Trust The Process
On and off the pitch, Luis Enrique has tried to mold a systematic outfit in his tenure as Spain manager. Retaining the core of the style of years past, but still able to stand out from the crowd of his predecessors. This preview explores how this development has taken place and where the identity he has imprinted on his players leaves them going into EURO 2020.
Written by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
How does one move on from an unheralded era of success? The question has haunted Spanish football at club and international levels for some time. Lackluster runs to the Round of 16 in the previous two tournaments, off the back of a dire group stage exit in the 2014 World Cup, saw an abrupt end to the trophy laden outings of the golden generation at the turn of the 2010s.
As the midpoint of the decade came and went, the old guard gradually waned while a new crop of talent was still to emerge. Vicente del Bosque’s fading star, Julen Lopetegui’s inglorious exit, and Fernando Hierro’s short-lived reign proved unable to offer a permanent answer. Enter Luis Enrique: a man whose last job was not too dissimilar to the task that lay before him.
Enrique’s body of work at Barcelona showed an evolution in style from the heights of the days under Pep. Working from the holy grail of a 4-3-3 shape, forcing death by 1000 passes made way for MSN, a lethal threat on the break and less strict buildup rules. How would he now take on this conundrum?
A typically Spanish outfit
Enrique cannot call on a trident of world class attackers, but he has again looked to build upon a distinct identity. As one would expect, the roots of this side’s style have been synonymous with the country for years. Keep the ball, move the ball. Imbibing the approach present in the youth teams, the senior squad looks to control possession with a defined system and stringent patterns of play in place.
8th minute: A common buildup pattern versus Greece in March 2021. As a pass goes out to one of the central defenders, he can drive forward. The central midfielders then pendulate. Koke moves between the lines in the halfspace near the ball while Sergio Canales drops next to Rodri away from the ball.
The play out from the back is mature, breakthroughs from wide zones are the chief intention in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. while the fullbacks, midfielders, and wingers have consistent signals to rotate places with each other. These processes have been able to give the players harmony both on and off the field.
In the absence of Enrique, his assistant Roberto Moreno looked to guide the national team towards EURO 2020. The players went on to make light work of this task, winning eight and drawing two of their ten games to progress with room to spare. However, as for all the giants of European football, such a record is never the sole marker for expectations. But as the finals drew nearer, cue a historic result.
Out of nowhere, the 6-0 rout of Germany cast the side in the limelight. Incision flowed from the back to front as they put the former world champions to the sword in a relentless showing. Such firepower was out of the norm for this team, but the means through which they exerted dominance were not.
15th minute: Spain’s usual 4-3-3 high press versus Germany back in November 2020. The first line of pressure is asymmetric as one winger stays higher than the other, a fullback pushes higher to cover the free man, and the midfield goes man for man.
The manager has a plan which his troops must execute, but how reflective would Enrique’s choices be of the football his side strives for?
It is not all that surprising that just as the manager has a definite idea of what he wants on the pitch, he mirrored this certainty in the squad selection for the tournament. In the run-up to this tournament, the Spanish manager did not hang about to make his choices. Promptly revealing the group of players he would put his faith in, Enrique picked 24 players, two less than the allotted 26 that the rules permitted.
Thus, Enrique was the only manager that has not picked for the maximum possible complement of players. As a matter of fact, he went a step further in being an exception to the norm. He has also not picked a single Real Madrid player in the squad for the first time in the nation’s tournament history.
This choice sharpens into focus given the lack of options to play on the right of the backline. Jesús Navas could count himself unlucky to miss out, while Hector Bellerín has struggled for form and Dani Carvajal fitness. Enrique has named one natural player for the role in the form of César Azpilicueta.
Yet, for those attuned to Enrique’s body of work, such choices are the norm. Perhaps no other national team manager abandons the maxim of rewarding club displays as much as he does. He has chosen many players who play bit part roles at their club or play for him in different positions, justifying his approach to dilemmas in the defense.
The system is king
A possible setup for this side could be a three at the back system. Some individuals in the squad are used to playing in such a setup, which has seen them excel. Azpilicueta has again slotted in on to the right of a back three under Thomas Tuchel. He has also featured as a wing-back, a role Adama Traoré has often starred in for Wolves.
