An Ideological Impasse
Last four of EURO 2020, finalists at the 2021 Nations League, another Nations League semifinal beckons in the summer of next year. Luis Enrique has revitalized Spain as a beacon of stability. Yet, in the making of that consistency are flaws that have capped their ceiling too. This preview sharpens the lens on one big question: will the manager’s hand now help or hinder his country?
This tactical preview was written by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
The discourse around Enrique finds itself in an awkward location. He has rightfully taken acclaim for running a tight ship to steer La Roja back on the right track. The glory days at the opening of the last decade might be a peak too high to replicate, but the manager has stopped the rot that preceded his tenure. Faithful to tradition, his particular processes have composed a collective with a high level of clarity in its style of play. Results have followed suit. It is a body of work of which he is very proud.
Solo por poner las cosas en contexto... pic.twitter.com/AZRn4C0cEq— LUISENRIQUE (@LUISENRIQUE21) September 28, 2022
Yet, the same camp is heading into the World Cup with more questions than at this stage nearly a year and a half ago. The clarity of style has married itself with many seeds of ambiguity. The platform of a final four finish at the EUROs presented a route through which this outfit could aspire to ascend to a higher level. That has not transpired. Their displays have stressed familiar fragilities— problems that the Russian roulette of Enrique’s experiments have not solved. So, where is the root of this tension?
Squad selection is not an impartial act. Managers must account for form, favoritism, and systemic suitability, finding a balance between the three. However, Enrique is more a partisan figure than most and has pulled no punches about straying from the status quo— to the bemusement of the masses. No one would rep Real Madrid within the national team last summer for the first time in their competitive history. A full complement of 26 men will jet to Qatar, but his final call has ruffled more feathers. If the spine of a side signifies their likelihood of success, Spain’s has been the cause for consternation.
Central defenders: a gap between theory and practice
Injuries cannot excuse the exclusion of Sergio Ramos, whose return to fitness has rendered him a mainstay in the starting eleven for PSG. But even more striking than his absence is the inclusion of Hugo Guillamón in the squad. On the fringes as a former U21 defender, he is the marker of what Enrique demands at the back: functional ball playing skills to fit the patterns of his system. No place is free for the veteran whose individual, aggressive mannerisms fall out of line. Nor is there room for David de Gea between the posts, where alternatives are more comfortable with the ball at their feet.
24th minute: offensive sequence from a 5-0 win over Iceland in March 2022. Aymeric Laporte drives forward with a diagonal orientation, firstly looking for Soler and then the passing lane to Dani Olmo. Þórir Helgason blocks the skip pass wide, ushering the ball to Jordi Alba, who can find the underlap.
Indeed, this vision maps out an ‘ideal’ approach against the medium and low blocks A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. they tend to face. The central defender should step forward with the ball at his feet, an aggressive interior on the near side is his first progressive target, and his wider teammates serve to stretch the field of play. Other variants reinforce the logic of their guiding rules on the ball: forge long, stable spells of possession to wear down the enemy, fill the block with as few players as needed, and always load the halfspaces. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace.
Since EURO 2020, La Roja have taken to the field fifteen times. Not once during those fixtures has another nation totted up more passes than them. In this streak, their average possession haul was over 70%. The opponents notwithstanding, it is fair to say that Enrique’s men are still excellent at holding onto the ball. But that minority stake is more than enough to target the fragilities of their rearguard. The Swiss beat the Spanish in their backyard with two set-piece goals, months after the Czechs sealed a 2-2 draw that revealed possible openings in their offside trap and man-oriented press on a bad day.
54th minute: An unsuccessful offside trap from the 2-2 draw against Czech Republic in June 2022. Spain’s asymmetric pressing in a 4-3-3 block ushered the ball to Jaroslav Zelený as a free man on the left flank. Dani Carvajal cannot press since Jakub Pešek pins him, forcing Gavi to shuttle outward. The wing-back has time and space on the ball to whip the ball over the crooked high line and target the run of Jan Kuchta. Such errors in the offside trap can hand opponents high quality opportunities.
Central midfielders: consolidating contrarianism
Enrique will swear by these sacrifices in the name of ball control. But he has not always leaned on his first plan of action to establish a dominant state of affairs, pointing out a curious tension. Eric García, not the cleanest ball handler, is a permanent fixture in the squad. His status is even more inexplicable without the ball as a central part of the soft core. Such preferential treatment, outside just the realm of systemic fit, prevails the most in the middle of the park, where the manager is brimming with choices.
