It was only a decade ago when Spain ruled the world. In between their two European Championships in 2008 and 2012 was their triumph in South Africa’s 2010 World Cup. They remain the only national team in history to have won three major tournaments in a row.
Those years were headlined by a golden generation that has since been unmatched. Some of the greatest players in the history of their respective positions took the field simultaneously: whether Iker Casillas in goal, Carles Puyol in the heart of the defence, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta in the midfield, and David Villa and Fernando Torres up front. The list could go on for days.
Since then, however, their golden generation faded, and they have failed to replicate that success. They were unceremoniously eliminated in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup and were sent home in the round of 16 of both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup.
Now under the leadership of ex-Barcelona coach and Culés‘ favorite Luis “Lucho” Enrique, Spain are inheriting a new generation of sorts. In fact, they are entering the Euros without 14 faces from the 2018 World Cup. Can Spain regain the crown they lost in 2016?
Road to Euro 2020
Spain qualified for the Euros with relative ease, winning eight times and drawing twice. They topped their qualification group consisting of Sweden, Norway, Romania, the Faroe Islands, and Malta. Along the way, they scored 31 goals and conceded five, not to mention only one on their home soil.
While the group was inarguably bereft of world-class opposition, Spain showed their full potential in a 6-0 dismantling of Germany this past November in the UEFA Nations League. On the other hand, Spain’s lack of threat in front of goal remains an everlasting problem. In fact, four of their last seven results have been draws.
A Controversial team Selection
Due to the ongoing pandemic and injury concerns, the European footballing association allowed teams to select 26 players for the tournament instead of the usual 23. Still, Luis Enrique opted for 24 and a series of choices that were met with backlash – notably from those situated in the Spanish capital.
For the first time in Spanish national team history, no Real Madrid players were called up for the tournament. That included captain Sergio Ramos, right-back Dani Carvajal, reliable squad-option Nacho Fernandez, and forward Marcos Asensio. Admittedly, most had injury or fitness concerns.
Elsewhere, heads were turned about the omission of Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas (33-years old), who tallied 14 goals and 15 assists this past campaign. There were also questions pertaining leaving out Jesus Navas, the 35-year old right-back who is coming off a brilliant season for Sevilla. Nevertheless, one could reasonably assert that Enrique is looking to the future, choosing to rely on players who will likely also be available for the World Cup in 2022.
In all, Spain’s squad is a desirable mix of youth and experience. No less than 16 players will be making their debut in a major international tournament, while familiar names such as Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara, and Koke are present too.
In goal, Enrique has selected David de Gea, Unai Simon, and Robert Sánchez. None are particularly world-class, especially with de Gea’s recent dip in form, but Simon is the best choice out of the three. At only 23-years old, the Athletic Bilbao keeper could be a staple in goal for years to come.
In centre-defence, Enrique can pick between Diego Llorente, Pau Torres, Aymeric Laporte, and newly-signed Barcelona youngster Eric Garcia. Without Ramos in defence, the Frenchman-turned-Spaniard Laporte will be looked to as the headstrong leader. Laporte put on a worthy display in his national team debut against Portugal last night, showing that he can easily play right-centre-back as a left-footed player. The question is, who will be his partner in the backline: the young Pau Torres or younger Eric Garcia?
Luis Enrique loves to get his fullbacks to join the attack, and he has the perfect players for that. At left-back, he has lethal options in Jordi Alba and Jose Gaya. Champions League-winner Cesar Azpilicueta is the squad’s only natural right-back, but Enrique tends to favour versatile Atlético Madrid midfielder Marcos Llorente in that position anyway.
Spain have always been defined by their world-class midfield, and Enrique has no shortage of options. Filling in the defensive midfield role will either be captain Sergio Busquets or Manchester City’s Rodri. As interiors in the midfield three, there is Barcelona-gem Pedri, Thiago, Koke, Fabian Ruiz, previously mentioned Llorente and even Dani Olmo.
Up front is where the Spaniards leave a lot to be desired, and they would have benefited greatly from Barcelona’s Ansu Fati, who will miss the tournament due to a season-long injury. Out-wide, they have Adama Traore, Mike Oyarzabal, and Pablo Sarabia, who have made a combined 22 appearances for la selección.
Filling in as number-nines are Alvaro Morata, and Gerard Moreno, who tallied 20 goals and 11 assists, and 30 goals and 12 assists this past season, respectively. Hopefully, that is a sign of things to come.
Tactics & potential lineups
Luis Enrique has and will continue to employ his favored 4-3-3, opting for a brand of football that fits Spain’s high-possession while incorporating quick counter attacks and direct-passing. Out of possession, Spain will press high and with maximum effort.
With Laporte, Pau Torres, and Eric Garcia in the heart of the defence, their centre-back options are capable of carrying or passing the ball up the field. Their options are either midfielders who drop deep or spraying long-balls to pacey wingers like Ferran Torres. Additionally, their attacking patterns of play routinely include marauding full-backs who look to send crosses into the box.
Expected Starting XI
All in all, Enrique will likely opt for the following starting eleven.
In defence, Laporte and Pau Torres proved to be a solid centre-back pairing in their recent outing against Portugal, and Llorente and Alba are natural selections at full-back. Llorente’s dynamism will be missed in the midfield, but he has all the tools necessary to be a devastating right-back. Gaya offers more defensively than Alba, but the latter has performed brilliantly in his last few games for Spain and should earn the starting spot.
