After six glorious years of global dominance, in which they won the universal admiration of pundits and fans alike with their refined possession game, not to mentioned an unprecedented two European titles either side of a FIFA World Cup™, Spain find suddenly themselves at a turning point.
La Roja’s disastrous Brazil 2014 campaign, when victory over Australia provided scant consolation for humiliating reverses against the Netherlands and Chile, marked the end of an era for Spanish football and left coach Vicente del Bosque and his players – both old and new – with much to prove in the upcoming UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying competition.
“We’re embarking on a new phase,” said Del Bosque as his new-look side, which features eight changes from the Brazil 2014 squad, assembled for this week’s friendly with France. “Before, it was a question of managing success, which wasn’t easy either. But now we have to come to terms with defeat and failing to meet expectations. Let’s see if we can prove just as adept at getting things right as we have previously.”
Carles Puyol’s retirement and the decision by senior figures Xavi Hernandez, David Villa and Xabi Alonso to call time on their international careers have been the first steps in a generational handover that had to come sooner or later.
Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina and Juan Mata were notable omissions from Del Bosque’s first post-World Cup squad list, with Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and Javi Martinez also missing through injury. Their absences led to the inclusion of five new faces in Kiko Casilla, Mikel San Jose, Dani Carvajal, Raul Garcia and Paco Alcacer, with Ander Iturraspe, Marc Bartra and Isco making their returns to the set-up.
“The new boys feel very excited and there’s a huge amount of responsibility too,” said Atletico Madrid man Garcia. “We’re joining some very experienced players and we’ll be doing all we can to make sure that people don’t notice the changes there have been.”
While trophies and success were coming Spain’s way, Del Bosque opted against making significant alterations, contenting himself with a little fine-tuning. Now that his side’s fortunes have changed, he has to decide whether just to overhaul the squad or adopt a new style of play as well.
It is logical to assume that the inevitable changes in personnel will lead to a tactical shift. The most pressing need facing the veteran coach is to come up with a way of countering the suffocating pressure that opposing sides have learned to apply on the Spanish, pressure that has neutered their ailing possession game.
The first sign of change has been the reversion to an out-and-out-striker in the shape of Diego Costa. Despite his underwhelming performances in Brazil and the fact that he has still to score for his adopted country, hopes are high that the Chelsea forward will come good soon.
Aside from the names on the team-sheet, there was not much sign of renewal in Spain’s 1-0 defeat to the French on Thursday. Enjoying the usual abundance of possession, the men in red were short of ideas in the final third, though they did attempt to hit more long balls and play a more direct game than on previous occasions.
If we start believing again, we can achieve big things.
Putting a positive slant on things after the final whistle, Cesc Fabregas said: “This is the beginning of a new cycle and I think it’s started well despite the defeat. It’s only natural there should be a process of renewal. The new players have slotted in really well and we’ve got a great squad, which is the important thing.”
He added: “I like the look of what the boss is trying to do. This new generation showed at youth level that they know what they’re doing and that they’ve got lots of quality. All we can do now is get together, train and work for each other harder and harder. If we do that, then we’ll reach a high level.”
The road to EURO 2016, where the Spanish will be defending their continental title, takes in Macedonia, who visit Spain on Monday, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia and Luxembourg. Del Bosque’s men are expected to advance from the section with a minimum of fuss and know that any slip-ups will only increase the pressure on them.
“We have to start again, forget about yesterday and try to be what were again,” said newly appointed vice-captain Sergio Ramos, setting out the side’s immediate objectives. “If we start believing again, we can achieve big things.”
Mindful of the task awaiting the deposed world champions, France coach Didier Deschamps said: “Spain have had to make changes, and you can’t just build a team overnight, not when you’re without the likes of Pique, Xabi Alonso, Iniesta and Xavi, who’ve each got more than 100 caps and who played with their eyes closed. Del Bosque is a great coach, but he’s not a magician.”
Now that Spain have reluctantly come to the crossroads, time will tell if the next road they take will lead them back to the pinnacle.