The Spanish men’s national team have clearly never heard Samuel Beckett’s famous line: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Every time they failed, they failed in the same way as before. There were lessons learned but they were never applied next time around.
Luis de la Fuente wants to fix that.
A new era of Spanish football begins on Saturday. Spain take on Norway in Malaga and then Scotland on Tuesday in Glasgow to kick off their Euro 2022 qualifying campaign.
The stakes in the first game might be lower now that Erling Haaland has been ruled out with a groin injury. For Luis de la Fuente, who has been around the Spanish football federation for a decade, the stakes couldn’t be higher. He has played the long game, climbing the ladder from U19s to the U21s and then the U23s. He is ready to apply a decade’s worth of learning from five different managers as he watched them struggle with the end of a golden era and their attempts to bring back the glory years.
Since Vicente del Bosque left the Spain job, a role he held from 2008 until 2016, Spain have had four different managers for various lengths of time. Julen Lopetegui replaced Del Bosque and was controversially sacked on the eve of the 2018 World Cup after his negotiations with Real Madrid were reported and then confirmed by the club — an act of treason the Spanish football federation’s Luis Rubiales could not abide by even if it meant cutting off his nose to spite his face. Fernando Hierro took over for the month of the World Cup but left straight after it – a job he never looked for and a job he didn’t want.
Luis Enrique did want it. He took over but had to take a five-month sabbatical for personal reasons in the middle of his stint in charge. His assistant Robert Moreno took over for six competitive games, winning four and drawing two and thought he had done enough to keep the job. Luis Enrique returned and, infuriated with his underling’s gall, quickly sacked him from his staff. From November 2019 until December 2022, the Spanish national team was under Luis Enrique’s spell.
In a squad lacking in bona fide superstars, Luis Enrique became the main attraction.
It made sense because in Spain, the system has always been the star. The country produces world-class talent like few others but ever since Del Bosque’s time, most debates have started and ended with the style of play rather than specific players. There is no mercurial talent like that of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Erling Haaland in the current squad. Just very high quality all across the field.
For too long though, that has led to utter domination but a lack of goals and then a feeling of moral superiority after the game for trying to play football ‘the correct way’.
As far as theory goes, Spain are second to none. Putting it into practice has always been the country’s problem.
The Continuity Candidate
When Luis Enrique said he was leaving the role after the World Cup, several candidates emerged to replace him. Many of them were viable but none of them were truly convincing. Most of them were already working at clubs — Ernesto Valverde and Unai Emery, for example. Others like Marcelino would have required a drastic shift in style and Spain weren’t ready to throw their possession-based approach to the wind just yet.
The Morocco defeat in the World Cup was a tough pill to swallow given how much Spain had invested in Luis Enrique. They were utterly convinced that if Spain lost, they would go down swinging. Instead, they ended up drowning themselves in a sea of sideways passes. They had 77% possession in that Morocco game and just one shot on target in 120 minutes of football.
Luis Enrique did a lot of good too. He brought Spain to the semi-final of the most recent European Championships and outplayed Italy in that game, only to lose to the eventual champions. There’s a feeling that Spain are close, a tweak here or there and this team might get over the line.
De La Fuente has been part of Spanish football’s ecosystem now for a decade. He knows how they want to play but that also means he has seen the failures up close and from within. He has developed several of the players expected to carry the torch into this new era and will have developed strong opinions on what needs to be done to fix Spain.
He wants “to evolve without giving up our style” and while that might seem like a bland cliche, his first squad does signal an evolution of the team’s sterile possession-based approach. The logic, at least, makes sense. Hire from within, hire the manager who coached most of the young players coming through as teenagers. He coached Spain in the Olympics when they lost a final to Brazil with several of the players he has now called upon in his first Spain squad.
De La Fuente’s task is clear. If Spain are going to fail again under his watch, he has to fail better.
De La Fuente’s First Squad
Kepa Arrizabalaga, Pedro Porro, Nacho Fernández, Íñigo Martínez, David Garcia, Dani Ceballos, Mikel Merino, Fabián Ruiz, Bryan Gil, Mikel Oyarzabal, Joselu, Iago Aspas and Borja Iglesias have all been called up after not going to the World Cup.
Éric García, Hugo Guillamón, Pau Torres, Jordi Alba, Carlos Soler, Marcos Llorente, Koke, Ferran Torres, Marco Asensio, Pablo Sarabia and Ansu Fati have all been left out of De La Fuente’s first Spain squad. Others like Sergio Busquets (retired) and Unai Simon (injured) also left two spaces available for new players.
Not all of these players have been dropped for technical reasons as some are injured and players like Mikel Oyarzabal were not available for the World Cup. But the turnover is significant.
Less Build-up, More Defending in Defence
Luis Enrique is a contrary fellow. One of his most contentious decisions was to keep picking Eric García in defence and he became a symbol of the former Barcelona and AS Roma manager’s problems. Even when García had fallen out of favour at Barcelona, he remained in Luis Enrique’s squads. The whole world seemed to think García was not at the level required to play for Spain, but Luis Enrique persisted. It felt like, at times, Luis Enrique had entrenched himself over certain players and the team was being picked for him based on his contrary nature rather than it being an open and clear-sighted selection process.