The midfield three are varied in their profiles and should dominate most opposition. The ever-reliable Busquets will look to slot in between the centre-backs to provide cover and spread possession, while Thiago and Fabian will make key passes into the final third or to attacking full-backs.
Upfront, Ferran Torres provides much-needed pace and an ability to stretch opponents; Gerard Moreno can drop deep to pick up the ball, and Morata is key with off-ball movement and positioning.
If things aren’t going well, Enrique has a multitude of game-changers on the bench, whether Pedri, Rodri, Koke, Olmo, or Oyarzabal. He also has several X factors in Pablo Sarabia and Adama Traore.
The out-of-the-box approach
Alternatively, Enrique could shake things up and choose a different shape entirely. He’s tinkered with three-at-the-back formations before, particularly in his last season (2016-2017) with Barcelona, and it could present an unpredictable yet intriguing option.
To start, Azpilicueta would join Laporte and Pau Torres in a back-three. The Chelsea captain has excelled as a right centre-back in a back-three over the last few seasons, and Laporte in the middle could grant him more freedom to carry the ball forward.
Adama Traore is more than capable of playing at right-wingback and would wreak havoc down the flanks. On the opposite side, Alba has played as a wingback most of this past season with Barça and would be equally threatening.
In the midfield, Marcos Llorente provides a dynamic option who make runs into the box and provide a goal-scoring threat. Just like with Barça this past season, Busquets will be unlocked with more defensive cover behind him, allowing him to utilize his creativity in the final third.
The tandem of Gerard Moreno and Alvaro Morata complement each other well, with the former dropping deep to collect the ball and the latter making crucial forward runs. Moreno plays a similar role for Villarreal, starting and finishing attacks himself, similar to Antoine Griezmann at Atletico Madrid in large parts.
Lucho’s leading lads
With Unai Simon’s relative international inexperience and without Ramos’ commanding presence, Spain desperately need a leader in the backline. Enter, Aymeric Laporte.
The ex Frenchman – now Spaniard – has fallen out of favour with his club-side Manchester City, but the upcoming Euros will surely remind the footballing world why he is an elite centre-back. His composed presence in the backline should provide defensive stability and an outlet for buildup. In many ways, he’s the perfect centre-back for Luis Enrique’s preferred setup.
A dominant tournament from Laporte will go hand-in-hand in Spain’s performance
In the middle of the park, Thiago Alcantara will dictate Spain’s tempo, patterns of play, and orchestrate their attack. The 30-year old will likely fill in as an interior on the right side of a midfield trio.
Whether Spain attack methodically or more directly, Thiago will be at the heart of it all. Against teams that will sit back and absorb pressure like Portugal, his pinpoint passing will be key to breaking down low-blocks. Conversely, his line-breaking passes will help against more expansive opposition, like Belgium. His combination of vision, first touch, and ball control remains unparalleled.
More often than not, matches are won in the middle of the park. That will be no concern with Thiago on his A-game.
As mentioned profusely, Spain are in dire need of a clinical edge in front of goal. This issue has persisted for a while. Now, however, Spain enter an international tournament with a striker who scored over 30 goals in the previous season for the first time since the 2014 World Cup (Diego Costa scored 36 goals in 2013/14).
That honour belongs to none other than Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno. The 29-year old talisman had an astounding 30 goals and 14 assists this past season as one of the best players in La Liga. He led Villarreal to Europa League glory against Manchester United with a goal in the final.
Moreno can play as a lone number 9 or right-winger, and he will surely play a big role in the Euros, regardless of where he starts. Additionally, he is adept at dropping deep to help create, which in turn will give freedom to Morata and Marcos Llorente as right-back to make runs into space. Alternatively, he can operate in the box, using his height and finishing, or cut in with his lethal left foot.
His ability to be both creative and clinical could spearhead the team into a deep run. In all, Spain will be hoping Moreno can continue his red-hot form and put an end to La Roja’s striker concerns. If anyone can, it’s him.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Overall, Spain’s strengths and weaknesses are fairly straightforward. Their defence is capable of keeping up with most opposition, albeit the only concern would be a lack of chemistry amongst the backline.
La Roja can also still pass the ball around any team but continue to be plagued by one issue in particular: a substandard attack. They almost always dominate possession, but whether it’s always fruitful is another question entirely.
Over their last six games, Luis Enrique’s side has averaged 73% possession, but half of those games ended in a stalemate. If their defence can’t contain the mightiest of opponents, their attack will have to be firing on all cylinders.
A perfect example of this was last night’s match against Portugal. The Spaniards had 66% possession and created multiple chances but couldn’t get on the scoresheet. Morata’s mediocre performance might force Lucho to use Moreno as the central striker with Olmo and Ferran Torres on the wings. Nonetheless, it was a hopeful and overall promising performance, one that Enrique will look to build on.
Can La Roja go for Gold?
In the end, Spain may not be anyone’s clear favourites, but it would be unwise to write them off entirely. Contrary to the squads of their last few international tournaments, La Roja are ushering in a new generation, one that is fresh and full of excitement. While that comes with some concerns of international inexperience, the inspiring and commanding Luis Enrique will surely get the best out of them.
Spain can easily reach the tournament’s semi-finals, but an early crash out or championship run is entirely possible too. They can be the sleeping giant that no one wants to wake up.