SPAIN WILL SLOWLY ROLL INTO A TRANSITION
Julen Lopetegui’s latest squad shows that Spain will slowly roll into a much-needed transition
A new golden generation approaches
When Spain crashed out of the last World Cup tournament in the group stages, calls for change were rife. But Vicente del Bosque, potentially off the back of his huge success and trophy wins in years gone by, stayed at the helm and persisted with a fairly rigid talent pool before underwhelming again at Euro 2016.
Julen Lopetegui, ex-Spain U21 coach, was the man ushered into the managerial void when Del Bosque waved goodbye to La Roja in the summer. Like Gareth Southgate at England, he wasn’t to be heralded as a saviour or an immediately finished product, but he stood for all of the right values to lay the foundation for a progressive international side.
Old Enough, Good Enough
David De Gea was widely acknowledged as Spain’s best goalkeeping option over the last two international tournaments that his country visited, but struggled long-term to force Iker Casillas to take the number-two set of gloves.
Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez has seen his career take an upward turn since leaving Real Madrid, with spells at both Milan and his current club allowing him to showcase what he couldn’t from Casillas’ shadow. De Gea is now free to do the same.
“I think the door has opened for everyone,” Diego Lopez told Cadena Ser back in October, not long after Lopetegui’s appointment.
“I think this coach is proven that everyone can go to the national team, that you don’t need to have a big name to go.
“There is a lot of competition for a place. We all have to work in the same conditions and whoever deserves it, will go. Those that don’t need to keep working with the aim of going at a later date.
“I think you need to earn a place by doing well at your club and it doesn’t matter which team you play for, what your name is and how old you are. This is important for Spanish football. I want to congratulate him because that was the manner in which Spain had to re-emerge and he is succeeding.”
Pedro and Diego Costa have been recalled to La Roja’s squad after impressing for Chelsea, with Antonio Conte’s arrival squeezing the best out of both players. The former Barcelona wide man has been thriving when given little defensive responsibility on the left, scoring seven goals and assisting the same amount, while Costa has used his bullish approach to carve out inroads and benefit from pockets of space given to him by a fluid front three.
While those two have benefitted from a 3-4-3 system this season, one man who hasn’t been so lucky is Marcos Alonso. Despite being a key facet as a wing-back on the left flank, the former Fiorentina man hasn’t been given a chance to proved himself due to Spain not pursuing a formation that has a familiar role for the Chelsea defender.
“Pedro is very excited. The past is the past, he’s delighted to be here. Whether he plays or not, he is going to help us,” Lopetegui explained recently on radio show Partidazo COPE.
“Marcos Alonso debuted with me at Real Madrid Castilla when he was 16 years old. He is playing at a really high level, and obviously we have followed him.”
In the past, the air of Vicente del Bosque’s selections almost suggested that some of this fringe players from Spain’s diaspora wouldn’t be given the proper care and attention that they were due. As a former international youth coach, however, Lopetegui appears to more much more open-minded and liberal in his approach to squad building. Often the idea of being picked on merit is bandied about in terms of international football, but in the ex-Porto coach’s case it seems genuine.
Easy Does It
Some people may have hoped to see wholesale changes to La Roja’s squad, with the likes of Las Palmas’ Roque Mesa and Jonathan Viera getting straight into the first-team squad, but Lopetegui has been more cautious. Slowly, Spain’s golden generation are being eased out for good, with World Cup winning goalkeeper Iker Casillas one of the first to take his leave. It isn’t much, perhaps down to the immediate politics of the game, but it is progress.
Midfielder Asier Illarramendi has been chosen from Real Sociedad, after providing a solid basis to their European push in LaLiga, while Ander Herrera has retained his place after featuring heavily for Manchester United this season.
Gerard Deulofeu is another inclusion that many may not have expected, after getting more first-team minutes since a January loan move to Milan. Lopetegui is open to inexperience and present form, which promises a bright and exciting transition period for La Roja.
Iago Aspas has retained his place in the squad after blistering form for Celta Vigo in LaLiga, while Thiago is set to play a key role in Spain’s future after getting plenty of injury-free minutes under his belt for Bayern Munich. Rather than permitting stagnation to turn into rot, the next generation of trusted options are being led through quietly.
Trusting the Future
After winning a title with the La Rojita, Spain’s U21s, four years ago, Lopetegui hasn’t forgotten about the pathway which he helped to pave and maintain. While the conveyor belt from youth level to international football slowed under Del Bosque
“He’s known us since we were little and it’s given not just me but a lot of people from the U21 European Championship-winning generation the chance to be important players in the national team,” Koke told FIFA’s official website recently.
“And it’s good that we’re picking up the baton because there’s a very good generation coming through. With the ones who are already here, who’ve won the lot practically, we can achieve some big things.”
Lopetegui has a high-quality old guard and a whole host of youngsters that he trusts from managing in the past. You only need to take a look at Spain’s current U21 crop to see what the future holds.
Dani Ceballos, Victor Camarasa, Marcos Llorente, Saul Niguez and Denis Suarez make up their midfield, with all but the former of the five playing regular first-team football for top-flight Spanish sides. An unbelievable arsenal to boast, with existing talents such as Andres Iniesta still around at senior level to help them on their way when they make the step up.
Marco Asensio is tipped for the top at Real Madrid, with Hector Bellerin and Yeray the brightest talents from the defensive options at youth level. Many senior international squads would love to have a team with even a smidgen of the talent available to Spain’s U21 set-up – and Lopetegui is the man to introduce ease of them when the time is right.
There is a moment, admittedly a sad one, when legends must take their leave. Xabi Alonso’s announced retirement at the end of the season is one of those. Fortunately for Spain, Lopetegui should be able to make the transition a more successful, and ultimately more exciting prospect.