FIFA World Cup 2018: Reinvigorated by new generation of midfield maestros, formidable Spain look to bring back glory days

Spain's golden generation from 2008 to 2012 is etched in the history books of football. The team was the first one from the land of the setting sun to scale the global pinnacle in the sport. The World Cup triumph in 2010 was sandwiched between twin European championship successes. Yet, there was more to their victors than just glory. Spain under Luis Aragones and later under Vicente del Bosque were football's ultimate artists. La Roja enthralled spectators with their intricate, sublime and seamless passing football on their path to greatness.

All good things come to an end. Spain's exit from the group stage of 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, was perceived to be one for del Bosque's troops. A tame defeat at the hands of Italy at 2016 European championship, all but confirmed it. The need to rebuild and reinvent was staring in the face of the fallen champions. Spain's golden days appeared to be over until del Bosque's successor Julen Lopetegui decided to do something about it.

In the background, at club level, the Spanish clubs showed no signs of slowing down, in fact, they were about to enter an era of domination. From 2014, the Champions League trophy has exchanged hands between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid have won it four times, while Barcelona once. Stars from Spain's serial triumphs before and after the turn of the decade were central figures in their respective clubs' runs to glory. Meanwhile, a few new ones were finding their feet.

Rebuilding often calls for a fresh start. But Lopetegui had other ideas. The coach that had overseen several young players during his time as coach of the Spanish youth teams, knew exactly what he had on his hands. The Spaniard decided not to tinker with team's playing style, but reinforced an ageing side with the right amount of youth. The result was impressive. Spain raced through the World Cup qualifiers without losing a game and only conceded three in process. A tally of 36 goals was only bettered by Germany in European qualification. But most importantly, Spain regained the lost edge in their play that had made them indomitable between 2008 and 2012.

Spain's new generation of midfielders has helped them regain the lost edge in their play. Art by Rajan Gaikwad

Spain's new generation of midfielders has helped them regain the lost edge in their play. Art by Rajan Gaikwad

So what did Lopetegui change?

By the looks of it, not much. The philosophy of the Spanish sides of the past decade remains intact. Lopetegui's Spain like to keep plenty of possession like their predecessors. They press from the front and choke the opponents for space making it very difficult for the opponents to build attacks and get out of their own half.

Under the former Porto coach, Spain have shuttled between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. The opponents have at times dictated the choice, but the style of play hasn't changed much. La Roja employ high pressing system where the first form of defence are the forwards. The forwards close down the central defenders of the opponent team, forcing them to either go long or attempt a pass to one of their midfielders. The second option is a risky proposition as the defender not only has to beat the initial press by the forwards, but also ensure to not leave the midfield player receiving the ball in a vulnerable position from the press from Spain's central midfield players.

Spain have been using this system for the past decade but it became ineffective with the likes of Xavi and Xabi Alonso failing to maintain intensity with age. Lopetegui though has a new, young and rich pool of central midfielders to choose from. Thiago Alacantara and Koke aren't as gifted in terms of passing abilities, but their work rate and athleticism provide a different dimension to the team. The duo has also forced the new Spanish manager to drop the ever-reliable Sergio Busquets to the bench in certain encounters.

The real difference makers though are the ones who play in a more advanced role in midfield. Andres Iniesta may not be the player who scored the winner for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final, but there are few players in world football that can operate more effectively in tight spaces than the former Barcelona man. David Silva, who del Bosque hailed as the "Messi" of their team, continues to shine in a variety of roles in the side. The Manchester City midfielder's ability to spot a pass and the knack of scoring goals make him indispensable to La Roja' setup. Silva is used as the false nine when Lopetegui prefers to play with a highly fluid system. Silva's tendency to drop into deeper spaces makes it very hard for centre backs to track him. It also allows the likes of Isco, Marco Asensio who are great dribblers to wreck havoc by occupying the space around the center-backs that's freed up  thanks to Silva's movement.

The false nine system has been a hallmark of the Spanish sides in the past decade. Lopetegui used the system to great effect in the 3-0 win over Italy at home in the World Cup qualifiers as the Azzuris struggled to live with the guile of the Spanish forwards. The interlinking play between Silva, Iniesta, Isco and Asensio was too much and too quick for the Italian defenders to cope with.

However, there were times though Lopetegui chose otherwise, and the much more direct option of either Diego Costa or Iago Aspas was sought.

Spain employed a 4-2-3-1 system in certain games. Argentina were at the receiving end of Spain's other form of play. In that system, La Roja made great use of its full-backs to hand Lionel Messi and Co a 6-1 loss. The 4-2-3-1 system makes Spain a real force on the counter-attacks. The likes of Iniesta, Silva and Isco have the passing range to find the center forward's run with an early pass from the defensive half.

In both systems, Lopetegui gives his full-backs the freedom to bomb forward. It provides Spain the much-needed width against low defensive blocks, thus allowing the likes of Silva, Asensio or Iniesta to function as inverted wingers and overload the central area just outside the opponent penalty area. With the kind of ability among their ranks, it becomes very hard for opponents to cope with the sustained pressure.

The variety in personnel allows Lopetegui to be very flexible with his tactics without greatly changing their philosophy. One of Spain's criticism during their reign as European and World champions was a lack of Plan B. In Costa, Aspas and Rodrigo, they have the right kind of personnel needed to change games that may not be going their way.

Weakness

Spain face similar threats that any team playing with a high pressing system face. A high defensive line makes them vulnerable to long balls, especially against pacy forwards. With the full-backs occupying areas high up the pitch, the opponents have plenty of space to exploit on the flanks. The onus in this case is on Koke and Alacantara to shield their full-backs by covering for them when they step up the field. Lopetegui seems to trust his men with it, but Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, although experienced no longer have the legs to match the pace of some of the younger forwards. If Spain's press is negotiated, a team can find plenty of joy while having a go at their vulnerable defence.

The one factor that works in their favour is that the back four of Dani Carvajal, Pique, Ramos and Jordi Alba has remained largely unchanged over the past two years. Spain's defenisve record in the qualifiers, speaks volumes of their cohesion as a team, and exploiting their weaknesses will be easier said than done.

Players to watch out for

Every player in the Spanish side has enough talent to warrant attention, but the one player that could make a decisive difference in their bid to regain their world title is Real Madrid's Isco. Lopetegui has handed him a free role in the side and the 26-year-old has flourished in that role both for club and country. Isco is an intelligent playmaker who has a knack of popping up in spaces unoccupied by an opponent marker. The lack of a defined position on the pitch makes it very hard for the opposition to pick him up. Once he gets into these pockets, his incredible passing abilities take over making him the heartbeat of the side.  He roams across the length and breadth of the pitch freely providing great fluidity to Spain's play. He is the surprise element in this Spain side and and the one who can influence big matches through the quality he possesses.

Can Serial winners at club level take Spain all the way?

Spain have players who have won big prizes at club level in the past decade. Almost all their players have been involved in big Champions League matches. The likes of Ramos, Pique, Iniesta, Silva, Alacantara have won a host of titles in their careers and that experience of winning at the big stage will serve Spain well once they reach the latter stages. La Roja are likely to avoid any big guns barring Portugal who are in their group comprising Iran and Morocco until the quarter-final, where a potential clash with Argentina or France awaits.

However, Spain will look no further than their own selves. If they play the kind of football that they are capable of, this side reinforced by a new generation of artisans can take the world by storm again. The final few survivors of their golden generation might have a golden end after all.

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 15:32 PM

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