Under-21s, under new management

When Spain’s latest Under-21 squad met up on Monday in Madrid ahead of their upcoming fixture double, there were few new faces. Several of the old had moved on, but the nucleus remained the same. One new face however was that of the Coach, Julen Lopetegui, who faces his first test in leading this talented, and important, group of players.

A disastrous Olympics campaign saw Spain’s Under-23 group bundled out of the competition, and to take the fall for that failure was Luis Milla. Despite all the excellent work Milla had put in, his contract would not be renewed as the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) looked to provide fresh impetus in a squad that many felt had grown stale. Spain were roundly embarrassed, perhaps fatigue having affected them more than expected, but this was the most disappointing performance from a Spanish side in quite some time. A squad bursting with talent gloriously under-whelmed and looked void of alternative ideas and desire.

That’s not to negate Milla’s volume work. He guided and handled the likes of Juan Mata, Javi Martinez and Adrian Lopez superbly while Thiago Alcantara will especially be grateful for the impact Milla had on his career, releasing him into a midfield role that allowed him to be more devastating in the final third and grasp more responsibility.

With that part of the cycle over, the RFEF’s men in power decided to implement a new one with the introduction of Lopetegui. A failure of his own will drive him on here, as it was he who was in charge when Spain proved unsuccessful in the Under-20 group. His great success has been with the Under-19s though, where he most recently won the European Championships in July. A goalkeeper in his playing days, Lopetegui’s job will be to motivate his new group for further achievements as he did with the lower category, and also insert some tweaks to an overly pragmatic system. He’ll know its flaws too as Lopetegui, Milla and Under-17 Coach Santi Denia all worked hand-in-hand comparing notes and findings on all the players that pass through the doors.

One of the most enthusing things of all for Spain’s future is the communication and relationships existing between various figures within the RFEF’s coaching department.  This has seen the likes of Pablo Sarabia and Isco make swift transitions through the varying stages.

The latest could be Gerard Deulofeu, he’s the main new addition to the U-21 setup and he’ll be looking to continue the fantastic trajectory upon which his career is heading. An outstanding U-19 tournament with Lopetegui, followed by a blistering start to the season for Barcelona, means that the 18 year-old will be looking to maintain momentum. Who better to do it with than the Basque Coach, the only figure other than that of Barca’s Coaches, who knows the player quite so well. Few come with a bigger ‘handle with care’ label than the exciting winger.

Milla left behind a perfect qualifying record, and Lopetegui won’t want to stain that in games against a tough Switzerland and Croatia.

“In these two games we need to maintain the momentum [Milla] left, and get the required point to finish first in the group,” Lopetegui stated at the pre-game Press conference, offering up that Spain do need just the solitary point to pass through this stage.

Israel is where the finals will be in the summer of 2013, and by that time Lopetegui will have hoped his methods have been understood and carried out by the players.

Lopetegui stressed that Milla’s legacy is remembered and respected, but knows deep down fresh ideas will bring further success for a nation in its finest ever footballing hour.