By Greg Simpson
As the saying goes; ‘All good things must come to an end’, or more aptly, ‘this is the way the world ends..Not with a bang but a whimper’. Any way you spin it, La Roja’s failure to progress out of their group in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was nothing short of embarrassing for a squad laden with super star talent and some true legends of the game. The back to back Euro winners and defending World Champions never recovered after being destroyed by van Persie and Robben in their opening match, losing 5-1.
It was also embarrassing for me, as I once again penned their preview for that tournament. While recognising there were certain risks around the team and maintaining their unparalleled dominance. As far as some aging legends probably past their best, and the tweaks required to their ‘tiki taka’ approach if starting their new ‘Brazilian’ recruit Diego Costa up front – I still never expected them to be so poor and be dumped out in pool play. Losing 7-1 on aggregate to the Netherlands and Chile in their opening 2 games. I predicted they would at least make the final, and probably win it.
As we’ve all witnessed for the past 9 months – Football can be a truly unpredictable beast. Maybe more accurately – a wonderfully unpredictable beast. Which actually in hindsight, makes Spain’s 6 year global dominance all the more incredible. But as Chelsea and United are finding when that aura of invincibility comes crashing down – what next? Do you rip up the blue print completely and start again? Is this Euro’s side a Spanish revolution, or more evolution?
Gone are Xavi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez, David Villa, Santi Cazorla, Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Javi Martinez, Raul Albiol and after a poor season for Chelsea – Diego Costa. Real Madrid’s Isco was also considered surplus to requirements. In, are some relatively youthful figures in Alvaro Morata, Thiago Alcantara, Hector Bellerin, Marc Bartra, and Real Madrid’s Vazquez. Plus some older heads in Nolito, Bruno Soriano, Mikel San Jose and the 35 year old Athletic Forward in Aritz Aduriz – fresh from scoring a career high 36 goals in all competitions. So as far as the wider squad goes, it’s definitely Del Bosques most revolutionary squad. However, ‘squad’ being the operative word. When you drill down into a potential starting XI, a very familiar looking line up appears.
De Gea should start in goal, although the ubiquitous shadow of Casillas still looms large over this squad. Personally, I feel he should’ve joined Xavi & co in retiring from the National team post 2014, although he seems a guy that would never be able to bring himself around to calling time on his own career. The centre back pairing of Ramos and Pique selects itself. Atletico’s Juanfran should lock down the right side, with either Jordi Alba or Azpilicueta on the left. That’s a very strong and experienced back four.
Del Bosque has been utilising a 4-1-4-1 system in recent warm up matches. The ‘1’ ahead of the back four can only be one player – Sergio Busquets. Which leaves the likes of David Silva, Iniesta, Fabregas, Koke and Thiago fighting it out for the midfield spots, while the only fresh looking ‘new blood’ could come in the form of a wide forward and centre forward. Potentially Nolito and Morata could get the nod. Definitely more evolution, than revolution.
Spain cruised through a weak qualifying group – finishing top, although did lose to Slovakia along the way. Since then, they have only won 2 of 7 friendlies and lost to Georgia in their most recent hit out before the competition starts.
Based on these recent results it’s hard to see them becoming the first team in Euro history to go back to back to back. However, when you look at that potential starting line up, how can one write them off. The ‘on paper’ talent in that side is probably still the strongest in the competition. But as Leicester proved to us all this season – football isn’t played ‘on paper’.
Much like Arsenal’s possession based game, it does seem like sides have worked them out and their game plan/approach a little dated. At times they seem static under Del Bosque, allowing opposition defences to sit back deep and ‘park the bus’ and counter attack. Speed of ball movement and a willing to press and win back possession quickly will be the key to their success. Plus whoever he decides to go with up top will need to find their clinical scoring boots. Spain were at their most dominant best when a certain David Villa use to finish for fun the chances created by that brilliant midfield.
By no means are they in an easy pool. Croatia led superbly by Modric and Rakitic won’t be easy beats. Turkey are Turkey – dogged and always up for the fight and have a brilliant player in Arda Turan, while they open up against Czech Republic who also topped their qualifying group. If they can start well and build some confidence early, as opposed to being taken apart 5-1, then it would take a brave punter to bet against this side going all the way to the final. Then, quite possibly, the remaining remnants of this golden generation of Spanish players could actually go out with a bang and not a whimper.
Follow Greg on Twitter