Written by JP.
La Roja’s heroics in the early 2010’s guaranteed them a permanent name on the scene of international football: The Euros, the World Cup, Spain was on the Everest of football. To many, a proof of Barcelona and Real Madrid brilliance at the time of Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho, but also a permanent inspiration to an umbrella of a younger, perhaps less legendary generation. As time went by, legends such as the likes of Torres, Villa, Xavi, Xabi Alonso started retiring: the transition had begun and against expectations, the sky fell on Spain’s horizon in Russia.
In 2018, Spain sacked Lopetegui just before the World Cup: Hierro had little time to assemble his ideas. The Gladiator’s spear did not spare Spain, who crashed out in a dramatic sequence of penalties as Russia eliminated La Roja. This reality had made Spain question its entire existence, its presence and its future: what was next after such a heavy humiliation? There was heavy breathing, but disproving all worries, it was none other than Luis Enrique that would assemble his roster for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, more ready than ever as was shown during the Euros.
Undeniably, La Liga has been declining in the past years. Neither Barcelona nor Madrid seemed to be able to produce new legends, and the direction of both clubs seemed bleak. Academies in Spain kept producing at a lower but nonetheless competitive level. Still, the sensation that Spain’s reign of football was over grew among the crowd, including the most fervent supporters.
Several legends were forced down. This included Sergio Ramos, Piqué had quit the selection much earlier and Luis Enrique had done the Luis Enrique. Notably choosing to not profit from Madrid’s players, as controversial as Marca and AS found it. Lucho nonetheless was never bothered by media attention, and he assembled his own avengers, younger but readier than ever for the challenge: Euro 2021, and more importantly, the 2022 Qatar World Cup. What happened in 2018 could not happen again, it had to be a fluke. Half-chances can be decisive, as Italy and France learned against North Macedonia and Switzerland. If anything, Lucho and his boys were aware of it, having lost against Italy in the semi-finals despite giving a tough challenge to the eventual Cup winners. Details matter.
And Enrique knows it. For he owes La Roja’s fans one promise: an identity, a hope. And that is what he delivered. A technically-skilled pressing machine able to break blocks down by suffocation, Lucho’s Spain never looked backwards. Under a healthy mix of younger players (Eric Garcia, Ferran Torres, Pedri), confirmed but nonetheless not fully developed players (Dani Olmo, Mikel Oyarzabal) and experienced players (A.Laporte, Cesar Azpilicueta, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba), Enrique found the right formula, as much as for the collective as for the individual. They hunt down the opponent to the last square meter, play in a high-line and execute a variety of patterns to dismantle the opposition’s block, whether stationed deep in the penalty box or in a mid-block. Luis Enrique was expected to bring a collective formula benefiting individuals. Still, although everyone is free to express their own talent, there is no noticeable standout in Enrique’s classic XI.
Spain’s academies, in recent years, have famously insisted on technique and vision. Generations of work in club academies could not be destroyed in a disaster-campaign and they kept providing Spain with the players needed for the renowned, refined, technical style. Spain often seem hyper-active with the movements of Pedri, Dani Olmo and Oyarzabal, but nonetheless are able to play it slower in a more strategic manner with the likes of Busquets, Jordi Alba and Koke. Lucho’s beginnings had many worried when Spain failed to break down Greece; it seemed similar to the recurrent patterns of a Spain that could not take its chances and would concede a silly goal afterwards. For this reason, many still doubted Luis Enrique despite the implemented, limpid and crystal-clear ideas.
As for what makes Lucho so successful, it is thanks to the wide pool of players the Spaniard is able to choose from. Carlos Soler, Marcos Llorente or Alex Moreno as well as Sergio Canales are familiar names to La Liga fans, but have rarely seen significant time or even selections (especially the latter). Spain’s rich squad allows them to try a wide range of set-ups that allow flexibility. Luis Enrique’s third/fourth-man runs as well as a healthy combination between central and wide play that allows his team to progress naturally through either side of the pitch. That along with the natural chemistry between the players forces the opponent into sub-par decisions that are rapidly exploited. The modern-day La Roja is one of velocity, especially on a psychological level.
The movements are well-executed thanks to an abnormal timing that allows the slowest players to become faster than Ferraris. In Dani Olmo, Enrique has found the perfect centre-forward that will drop deep in order to create the +1 numerical superiority to break lines. Often adversaries wonder who to press: in Oyarzabal/Olmo/Ferran there are three players with world-class positioning between and behind the lines that become too numerous to track. When Pedri, Jordi Alba or Llorente are added to the mix, excellent passers make it even more difficult for the opposition to track which player is where. And that is why Spain always seem to have a numerical advantage. In having two centre-backs that are perhaps error-prone but act as extra midfielders, Laporta and Garcia help Spain outnumber their opponents from the first-phase until the final third.
Spain’s lack of a ‘9’ as a reference upfront hindered many from believing in what are now considered heroics by Luis Enrique. Much like Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Luis Enrique generated doubt through his own certainty, exemplifying what numerical superiority gives to a team in modern football. A stronger sense of collective that allows any individual to take on the original 9’s responsibility any time they wish to, their flair trusted by Lucho.
Luis Enrique’s team is not one of mechanization, but of natural mechanisms forged by regularity. Regularly he chose similar profiles and players to allow them to build their own chemistry, with his natural guidelines allowing individuals to flourish in the collective. What might seem to many a sudden renaissance is merely the story of a continuous refinement that has permitted Spain to reach a forgotten utopia much earlier than anyone had expected.