It’s been a long domestic campaign, but international tournaments can re-energise even the most jaded football supporter. Author and commentator Jon Driscoll has taken a look at La Roja’s prospects at Euro 2020 this summer for Football Espana, giving us his read on where Luis Enrique’s men are at. Check out Jon’s book, detailing the 50 most influential players in the history of football: The Fifty: Football’s Most Influential Players.
A handy measure of a nation’s footballing strength is how many competitive squads they would be able to send to a major tournament. Ideally though, it is only supposed to be a paper exercise. It is not a sign of calm and focused preparation that Spain are currently operating a main squad, an emergency bubble squad and a controversially-snubbed-by-Luis-Enrique squad.
For the second major tournament in a row, Spain’s final preparations are spinning in chaos, although this time we can blame the pandemic rather than the politics. Challenging circumstances call for clear leadership; under Luis Enrique that has been an alien concept.
Winning international football tournaments depends on getting two tracks lined up as best as they can be, one long term, one short. The long game is player development: how good are your best players, and what depth is there? This is years in the making: Spain’s glory era of 2008-12 was built on the impressive commitment to coaching started long before. The second strand is the immediate-term business of management: preparation, squad harmony, fitness, tactics and, because tournaments are short and football is crazy, luck.
Rarely does a nation have both in perfect alignment: Spain’s three consecutive wins under Luis Aragones and Vicente Del Bosque is the closest I’ve seen. There have been famous teams that were, by repute, the best but failed to win the ultimate prize: Hungary 1954 and the Netherlands 1974 are the acclaimed examples. Likewise, no-one, surely, would argue that Greece had the best squad in Europe in 2004 but they got the short-term questions right and deserved to be champions.
So, are Spain’s players good enough? Yes, sort of. Luis Enrique’s options weren’t as bountiful as his counterpart at France, Didier Deschamps. The World Champions have the best squad although that doesn’t guarantee them anything. I would put Spain on a par with Germany, Portugal, Italy and England: teams that can win the tournament given a fair wind.
Spain’s current generation isn’t nearly as good as the Euro 2012 winners: Iker Casillas started that tournament with 137 caps, Xavi Hernandez 115, Xabi Alonso 102, Fernando Torres 98 and Sergio Ramos 92. There were seven Barcelona players, five from Real Madrid and the only Premier League clubs represented were Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. In 2021, Brighton have a player in the Spain squad and Real Madrid don’t.
That was Luis Enrique’s choice, of course, and it wasn’t based purely on trolling Real Madrid, I hope. The former Barcelona coach was hired after Spain had made a catastrophic mess of the 2018 World Cup. I commentated on Julen Lopetegui’s side in the build-up and I thought they looked like potential winners with the right balance of possession-football and an incisive edge. The coach then had his head turned by Real Madrid on the eve of the tournament and the federation’s new boss Luis Rubiales panicked and sacked him, putting sporting director Fernando Hierro in charge. The slickness disappeared with Lopetegui. Spain’s play was stodgy, Iran was the only team they beat, and they went out on penalties against Russia.
Luis Enrique was supposed to bring calm over chaos, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Of course, we must be sympathetic with a man who suffered the worse personal loss and took time away from the job as a result. His return wasn’t smooth. His assistant and friend Robert Moreno had taken temporary charge and seemed keen to stay on. When Luis Enrique returned his old friend was sacked, publicly accused of disloyalty.
Since then it has been hard to get a handle on the Luis Enrique’s plan. All international coaches have to balance experimentation with cohesion, but Spain have never moved beyond the tinkering phase under their current boss. The array of players tried and discarded has been dizzying, even before this week’s Covid-related decision to play the under-21s against Lithuania.
His squad announcement baffled most observers, for a variety of reasons. Being prepared to make enemies at Real Madrid was bold but naming a squad of 24 rather than 26 was just reckless in the Covid era. Not taking an injured Sergio Ramos was understandable – even if the final isn’t until July 11th – but omitting the versatile and reliable Nacho made no sense. Leaving players of the calibre of Marco Asensio, Saul Niguez and Sergio Canales at home will come back to bite the coach if Spain fail.
Sergio Busquets’ positive Covid test threw the already haphazard preparations further into the air. The youngsters beat Lithuania before some of them joined the worse-case-scenario back-up bubble. The fact that you could name a strong team of players not included in any of those squads shows Spain’s talent cupboard is far from bare. I’ve seen it suggested that the alternative XI would beat Luis Enrique’s first choice – I’m not going for that neat a narrative: the Spanish system is producing lots of good players but few great ones.
I’m not defending Luis Enrique’s selection choices: his squad lacks experience and cohesion but who else’s fault is that?. Ten of the original 24 players have fewer than ten caps. Jordi Alba is the second highest scorer with 8 international goals, meaning a lot could rest on the finishing of Alvaro Morata so be thankful it is Luis Enrique’s job that rests on that, not yours or mine. Adama Traore offers an alternative, exciting skillset from his teammates, but he has hardly played with any of them, and as Wolves fans know it is a frustrating sight to see the winger storming past helpless opponents only to cross into an empty box. Pablo Sarabia is a talented player, but he is 29 and has four caps. So many of Luis Enrique’s decisions are reasonable in isolation but beg the question: if this was the ultimate plan, why haven’t you been preparing for it?
There was no better midfielder than Marcos Llorente in La Liga this season, but the Atletico man seems to be in squad as a right-back, a position he filled competently when Kieran Trippier was suspended. He will do a good job but his dynamism will be missed in midfield. There are technicians who will dominate possession against the best, as we saw in the 0-0 draw with Portugal this week, but there is always the fear with Spain that they can become becalmed.
In March’s World Cup qualifiers, they were held by a Greece side that showed almost zero ambition but still managed to score. Minnows Georgia were beaten only thanks to a long range shot from Danny Olmo in added time. Yet at times, against the right opponent, they can be scintillating – last year’s 6-0 victory against Germany in the Nations League could be seen as a sign of greatness to come but might also be an island in a sea of frustration. The most fluent performance in 2021 was the under-21s dismantling Lithuania – but let’s not tempt Luis Enrique into another change of plan.
So, Spain take their place in the tournament’s ‘maybes’. Facing Sweden, Poland and Slovakia in Seville means qualification from the group should be straightforward enough, especially with a dreaded third place qualification route. After that, who knows – there are too many variables in the draw. Can they win it? Potentially, yes: they’re better than Portugal in 2016, who finished third in their group but somehow became European champions. This is far from the best version of Spain we’ve ever seen and the coach’s decisions have been a net negative – but they have been unlucky that Busquets’ test added to the confusion. But Spain will still send 11 talented players onto the pitch on Monday and with some luck in front of goal they could emulate their predecessors of 2008 and 2012 and become European champions: after all, this is football, and the best team doesn’t always win.