After failing two years ago to retain their World Cup crown – and then some – Spain must put up a better defence of their European Championship prize. The two-time defending champions arrive at the tournament without being favourites, which is an interesting premise for a team now used to leading from the front.
More old heads have retired, as Spain look to usher in a new era at a major tournament for the first time under Vicente del Bosque. The baton has been passed on – but can it be carried with the same authority as before?
Do Spain have enough in attack?
Del Bosque shocked many when he named a Euro 2016 squad featuring only two recognised strikers. There’s no room for Chelsea firebrand Diego Costa due to fitness issues, while Paco Alcacer – dropped from the squad despite top-scoring for Spain in qualifying – has had the misfortune of being in a mediocre Valencia side. Even Fernando Torres, a Del Bosque favourite, hasn’t done enough at Atletico Madrid to convince the manager.
It means the onus is on Alvaro Morata, still reeling from an underwhelming season with Juventus but believing he can be the No.9 that Spain so desperately need. Then there’s 35-year-old Aritz Aduriz, in the squad thanks to his incredible goalscoring exploits and a wave of Spanish support to see his La Liga efforts rewarded. Off-form Morata must repay Del Bosque’s faith with mettle in front of goal, while targetman Aduriz must show he can fit into Spain’s system.
This team has always found goals from midfield, but the attack – in a tournament featuring Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thomas Muller, Antoine Griezmann and Gareth Bale – leaves fans nervous. Are Spain bringing knives to a gunfight?
What they’ve learned
It was more of an end-of-term assessment than takeaway lesson, but the verdict on Spain following their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign boiled down to three words: must do better.
Qualifying in itself was routine enough, but not for the first time Spain were solid without being spectacular and slipped up in one game, an early defeat to Slovakia. Meanwhile, Del Bosque’s side encountered the same problems as in the 2014 World Cup, looking slow and out of rhythm, their game lacking intensity. Different systems and players were tried, but there was little in the way of discoveries.
The ponderous football confirmed some fans fears’ about the current setup.
Pedigree meets hunger
Spain are still among the favourites at any competition for the simple reason that they possess some of the world’s best footballers. While Xavi, Xabi Alonso and David Villa have all gone, others such as Koke, Saul and Isco have come to the fore – intelligent, technically efficient players with a hunger to triumph on the international stage, even more so than those who’ve already won it all.
There’s no shortage of experience in the squad already (seven players in particular share over 750 caps) but the new core won’t be daunted either, having featured at the highest level for their clubs.
As for the old hands, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and David Silva can still outplay and outthink any midfield in the world.
If there are problems in attack, they’re multiplied in defence. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique are, when focused, colossal defenders individually and can be unbeatable when playing together for Spain – but those switched-on days aren’t as common as they once were. Furthermore, it’s absolutely crucial that they forge a strong partnership in France because alternative options are scarce: Marc Bartra, well down the Barcelona pecking order, keeps his Spain place almost by default.
They’re potentially vulnerable in the centre of defence, then, and at full-back there’s uncertainty on both sides. Nobody has nailed down the right-back slot – opening the door for Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin, who’s won a squad place – and Jordi Alba has endured his worst season since joining Barcelona so can’t bring decent club form to the table.
One thing this squad lacks is a hot young talent to spark the team into life. The enthusiastic and versatile Saul is Spain’s youngest member by some distance at 21, but – brilliant solo goal against Bayern Munich aside – he’s rarely someone a side can look to for inspiration.
Instead, it may well be up to Iniesta to shine once again. He’ll be 34 by the time the next World Cup rolls around, with plenty of younger Spanish midfielders itching to take his place, so this could be his final chance to use the full range of his ability to devastating effect.
Iniesta has given Spain so much joy over the years, yet he’s probably still their best player. His bursts from midfield unlock the tightest of defences, while his vision has only refined as the years pass. The likes of Koke playing alongside him could well save Iniesta’s legs, too, allowing him to focus fully on taking Spain forward, initiating attacks and sometimes finishing them as well. Whether he starts in a central role or, as is common, drives in from the wing, he’ll help Spain to do what they do best: dominate possession and win games.
VICENTE DEL BOSQUE
This will almost certainly be Del Bosque’s final tournament with Spain, and as odd as it sounds in discussing a manager who led his country to two of their three consecutive major tournament triumphs – a feat no nation had ever achieved – there won’t be too many fans shedding tears.
The former Real Madrid manager has done fine work since replacing Luis Aragones after Spain won Euro 2008, but there’s a lingering feeling that he simply continued Aragones’s work without building on it. Del Bosque has failed to fully integrate new players or develop an increasingly stale system – hence the desire for a fresh approach from a younger model.