Koke has had a stellar season at Atlético Madrid at the base of the midfield, where he has usually had three central defenders to cover. His club teammate Llorente has thrived in the new system as well. His underlapping runs have not only been at the heart of his team’s title triumph but also target spaces that Spain continually look to move the ball through in the final third.
Yet, Enrique, thus far, has disliked the idea. The 4-3-3 formation has remained the primary setup in the new year, but Azpilicueta still sits on the bench. Tapping into Llorente’s versatility, the manager has instead picked him to fill the right back role. The buildup mechanisms that are in place take the priority. Perhaps this played a decisive part in one of the most discussed omissions from the squad.
Sergio Ramos did not make the cut due to injury issues. That alone is just cause for him to lose his spot, but his tendencies on the ball may have made axing him easier. Too much risk in the buildup compared to the likes of Pau Torres, who is a very calm player on the ball, is not to Enrique’s liking.
The hallmark of the golden Spanish generation was its outstanding quality in the midfield. This area of the field remains the focal point for talent to this day. The question mark hangs over who Enrique trusts to fill the three spots in the middle of the park.
At the base of the three, Koke will not be able to mimic his club form. The two players that will vie for the spot are Sergio Busquets and Rodri. Coming off the back of a strong year at City, the latter is still the heir to the former’s throne. Both are superb options, but Busquets remains the king of the buildup phase. Atlético Madrid’s captain, meanwhile, has laid claim to the right side of the midfield.
72nd minute: A phase of ball circulation versus Portugal in June 2021. A central aspect of Spain’s possession game is the movement of the central pivot to support the deeper central midfielder. Rodri has excelled in the timing and positioning of these supporting actions.
As a result of this, a few players will likely duke it out for one spot. Given that the central midfielders have a broad range of movement in the first two thirds of the pitch, Fabián is an ideal profile to play in this side. From the left, he can then roam around to use his extensive array of abilities that include a spectacular range of passing. Thiago’s progressive value is yet another prized addition to the team.
However, the ace in the pack may turn out to be Pedri, who has worked his way into the squad this year. A master of the first touch, his creativity in tight spaces close to the penalty area could make the difference against more compact blocks.
Stability over explosiveness
Pedri’s value to the team reveals an intriguing dynamic as the group stage draws nearer. If in the first two thirds, Spain are in their element, then the last can underwhelm. Along with Pedri, Dani Olmo can offer similar value in tight zones, but the overall talent in the attacking part of the pitch is not as deep as in the midfield.
In addition, the team’s mechanisms can lack a cutting edge in the final third. If opponents can absorb the run through the channels, Spain find it hard to penetrate. The central midfielder on the side away from the ball is too deep at times, while options to work the ball back inside from out wide are erratic.
To this end, a lot will depend on how well the Spaniards execute their typical patterns. Too many technical errors or issues in the timing of runs will leave the side without options, forcing the ball back and sideways. But the opponent will also play a key role in how the games play out. Disciplined defensive outfits that depend on their rearguard, especially Sweden, are likely to be a tough test.
A hitch in the tracks
But for all of Enrique’s rigorous planning, he could not avoid the now customary disruption to Spain’s preparation for a tournament. The COVID-19 pandemic has struck again. Busquets tested positive for the virus on the 6th of June, eight days before the side are due to take the field.
Sitting out the friendly against Lithuania, the senior squad did not play in what ought to have been their last game before their first match of EURO 2020. Busquets will miss out on that matchup against Sweden on the 14th of June, which takes place four days before his ten-day isolation period ends.
While his teammates have all tested negative for the virus, set COVID-19 protocols have caused even more disruption. Enrique can only hope his men pull through hitch free from here and that plans off of the field to deal with this setback can match his work with the players on it.
Enrique cannot count on the stardust of the golden generation. Nevertheless, Spain is a very solid team whose individual quality cannot go amiss. Structure and organization exist from back to front.
Such a distinct identity has made certain flaws evident. Expect a stodgy game or two, especially in the group stage. But this team should come into its own in the knockout stage. Stability off the ball, low risk in the ball circulation, and midfield control offer the side a steady base if the attack does not fire. If Spain deliver in these big, tighter games, they are worthy contenders to go deep in this tournament.
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