La Liga Lowdown
Spain Squad: Exuberance, Excitement, But Questions Too
Written by Matt Clark
The UEFA Nations League is back, and so is Luis Enrique. His latest squad picks have generated a lot of excitement and debate in his first selection since returning to the role in November 2019, and for a recap on all that drama, we’ve got a podcast to remind you. Notable absentees include Barcelona’s Jordi Alba and Atlético Madrid’s quartet of Koke, Saúl, Álvaro Morata and Marcos Llorente.
UEFA’s latest international innovation is back with a vengeance and Spain will try to do better than last time. There is some lovely symmetry with Lucho returning to the dugout for these games following his compassionate leave of absence. It will mirror his very first outings as Spain head coach in 2018. Back then it was a new start after the debacle of the Russia World Cup; Julen Lopetegui, Fernando Hierro and an embarrassing penalty shootout exit to the hosts. In the Nations League, Spain beat England and hammered Croatia but then lost the reverse fixtures to miss out on the final stages.
They have been dealt a tough draw with Germany joining them, but, as in 2018, there is a fresh wave of renewed optimism about the national team. The exciting squad, announced through names on face masks, contains no fewer than eight uncapped players, generating a youthful feel and placing much less dependence on the big three of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atleti.
Despite that, there are also some selection questions and tactical challenges facing Lucho as this international break is shoe-horned in before the start of an unusual 2020/21 campaign.
How do you solve a problem like David de Gea? Manchester United’s keeper looked destined to succeed Iker Casillas with the gloves until he retired, but an alarming slump in form over the last two years have cast doubt on his suitability.
Kepa Arrizabalaga was the next cab off the rank, but he too has endured a torrid season in an increasingly leaky Chelsea ship. This makes the keeper’s position a problem one, having been almost taken for granted for many years.
Enter Unai Simón. Kepa’s replacement at Athletic Club has made the Basque side quickly forget that they lost the most expensive goalkeeper in the world. The 23-year-old has seamlessly slotted in at San Mamés, and was the best performing Spanish goalkeeper in LaLiga last season. It would be a bold call to replace the big names with an international novice, although it could also be a smart one, particularly in the long term.
The immediate question is who will partner Sergio Ramos? The Duracell bunny of a captain continues to make himself available for every game and is now the most-capped Spaniard of all time.
Finding a suitable partner to fully replace Gerard Piqué has proven difficult, with more than half a dozen players tried and tested since the World Cup. Yet none of them have managed to make a persuasive case for inclusion.
The reality is that aside from the enigmatic skipper, the remaining three central defenders in this squad can count just six caps between them. Diego Llorente is the most likely first choice for Luis Enrique at present, but if he is committed to young players, options like Pau Torres or Eric García gain influence.
Given that the Euros next summer will probably be Ramos’ last tournament, it is not just one reliable centre-back required, but two. Blooding youngsters now and allowing them to build crucial experience to the setup is a wise move from Lucho. The challenge for him comes in that he also needs to find a way to give them some meaningful game-time. That said, Ramos is far from finished and is a crucial source of experience in a refreshed squad light on caps.
At full back, Spain are in good shape, in large part thanks to old coach Lopetegui. His formidable pair of the ageless Jesús Navas and the boundless Sergio Reguilón are in line to convert their club form on to the international stage. With Jordi Alba seemingly out of favour, Reguilón could go from uncapped to a guarantee for the next five years.
The fundamental decision in the middle of the park is who to build the midfield around. The glory days of a decade ago relied intrinsically on a tempo dictated by Xavi, Sergio Busquets and the magic of Iniesta. But only Busquets remains, and the miles in his legs are increasingly taking their toll.
Thiago was among the best midfielders in Europe last season, impressing in the Champions League and being courted by Liverpool. That said, at the age of 29 and with just 37 caps to his name, is he the future centrepiece of the midfield triumvirate?
Once again, it seems the coach is willing to address this dilemma with his selections. Fabián Ruiz is firmly in his thoughts and the form of Óscar Rodríguez – recently signed by Europa League champions Sevilla – could not be ignored. That pair, along with Mikel Merino, look like worthy candidates to play an increased role.
Although Spain have famously played without strikers before, it was a surprise to see Villarreal’s dynamic duo both originally excluded from the squad. Trofeo Zarra-winning Gerard Moreno and his partner-in-goals Paco Alcácer had shown form for La Roja at the end of the Euro qualification campaign, scoring three apiece in the last six matches. A COVID-positive result for Mikel Oyarzabal opened the door for a replacement, and Moreno was given the call. However, doubts remain as to whether he is really in Lucho’s plans long term. If he was excluded from the original squad, there is little to suggest that the míster would select him for the Euros.
Rodrigo, fresh from his move to Leeds United, appears to be the figurehead of Luis Enrique’s plans. Since the 2018 World Cup, Ramos is the only player to have both played more minutes and scored more goals than the former Valencia forward. While not a classic number nine, Rodrigo is a highly intelligent and selfless player, just as happy to provide for others as he is to score for himself. His movement and combination play could be crucial in unlocking deeper defences, the type of which Spain often come up against.
Spain’s new not-so-secret weapons are the pace on the flanks. Ansu Fati and Adama Traoré have both enjoyed real breakthrough club seasons, even if the Wolves man will have to wait a little longer to join the Spain squad due to delays in COVID-19 test results. Fati, the youngest player in the squad, burst on to the Camp Nou pitch to provide a ray of light in a disappointing season, while Traoré has really worked to increase his attacking productivity.
Along with Ferran Torres, another man to leave LaLiga for the Premier League, swapping Valencia for Manchester City, Lucho has three uncapped yet vibrant, dynamic and direct wide options, which would scare any defence. Ideal to use in tandem or as standalone substitutes to inject pace and verticality into a game, this trio are a canny addition to the setup.
It is evident that Spain have still gone strong with this squad: De Gea, Thiago, Dani Olmo, Navas and Reguilón are all included despite featuring in at least the semi-final stages of the major European competitions in August. Thiago, Navas and Reguilón all came home with winners’ medals.
Opponents Germany have taken a radically different approach. They have rested every player who reached at least the semis, with the exception of Thilo Kehrer and Julian Draxler (both from Paris Saint-Germain, but they had time off before the resumption of European competition as Ligue 1 never restarted). This means that Germany are without the likes of Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, Jérôme Boateng, Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka or Serge Gnabry.
While that makes Spain’s immediate prospects easier in theory, Germany’s choice could pay dividends down the line at the Euros next summer. With a long and congested season coming hot on the heels of the unprecedented campaign just concluded, player burnout must be a real concern for coaches by the time next summer comes around.
Ukraine may look like the undercard in this set of fixtures, but they are not to be underestimated. Now under the guidance of Andriy Shevchenko, they beat Portugal and then qualified for the Euros ahead of them at the top of Group B. They will be looking to pull off some surprises, but Spain know they have objectives of their own to achieve.
Overall, it should be a fascinating pair of matches to see how Spain will set up and which players will be given the opportunity to stake their claim. While some of the elder statesmen have already retired or moved away to foreign leagues (oh, Santi!), now is the time for Spain’s younger generation to explode on to the scene. Strap yourselves in, this should be a fun ride!
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