Underrated and overlooked. These are adjectives not normally associated with a team that’s used to winning major silverware, especially when you won two European championships and a world title in arguably the most dominant four-year spell ever in international football. Yet it feels like Spain, despite being one of a host of contenders to lift the 2018 World Cup in Russia, embody those words to some degree.
You can’t really blame the doubters given the many things that have transpired since La Roja capped off that four-year run in 2012 by retaining their European crown in Kiev. A beating at the hands of hosts, Brazil, in the 2013 Confederations Cup final followed by their embarrassing showing in the same country a year later at the World Cup signalled the end of an era of Spanish football dating back to 2006. Villa, Torres, Ramos, Puyol, Fàbregas, Alonso, Cazorla, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Casillas; a ridiculous wealth of talent who paid back long-suffering fans of the national team for their support through years of heartbreak and underachieving by prior squads thought be on the cusp. After six years of setting records and methodically undressing opponents left and right, Spain looked bare, not in terms of ability but ideas and energy as age caught up with them and teams finally figured out the kinks of tiki-taka.
Rebuilding became a necessity following their shameful showing in Brazil and three years on, it appears the Spanish are starting to reap the rewards of their renewal. Their 3-0 victory over Italy last week, a measure of revenge for being outsmarted and outcoached by the Azzurri in their round of 16 clash at Euro 2016, showed the capabilities of a team still in transition, but very much in play to make a serious move at reclaiming their crown in Russia.
The heartiest part about that win for Spain fans was how well the young stars who they’ll be hoping will carry the mantle of the heroes they’re trying to replace stood out. None more so than Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez aka Isco. When this rebuilding project was formed, Isco was the centre piece Spain hoped to build this new generation around, having sparkled at youth level for them. Now, he has repaid this faith in kind, with his two goals and sublime display of skill and ingenuity against the Italians was further culmination of his growing influence for club and country. With more completed dribbles (269) than any other Real Madrid player since his arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2013, there has never been a question of his skill. Consistency and the ability to dictate games were the biggest areas of concern, but having seen him blossom in both qualities in a career season for Madrid in 2016/17, the 25-year-old has carried over that form for his country and is being looked at, along with Bayern Munich maestro Thiago Alcântara, as the possible heir to the magisterial Andrés Iniesta, who could be retiring from the national team following next summer.
His Madrid teammate and fast-rising young star, Marco Asensio, is another gem who is integral to this project paying big dividends going forward. Asensio’s dynamism, close control and link up play have gradually improved since making the move from Espanyol and, against Italy, we saw how effective he can be both when collecting the ball from deep as well as a false nine. He, Isco and the magician who physically looks like he’s going through a mid-life crisis but whose game continues to age just fine, David Silva, did much of the roaming around, allowing a now 33-year-old Iniesta to conserve his energy and control the game from a deeper position. His importance to Spain, like at Barcelona, is critical and Spain’s manager, Julen Lopetegui knows that managing Iniesta’s mileage is crucial if they are to mount a real charge at another world title.
Lopetegui’s methods do not differ much from Vicente Del Bosque, operating the same possession-based style Del Bosque’s squad became famous (or infamous if you found this style boring) for. But what does have at his disposal is more pace and the potential to play more direct if he so chooses.
With a solid enough defense and one of the best goalkeepers in world football, David De Gea, rounding off the backline, there really doesn’t seem to be much weakness. That is until you try to figure out who their lead striker should be. Statistically, Alvaro Morata seems like the obvious choice given how clinical he has been for Madrid and how well he’s already adapted to life at Stamford Bridge. But questions still arise whether he can be a regularly reliable starter considering a good chunk of his damage over the years at Madrid and Juventus came as a super sub. A goal every other game for Spain, 11 in 22 games in fact, suggests he can be. After Morata though, there’s a load of questions. His troublesome Chelsea teammate, Diego Costa, has looked out of place ever since he chose Spain over his native Brazil. Poor play at the 2014 World Cup and lengthy goal drought to start his international career further validated the point that stylistically, he clashes with the team.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess really. Late bloomer Aritz Aduriz will be 37 next year, Iago Aspas has been very good since returning to Celta Vigo but looks to be way down in the pecking order and Paco Alcácer hasn’t made the grade at Barcelona. That would explain why Lopetegui opted to call David Villa out of his international purgatory last week, having spent the last three years in Major League Soccer for New York City FC. While they have shown in the past that they can win a title with half decent striker, like they did with an out of sorts Fernando Torres in 2012, this is the main issue Spain must address, and soon.
That said, Spain has the pedigree and team chemistry befitting of World Cup contenders. They may not have the depth of Germany or France, but considering the mix of a peaking next generation and savvy veterans eager to prove they still have some class left in their boots, there could be another reign in Spain coming for world football’s former kings.