How good is this XI of Spanish players who weren't selected for the World Cup??— Michael (Formerly @CholoColcho) (@LaLigaMichael) November 11, 2022
De Gea; Grimaldo, Iñigo, Ramos, Porro; Zubimendi, Merino, Parejo, Canales, Oyarzabal, Aspas
Squad: Kepa, Aitor, Yeray, Vivian, Galan, Cucurella, Navas, Thiago, Muniain, Brais, Iglesias, RdT, Gerard pic.twitter.com/aB9xVn5PbA
If one follows the logic of progressive center-backs, the profiles of many of the midfielders align. Of the five men likely to fill one of the two central midfield roles, Koke is the only one that has excelled as a ball distributor. Marcos Llorente is a relentless runner, Pedri’s guile in tight spaces near the box was an ace up the sleeve at the EUROs, and Gavi’s precociousness does not lie in his passing skills.
Yet, it is common to see the Spaniards turn to the second variant of their main structure on the ball— or deploy it only on one side of the field. A central midfielder drops deep, the fullback advances, and the winger rotates inside to fill the halfspace. Carlos Soler, Pedri, and Gavi have fulfilled this role, but better fits were at Enrique’s disposal. Neither Thiago Alcantâra nor Fábian Ruiz, on the plane for EURO 2020 as suitable occupants of such a role, found favor with Enrique at the final reckoning.
60th minute: offensive sequence from a 2-1 defeat against France in October 2021. Marcos Alonso receives the ball on the left flank, where his teammates rotate. Pablo Sarabia shifts inside to the halfspace, where he pins Jules Koundé, and Rodri stays deeper in a withdrawn role. The positioning of the midfielder draws out Paul Pogba, allowing Busquets to motion diagonally to the left back and offer a passing option. Benjamin Pavard must then drop to cover, letting Spain continue to rotate.
The Basque Country can feel aggrieved to be shunned in this department. None more so than Mikel Merino, whose influence at Real Sociedad has been more pervasive with time. Enrique has not even handed him a call-up since the end of 2021 against Sweden, setting out his stall. An established tight-knit group of players remains the basis of his project— to the misfortune of several gifted individuals.
Central forward: alternative answers to a perennial problem?
In contrast to the excesses in the midfield, the forward line is short of the same depth in talent. The quality in these areas has frequently lacked the ideas to break a defense in the long run. Opponents can gamble on a bad day in the final third for the Spaniards, aware of where the main threat lies. The first port of call from progress on the flanks is still an underlap Underlap means that the full-back joins the offensive play by playing on the inside of the winger he supports. This is the reverse of an overlap, where the full-back plays on the outside and the winger moves inside. to attack the channel inside the width holder. Beyond this, Enrique has not expertly drilled movements to stress markers near their own box.
Consequently, the extreme width and depth of the wingers is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, fullbacks cannot afford to lose sight of their pinning function that opens the field of play. On the other hand, Sarabia and Ferran Torres are not outstanding solo dribblers that flourish in one-versus-one scenarios, rushing to finish attacks too hastily— especially on their natural side. The trump card might be Nico Williams, whose dynamism off the bench was impressive in the Nations League during September.
23rd minute: offensive sequence from Spain from their 2-1 defeat to Switzerland in September 2022. Torres fed the forward and outward run from Gavi into the channel to offer progression. The winger immediately sprinted deep after releasing the ball to draw the attention of Ricardo Rodríguez and Asensio drops diagonally into the halfspace to break free from markers. However, Asensio’s mishit switch of play and Sarabia’s refusal to use the overlapping Alba wasted a presentable opportunity.
But one should not expect him to be the Pedri of this Spanish campaign. Enrique already has his eyes on a different ruse. Raúl de Tomás did not receive a spot in the squad, and a hamstring injury has ruled out Gerard Moreno. So, Álvaro Morata is the only classic striker in the group. His goalscoring interventions have been critical, but the manager has trialed others as the point man in the attack.
Olmo and Sarabia have tormented the Italians in the past as a roaming nine. The former operated at the tip of a midfield diamond, while the latter roamed inward from a more fixed position in the right halfspace. Since those fixtures, Asensio has also led the line in September, while Torres can fill the role of a more classic nine with his stretch runs and clever movement. Very little now is set in stone.
It's an egregious Lucho misquote. He said very clearly in the presser that he thinks Asensio's natural role is RW but that he also sees Asensio as an "unpredictable" player in the false nine role. pic.twitter.com/22TpzHsHwq— José C. Pérez (@jcperez_) November 11, 2022
Enrique might have a blueprint that outlines what and when his players must perform on the field, but who fills these roles can modify their execution on a given day. Throughout his time in the dugout, the manager has not been shy to test and trial new faces across the pitch to greater and lesser success. But this policy has been an enigma, offering little transparency over what starting eleven he will pick. Neither are any friendlies on hand to provide more insight into his mind on the eve of the tournament.
Changes are legible. More reserved fullback profiles, differing duties of the central midfielders, and the option of unorthodox linking nines mark a shift in selection from a year and a half ago. But even more now than then, one must wonder how these various components will come together on the day. No doubt, the automatisms of the system can support players short on form and fitness. But persistent systemic frailties and the omission of several significant stars might reinforce their capped ceiling as much as it assures their solid floor. Only time will tell if this path was the correct one for Enrique.
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