De La Fuente’s first squad signals a change in how Spain will approach the game. David García, Iñigo Martínez and Nacho, along with Aymeric Laporte are the centre-back options. García could make his international debut at 29.
If we’re looking for clues as to how De La Fuente wants to play, the Osasuna defender is the smoking gun. The new Spain manager overlooked Pau Torres and Mario Hermoso and went with García, who plays at left centre-back but is right-footed. With his selection of wing-backs, De La Fuente doesn’t seem to be prioritising build-up as much as Luis Enrique. Osasuna’s Garcia is much more of a penalty-box defender than Eric García or Torres. Only Rodrigo Ely and Antonio Raillo have more headed clearances than David Garcia this season (65) in LaLiga and he is third in clearances with 116 too. 40% of his defensive actions this season have come in the heart of Osasuna’s penalty box.
Íñigo Martínez regularly missed out under Luis Enrique but has been included and is another player whose main virtue is his physical prowess.
One of the most important aspects of De La Fuente’s style is attacking full-backs. To that end, he has called up Alejandro Balde and Pedro Porro, two players who can play as wingers as much as full-backs. It also speaks to De La Fuente’s focus on versatility. Balde can play left and right-back as he has with Barcelona this season.
Nacho’s inclusion signals a fresh approach. Spanish football is highly divisive and often club allegiance will supersede a desire for the national team to do well. Luis Enrique never seemed keen to bridge that divide. Real Madrid fans felt a sense of apathy towards the national team and it led to a strange feeling before the World Cup. Nacho’s inclusion is both merited and strategic. “This is a new era,” De La Fuente said after announcing his squad. “We want to walk the right path and that means the fans feeling close to us.”
There was a sense that Luis Enrique had alienated some Spanish fans by omitting Real Madrid players who they deemed worthy of inclusion. It didn’t matter that, at the time, Real Madrid didn’t have many players worthy of selection. If De La Fuente was truly planning for the Euros in 2024, it is unlikely he would have included Nacho (33) or Carvajal (31) in his squad. But he has and that will go a long way to mend some of the ill-feeling many Madrid fans had during Luis Enrique’s time in charge of the national team.
Youth and Energy in the Middle
De La Fuente’s hand has been forced in midfield to some extent with Sergio Busquets’ retirement from international duty. If the Barcelona midfielder hadn’t elected to remove himself from contention, he might not have made the squad anyway but we’ll never know. Martin Zubimendi, who has been in excellent form for Real Sociedad for some time now takes his place. Barcelona will get to see a real-life experiment of just how Zubimendi does in place of the former captain. He has been named as the natural successor to Busquets (and not just at international level). His inclusion was a formality.
Spain has long been the world’s leading developer of midfield talent. From Xavi to Xabi Alonso and from Rodri to Sergio Busquets. The new guard has been ushered in as Spain’s conveyor belt that only spits out the silkiest midfielders in the world continues to produce the goods.
Rodri, Fabián, Merino and Ceballos are all 26, the oldest midfielders in the squad. Zubimendi (24), Gavi (18) and Yeremi Pino (20), who replaced the injured Pedri (20) are in. There isn’t as much experience in the middle of the field but there is more energy. If the game is to be played at a faster pace with less build-up and more penalty-box action, Merino and Fabián are strong runners whose late runs and ability to win second balls might be another indication for a more direct and physical approach.
Where Can Spain Find More Goals?
If Spain are spoilt for choice in midfield, they have the opposite problem in attack. It was in this area where the lack of a pure star was felt most acutely at the 2022 World Cup. Luis Enrique selected players that fit the system rather than those in better form. Luis de la Fuente wants players high on confidence.
Joselu, Iago Aspas and Borja Iglesias have all scored 12 goals this season in LaLiga and are the top-scoring Spaniards in the league. Only Robert Lewandowski (15) and Enes Unal (13) have scored more.
De la Fuente doesn’t want to pigeonhole himself with a specific kind of player and knows he needs goals if he is to be successful. Alvaro Morata was the only pure number nine in Spain’s last World Cup squad and he isn’t the most of prolific of goal scorers.
The only thing Joselu, Borja Iglesias, Iago Aspas and Gerard Moreno have in common is that they’re Spanish and they’re strikers. They share some traits, obviously, but this is a wide selection of players who can solve various problems both individually and in pairs.
De La Fuente will commit to wingers keeping wide, beating their man and sending in more crosses than previous iterations of Spain. To carry that out, he needs fast wingers and strikers who feast on crosses. Bryan Gil and Nico Williams provide the former and Joselu provides the latter. No Spanish player has more headed shots on target than the Espanyol striker this season (five). Joselu is a total deviation from Spain’s typical style. Only two players have been involved in more aerial duels than his 205 — Enes Unal and Vedat Muriqi — and no player has won more aerial duels in LaLiga this season.
Nico Williams is in the middle of a breakout season, but Athletic Bilbao have consistently struggled with finishing. Williams has created 16 chances this season following a ball carry with just one assist.
There’s enough evidence in that Spain squad that De La Fuente, above all, wants to stamp his own authority on this squad and he has two competitive games now to get off to a flying start.
De Le Fuente’s official reign as Spain manager starts on Saturday but in a way, he started preparing for it many years ago. He has been at the coalface of some of Spain’s most disastrous of tournament exits. Has he learned anything from those debacles? We’re about to find out.