After winning three consecutive major tournaments, Spain was a shadow of its title-winning self at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
A thorough humiliation by the Netherlands led to a shocking group-stage exit, leaving many wondering if a golden generation of Spanish soccer had run its course.
Coach Vicente del Bosque resigned in the aftermath of Euro 2016. After Antonio Conte’s Italy knocked out the Spanish in the round of 16, it was clear that it was time for del Bosque to step down. The Azzurri deserved to win, but their tactical set-up showed that Spain was fatigued and needed a new voice on the touchline.
In came Julen Lopetegui, who previously coached Spain’s youth national teams from 2010 to 2014. He won Euro U-19 and U-21 titles with the likes of David De Gea, Isco, Thiago, Nacho, Dani Carvajal and Rodrigo Moreno, who are all in Spain’s current World Cup squad.
That familiarity with the Spanish youth system and the “tiki-taka” style were two chief reasons behind Lopetegui’s hiring. The most impressive aspect of his time in charge of Spain’s senior side has been his ability to refresh a squad that’s very similar to that of the past few tournaments.
At least seven of the players who started against Italy at Euro 2016 are slated to be in Lopetegui’s lineup for their opening World Cup match versus Portugal. That includes Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, who were all starters when Spain won the 2010 World Cup.
While a few of those players are either pushing 30 years of age or over, Lopetegui believes consistency is key when coaching a national team.
“There are specific factors that condition your work and you understand them,” Lopetegui told The Guardian’s Sid Lowe. “You compete in a couple of games every two months and your ‘Champions League’ is six or seven games in the summer. You have a lot of time to prepare and very little time to have an impact.
“You have to know how to condense your message and transmit it, find a way to ensure that the little ‘pill’ you give players is the right one, the right dose. There’s something enjoyable about the fact that you’re on edge, no margin.”
Lopetegui has seemingly found the right dose to reinvigorate everyone, even the players who have won everything at international level.
Obviously, when players go from perennial winners to underachievers, they will do everything possible to reaffirm their dominance. However, Lopetegui’s attention to detail is what stands out compared to del Bosque.
“The two have more or less the same system, but with Lopetegui we are working more tactically, there is much more emphasis on that, but more or less they are quite similar,” Busquets explained to Spanish TV station Movistar.
One noticeable change is Diego Costa starting up front. He was in del Bosque’s XI four years ago, although Costa’s niggling hamstring issues, coupled with Spain’s overall performances, meant everyone suffered.
It’s evident that Costa still doesn’t quite mesh with the midfield around him, which might be Spain’s lone concern entering the World Cup. Thankfully for Lopetegui, he has Rodrigo Moreno and Iago Aspas, who bagged 22 and 16 goals, respectively, in La Liga this past season. If Costa struggles, one of those strikers can seamlessly slide into the lineup.
Elsewhere, Isco has proven to be Spain’s most decisive player. The Real Madrid man has shown his incredible close control, dribbling and playmaking abilities in recent friendlies versus Germany and Argentina.
He was absent from the recent 1-1 draw with Switzerland, which might explain why Spain appeared flat. If there is anyone who is the one crucial player for Lopetegui, it’s Isco.
That might be the greatest testament to Lopetegui’s work over his two years in charge. He’s been able to integrate the likes of Isco and Marco Asensio into the team without any problems. That’s seemingly energized a once exhausted side.
The Spanish federation has been so pleased with Lopetegui’s work that they agreed to a new deal through Euro 2020. It’s a slight risk if they don’t reach the semifinals in Russia, but with the right balance of youth and experience, this might be the best Spanish side since the World Cup-winning squad in 2010.