The selection of Spain has again been considerably rejuvenated on the way to the World Cup. Ten years after winning the last major title, is a new golden generation emerging? The progression under national coach Luis Enrique is encouraging.
The last major test for Spain on its way to the World Cup took place a month ago. In Braga, Luis Enrique’s team faced Portugal. In the last group match of the Nations League, La Roja had to win to become the group winner and thus advance to the Final Four. With Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes on the pitch, Portugal tried in vain to seize the initiative. Spain dominated the positional game as usual, but for a long time it was not possible to express the dominance in a lead. Until Álvaro Morata anticipated well in the 88th minute with a far cross to Nico Williams and made the 0-1 from close by after a header from the twenty-year-old talent.
Reaching the Nations League Final Four was part of a string of strong performances under Luis Enrique. During the European Championship last year, Spain only stranded in the semi-finals, in which eventual winner Italy was too strong after penalties. A few months later, Spain faced France in the Nations League final in San Siro. In Milan, Kylian Mbappe’s class was too powerful for the Spaniards. It was symbolic that it was Morata who again helped Spain to the final stage of a tournament in Braga. Luis Enrique has called on only two players more often since the start of his second stint as national coach in November 2019. Only one international has since scored more for Spain than the oft-criticized striker.
Morata is perhaps the most atypical star in the European top. For a player who broke through at Real Madrid and later became the first striker for Juventus, Chelsea and Atlético Madrid, he has shown himself remarkably vulnerable. The 29-year-old Madrilène had to get used to life in the spotlight for a long time. He didn’t draw a smokescreen with fake self-confidence but spoke about his doubts and insecurity. About how he was crying on the massage table at Juventus after a bad training and series without a goal. Gianluigi Buffon spoke to him that day and reassured him. The Juventus legend later said Morata had what it takes to become one of the best strikers in the world, if only he wasn’t mentally slowed down.
Doubts arose again with the 57-time international when the arrows were aimed at him from the stands just before and during the European Championship last year. Morata became the target of ridicule, whistles, and insults. And threats to him and his family. After the second group match against Poland, he lay awake for nine hours. “I’ve been getting messages that they were hoping my kids would die… But I’m fine, a few years ago I probably could have handled it worse. I’ve been trying to shut myself off from everything for a few weeks,” the striker told a Spanish radio program during the tournament.
“I’ve been getting messages that they were hoping my kids would die… But I’m fine, a few years ago I probably could have handled it worse. I’ve been trying to shut myself off from everything for a few weeks,”Alvaro Morata
Luis Enrique passionately defended Morata and let him talk a lot with one of his most loyal assistants. The national coach already brought former judoka Joaquin Valdes to his staff when he took his first steps as a trainer at Barcelona B, from 2008. The mental coach followed Luis Enrique to AS Roma, Celta de Vigo, the first team of Barça and the national team. . Joaquin Valdes, according to the former top player of Real Madrid and Barcelona, mastered the art of changing the mood of a group and of individuals. Valdes observed the coach during press conferences and helped Luis Enrique strike the right chords. With the so enthusiastic trainer, he worked on building habits to relax. The Gijón hothead often had to be slowed down, while Morata was helped by Valdes to build confidence.
Working intensively with Valdes draws on Luis Enrique, a trainer who tries to gain percentages in areas where more conservative colleagues miss opportunities. He is obsessed with nutrition and prefers to physically push his players and himself to the limit. At the clubs where he coached, he became known for exhausting training sessions in preparation. Insiders joked that the battles of attrition were meant to show that Luis Enrique himself was ultimately the fittest of all. After the former midfielder annex winger had put an end to his career in 2004, he sought satisfaction in endurance sports. In 2007 he completed a triathlon in Frankfurt which consisted of a four-kilometer swim, a 190-kilometer bike ride, and then a marathon.
With that in mind, critics regularly argue that Luis Enrique’s selection policy focuses too much on fitness and being able to cover many miles in ninety minutes. For example, when it comes to passing through Thiago Álcantara. The Liverpool playmaker was no longer called upon after the semi-final of the European Championship against Italy.
Luis Enrique doesn’t make popular choices, he doesn’t always make it easy on himself in front of the media. At the 2018 World Cup, ten of the 23 players in the Spanish selection were still under contract with Barcelona or Real Madrid. Luis Enrique did not include a single player from Real Madrid in the selection for the previous European Championship, while Barça were also represented by only three internationals. He is not interested in criticism in the major sports newspapers from Madrid and Barcelona. The national coach does not give one-on-one interviews anyway. He also makes no effort to charm during press conferences. “I really don’t care if you like my approach,” he once said when he was at the helm of Barcelona.
