in terms of their inability to deliver at a global level despite a thriving club scene and they’d only once previously made the last four of a World Cup prior to that glorious night in Johannesburg when they edged out an aggressive Dutch side to finally rule the world.
A defining Summer for Spain
Therefore this feels like a significant summer for the Spanish national team and it may well set the tone for whether they slip back to their previous status as perennial underachievers or whether this may be the second coming and the start of a new wave of international success.
There is certainly a case to be made that it might just be the latter. For all his achievements, there was a feeling that things had gone stale under Del Bosque and a sense that he stayed on at least one tournament too long. Lopetegui has come in and freshened things up without truly tearing up the established blueprint for success and although not really viewed as a big name, it was easy to see why he was seen as the smart appointment.
As someone who was born in the Basque Country but (briefly) represented both Real Madrid and Barcelona as a player, he was a neutral candidate and someone who would be able to manage the inevitable Barca-Real divide well in terms of both the dressing room and the media, which is no easy task. He also came with a proven record of having guided Spain to European titles at both Under-19 and Under-21 level, making him the ideal candidate to bring through the next generation.
Almost from day one, there has been a sense that he’s tried to retain the core group of experienced players that remain from those heady days under first Luis Aragonés and then Del Bosque whilst bringing through new talent. In some ways he has been fortunate that exciting young players have emerged to fill the boots of departing legends and it’s a compelling reason why Spain might just be able to return to the level they found at Euro 2012, when they produced their most dominant Final win to dismantle Italy 4-0.
Looking at the eleven that started that game, six remain key figures under Lopetegui. While Andres Iniesta’s influence has declined, he is still someone capable of dictating the tempo of games and the other five remain in the peak years of their careers and have arguably evolved to be better players since that tournament, which in part explains why we think Spain are a good outright bet to win the 2018 World Cup.
The changes meanwhile could overall be argued to have strengthened the team. While Real Madrid fans may stubbornly disagree, David de Gea has largely proved himself to be a better option than Iker Casillas, who skippered Spain at that tournament. The back four that starts the first game this summer in Russia is only likely to see one alteration from the Euro 2012 winning eleven and again it has to be viewed positively with Dani Carvajal surely offering more at right-back than Álvaro Arbeloa, perhaps the weakest link in that side.
Moving into midfield, the golden era combination of Xavi Hernandez and Iniesta is obviously hard to top but it’s worth noting that Xavi was already past his best by Euro 2012 and the same could also perhaps have been said of Xabi Alonso. In terms of ball retention, the midfield five that started in Kiev was absolutely second to none but the emergence of the likes of Isco and Marco Asensio bring a new dynamic to Spain’s attacking play and makes them a more flexible side in many ways. In any case, with the likes of Iniesta, Busquets and David Silva still around, they maintain the ability to simply pass teams into submission.
Finally up front, attacking options were so limited in 2012 that Del Bosque resorted to playing Cesc Fabregas in a false number nine role in the final. It proved a tactical masterstroke but was also a sign that Spain no longer had a striker that they could totally depend on. While it remains a bit of a problem position today, there are few international sides that would turn their nose up at the thought of starting Diego Costa, while the likes of Iago Aspas, who has enjoyed another great season in Vigo or even Asensio provide interesting alternative options to lead the line, should they go for a more subtle approach.
In terms of individual quality then, this Spanish side retains an extremely strong feel and unquestionably they will boast one of, if not the strongest squad in Russia this summer. That of course doesn’t guarantee success but there have been genuine signs that Lopetegui has already successfully moulded that talent into an effective unit.
Arguably the most impressive team display during 2018 World Cup qualifying saw an Isco-inspired Spain dismantle Italy 3-0 at the Bernabeu. It was in complete contrast to the meeting a little over a year earlier in France. They sent another strong message out to their main rivals for glory in Russia by hammering Argentina 6-1 in a friendly earlier this year and they remain unbeaten in 18 matches under Lopetegui.
Both were performances that eclipsed anything we’d seen in the final few years under Del Bosque and all the signs are that Spain have rediscovered a touch of that old magic. There may be some rebuilding needed after this tournament with some key players set to retire, which will make it tough for Spain to enter a new era of global dominance. However purely in terms of this summer, La Roja have all the tools required to go all the way.
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Source: Football News