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Spain struggling with identity at Euro 2020

It was Luis Aragones who had to admit he was wrong. That is what it took to make Spain great. Before 2007, La Roja were the nearly men; the bridesmaids and the flatter-to-deceivers. They had a sole international title to their name in 1964 when, as hosts, they won the European Championships.

Penalties always seemed to cause them heartache. The press would build them up and knock them down in half the time. Football in Spain was like a swirling goldfish bowl; struggling to make the talent match the success. It was how we all imagine England; they were our partners in misery and seemingly eternal failure.

Then Aragones — a staunch Atletico Madrid man born out of their values of hard work and winning with brute force, never looking towards the Barcelona approach of taking the ball and passing it — saw Xavi Hernandez. He saw Andres Iniesta and David Silva and Cesc Fabregas and David Villa. All fresh faced, still emerging, still learning and he realised they were the future. The old ways were tossed aside; Spain were now going to embrace technical over tenacity, precision over power and the diminutive over the physically dominant.

But he got the balance right. His decision to drop Raul for Euro 2008 was a seminal moment. Not only did it show his faith in the youth and style but it also showed that he had put his old ideas to one side. It was a new era and it needed to define itself. Step up Fabregas in the quarter-final against Italy, the decisive penalty in the shoot out. The Arsenal midfielder was only 21, but he’d been given so much responsibility by Arsene Wenger already; the pressure barely fazed him, he stepped up and scored and showed what was now possible.

There was a juxtaposition that summer. Aragones trusted his players but their strengths lay up front as well. Villa partnered Torres in a 4-4-2 formation, hardly ideal for the likes of Xavi, an elder statesman at 28, and Iniesta to thrive. Or so it seemed. Both strikers were crucial but those players were never stifled. Villa won the Golden Boot with four goals; Torres scored the winner in the final and Xavi was voted Player of the Tournament.

Four years on, lots had changed for Spain. Vicente Del Bosque had his feet under the table, having guided La Roja to World Cup glory in South Africa in 2010. He was another man who had come to fame in Madrid with Real, the city’s most famous institution, and like Aragones had no prior connection to the Barcelona philosophy adopted by the national team. But, with Villa only recently returning from a broken leg at Camp Nou and Torres having been robbed of his best form ahead of Euro 2012, Del Bosque adapted by playing with no recognised striker.

Fabregas played in a withdrawn central role for the best part of the tournament and the midfielders were given a platform to pass and move teams to death. Even without a focal point, they were no less potent. Ironically, a late flurry of goals saw Torres win top scorer but that didn’t tell the story as he did it mainly from the bench.

Good things must come to an end, though. In Spain’s case, it did so unceremoniously. Failure to get out of the group at the World Cup in 2014 and a last 16 exit at the Euros two years later saw both of their crowns surrendered without a fight. Del Bosque departed and Xavi, Iniesta, Villa et al all got older and never recovered their best form for Spain again.

Luis Enrique has rebuilt a nation from the ground up, in a sense. There was none of the chaos which marred the build up to the last World Cup in 2018 when Julen Lopetegui was sacked after it emerged he had agreed to take over at Real Madrid after the tournament. But the former Barcelona boss had even fewer of the ‘Golden Generation’ — who became the first international team to win three successive titles — to choose from than Lopetegui. He shunned an inclusion for Sergio Ramos this summer, too. It was a huge call, the ramifications of which are not yet apparent.

Drawing their opening two matches of Euro 2020 against Sweden and Poland laid bare Luis Enrique’s problem. While Spain still have a huge amount of talent to choose from and his squad cannot be compared to that of Aragones and Del Bosque, he is caught between a rock and a hard place. They do not have a leading striker in the mould of Villa or Torres in 2008, nor can they play as intensely and technically as they did in 2012.

This is a side still drifting to find a new identity and it all feels somewhat like after the Lord Mayor’s show. Luis Enrique believes in the ‘Barça way’ but has added steel and discipline to guile and skill. It all fails to come together if they can’t score goals and the 0-0 draw against Sweden was as flat as it was uninspiring.

Despite his goal against Poland in their second game, Spain relying on Alvaro Morata is part of the problem. Juventus may have agreed to extend his loan from Atletico Madrid but he has played a supporting role to Cristiano Ronaldo during his second spell in Turin. Morata may also boast Chelsea and Real Madrid on his CV, as well as some rather hefty transfer fees, but a career in which he has failed to find a place to truly settle at the age of 28, suggests he isn’t up to standard for those clubs, or Spain.

After a great season with Europa League winners Villarreal, Gerard Moreno presents a viable alternative. Pep Guardiola has utilised Ferran Torres in a false 9 role at Manchester City but he would have to take much more responsibility if he were to take up that position in the coming weeks. Luis Enrique likes the fact that Spain are going under the radar; while everyone lavishes other nations with praise, his team can go about their work quietly. But they’ve already shown that they lack the potency of years gone by once, and that ultimately could be their downfall.

 


 

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