Of the basic team with which Spain became European champion ten years ago at the expense of Italy (4-0) in Kiev, only two players are international. Jordi Alba was already thundering down the left wing and Sergio Busquets, along with Xabi Alonso and Xavi, formed the beating heart of the squad in midfield, behind David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Andrés Iniesta. It was a technical class tutti-frutti. With six midfielders and many position changes, Vicente del Bosque’s team imposed his will on every opponent. From the back, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos led the way as leaders of Barça and Real, with the solid Álvaro Arbeloa to their right and Iker Casillas in the goal.
Luis Enrique had, among other things, the difficult task of reorganizing the defense after the farewell of Pique and the decline at record international Ramos. He rejuvenated considerably. Eric García, who later moved to Barcelona, made his debut at the heart of the defense as a 19-year-old, having made just 13 appearances in the Premier League for Manchester City. Luis Enrique also pushed forward Pau Torres, who was trained and broken through at Villarreal. A refined left foot, calm on the ball and controlled in defense.
A big windfall on the way to the previous European Championship was the connection of Aymeric Laporte. The Manchester City centre-back was born in Agen, southern France, and left for Bilbao at the age of 16 to pursue his football dream at Athletic. He long hoped for a debut for the French national team, but in May 2021 he still took on the Spanish football nationality to join the selection of Luis Enrique. Luis Enrique had already made a bold choice for the position of goalkeeper at the time, passing David De Gea in favor of Athletic goalkeeper Unai Simón.
The defense is in good shape, as it turned out in the recent clash with Portugal, but one line higher the Spaniards really hope to make the difference against other favorites. That has to be done with swagger.
Luis Enrique already viewed many images of Pedri through scouting programs when the Canarian top talent was still playing at Las Palmas. He instinctively felt that he had stumbled upon something extraordinary. The number 8 adapted very quickly after his transfer and made his debut with the national team as an eighteen-year-old before the end of his first season with Barcelona. Luis Enrique awarded him his international debut on March 25 and had him start in the first European Championship match on June 14. Pedri missed only one minute during his first final tournament, he was substituted for Switzerland just before the end of extra time. The Spanish revelation was named Talent of the Tournament by UEFA.
“It’s about his game intelligence, how he moves between the lines and how he shows up behind the checkers. Pedri reminds me a lot of Iniesta’Luis Enrique about top talent Pedri
“Even Andrés Iniesta couldn’t do this at eighteen. I’ve never seen an eighteen-year-old do this. He messes with all logic,” said Luis Enrique about the high level the attacking midfielder achieved. What makes Pedri so special? Barca coach Xavi recently put it this way: “It’s about his game intelligence, how he moves between the lines and how he shows up behind the checkers. He reminds me a lot of Iniesta.’
The next Barcelona talent that astonished the national coach, appeared in the months after the European Championship. Pablo Martín Páez Gavira, or Gavi for short, became the youngest Spanish international ever at the age of seventeen years, two months and one day in November last year. A midfielder from Andalusia, who was picked up by Barcelona at the age of 11 from Real Betis. A gutsy guy who, in his first international match, kicked Marco Verratti down without batting an eyelid. And a player whose technical class is underestimated, according to Luis Enrique. “Gavi’s talent is still unknown to you,” he told the Spanish journal in June. “You see him play at Barcelona and say, ‘Look how brave he is, how much he runs, how he fights’. That’s all game without a ball, you don’t realize how good he is at the ball yet.
Luis Enrique likes to offer the youth a podium and there is a good chance that, in addition to Pedri, he will also let Gavi start alongside Sergio Busquets. The latter is still the director within the lines. The 34-year-old playmaker needs a little more rest than before at this stage of his career, but continues to master the pace and play under pressure from opponents. He is the pillar on which our defense and attack are built. He ensures silence in our game,” said Luis Enrique about the calming effect that the 139-time international has on his young teammates.
f Luis Enrique does not choose Gavi, he can fall back in midfield to Atlético Madrid captain Koke or Carlos Soler bought by Paris Saint-Germain. With Rodri (Manchester City) as an alternative to Busquets, there are no worries about the number 6 position either. There is much less luxury in the front. It lacks a real star.
Ansu Fati looked set to become such a star after his stormy breakthrough at Barcelona, but lingering knee problems and a serious hamstring injury have thrown the 19-year-old left winger back into his development. Marco Asensio was a basic player at Real Madrid for much of last season, but his perspective has not improved either due to his setback in the early months of the new season. Pablo Sarabia scored 21 goals for Sporting Portugal last season, but has returned to the bench at PSG back in Paris. Ferran Torres was brought in as a big asset by Barcelona in January, but has since fallen into the hierarchy at Camp Nou due to the transfer violence. These are all developments that do not help Luis Enrique. In the search for the best adjutants for Morata, he let Athletic striker Nico Williams make his debut in September. The youngster is fast and talented, but only scored three times in more than two thousand minutes of playing in La Liga.
For example, just before the start of the World Cup, the puzzle has not yet been completely solved. With such quality in midfield and a wide selection, Spain is one of the shadow favorites. Luis Enrique will have to be creative up front to express the technical superiority in goals.