Spain need to make the most of their talented youth in order not to become perennial underachievers again.
It started so well for Spain this World Cup. After the disaster caused by Julen Lopetegui’s exit, few people gave them a chance of lifting the World Cup again.
Against Portugal, however, the world witnessed an enthralling game. Spain looked determined, strong and carved out chances for fun. Isco and Andres Iniesta’s combination on the left looked unstoppable, Diego Costa looked like every defender’s nightmare and Sergio Busquets and Koke bossed midfield.
It looked like the adversity had united them and that they wanted to prove the world wrong.
But hindsight shows us that game was nothing more than an exception. Portugal attacked Spain. They allowed them space, and Spain took advantage. In many ways it was one of the greatest games in World Cup history; it showed two sides willing to put it all on the line, but it set a different set of expectations on this Spanish side.
And they have showed us all just how unprepared they were for what came next.
Iran sat deep and frustrated Spain until a lucky break broke the deadlock. But Iran were also a threat going forward. They set themselves up perfectly; working as a unit in the back and hoping for a chance up front. They very nearly got it. Had they won that game, few would have argued they didn’t deserve it.
Iran set the blueprint, and Russia took full advantage.
And while Russia did execute their game plan beautifully, it was Spain’s game to lose. They didn’t threaten until the exciting Rodrigo came on in extra time. Isco hogged the ball and took too many touches and the team set a record for most sideways passes in a match.
Tiki-taka, which doesn’t represent true Spanish possession soccer, became the game Spain played against Russia and it showed. Spanish soccer expert Guillem Balague goes as far as to categorize tiki-taka as “rubbish version of possession football.”
Fernando Hierro has taken responsibility for Spain’s exit. He’s not wrong, and is a strong personality for taking responsibility, but the blame can’t only be on him.
Real Madrid decision to announce Lopetegui’s appointment two days before the World Cup was arrogant and yet again proved Florentino Perez wants it to be all about himself and Real. But restraint and proper leadership at that moment was essential for the stability of this team.
The Spanish federation — who acted out of impulse rather than calm rationality when they fired Lopetegui — thrust Hierro into the spotlight. Hindsight shows us just how unsettling this decision was.
Under Lopetegui, Spain looked a genuine threat in front of goal. Isco was the central figure, but didn’t overstep his boundaries. Under Hierro, Isco looked to take on all the responsibility to the team’s detriment. He took one too many touches rather than releasing players, and should be held partially responsible for Spain’s lack of threat in front of goal.
It also isn’t a surprise that David Silva was one of Spain’s most influential players in qualifying, but was hardly a presence during the World Cup. Hierro had no idea how to use the talent he had at his disposal.
The incoming manager (whomever it might be), needs to make sure that decisive quick passing in the final third is brought back in. The Spanish Federation needs to reassess and think long and hard about who they bring in as manager now.
Despite the shock of this exit, Spain have something most countries envy, a limitless pool of talent. But they also need an inspirational leader like Luis Aragones was, to make sure that this talent isn’t wasted.
Hierro is obviously not the man.
Despite Iniesta retiring, and Silva, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos being on the wrong side of 30, Spain have got readymade replacements.
In midfield, Saul Niguez, Koke and Thiago Alcantara are the future. A three-man midfield with these players is the perfect tonic. Saul or Koke sitting at the base of midfield should allow a free role for Thiago. Thiago will play the role Iniesta has done, and should link up well with Isco who should play wide left.
Isco’s talent and flair is important for this side. However, he needs to release the ball faster and position himself where he is more of a threat.
On the sidelines, Rodrigo Hernandez, Mikel Oyarzabal, Carlos Soler, Luis Alberto and numerous other lie in wait. In defense, Yeray, Alvaro Odriozola, Unai Nunez, Jesus Vallejo and Marc Bartra all represent the future. With rumors of both Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique retiring, Spain’s tried and tested spine is on the wane. The incoming manager has to start integrating this new wave of young talent into the squad now.
Rodrigo represents the future of Spanish strikers. His pace and directness is similar to that of Iago Aspas and David Villa, and his finishing is similar to that of Spanish legend Raul. Whether or not Diego Costa continues with the team, Rodrigo has to be in the conversation. Alvaro Morata and Inaki Williams need to also be brought in and experimented with.
This disaster can be a valuable wake-up call. Spain needed a shock to their system in order to recharge and reassess. But they have to learn from their mistakes. This Spain team have two years to sort themselves out and they have to tinker and take chances on the talent they possess.
Now is the time for absolute unity from the Spanish federation down to the youth level coaching.
There is potential for this team to achieve greatness again, but pride and arrogance needs to be dropped and trust in the system needs to be brought back in order for them to truly achieve what they want.