After qualifying for this summer’s World Cup with relative ease, Julen Lopetegui’s Spain will be desperate for the opportunity to climb back up to the heights of the all-conquering side of the turn of the decade, having suffered disappointment in each of the last two major tournaments.
Lopetegui was the continuity candidate following the retirement of the legendary manager Vicente del Bosque after Euro 2016, having previously managed Spain’s under-19, under-20 and under-21 sides. His appointment was somewhat underwhelming – indeed he was all set to take the Wolves job before Spain came calling – but there is no doubt that Spain have improved under his tutelage.
In a tough World Cup qualifying group which included Italy, the team that knocked them out of Euro 2016, they managed to finish in first place without losing a game. Now, with no competitive football between qualification and the tournament proper, Lopetegui and the RFEF decided to use the current international window to test themselves against the world’s best. They arranged friendlies with reigning world champions Germany (an entertaining 1-1 draw in Düsseldorf on Friday night), and 2014 runners-up Argentina (at the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday).
Lopetegui named a fairly experimental squad for the two fixtures, bringing in the likes of Dani Parejo, Marcos Alonso and Rodri, and leaving out Álvaro Morata, Pedro and Cesc Fàbregas, but the XI he started with on Friday night was pretty much first choice (with the exception of the injured Sergio Busquets).
They began with their preferred goalkeeper and back four, and you’d be hard pushed to find a better defensive line-up in world football than David de Gea, Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba. De Gea was particularly good on the night, saving superbly from Julian Draxler and Ilkay Gündoğan.
But it was their attacking midfielders who really shone. David Silva was as busy as always, linking the play beautifully, but the indefatigable Andrés Iniesta ran the show in the first half. At 33 years old, he is still just as good as ever. His through ball for Rodrigo’s opener after six minutes, which the Valencia striker finished superbly, was absolutely sublime. This was just one of many wonderful touches and passes from Iniesta, who has the gift of knowing the exact location of his teammates telepathically.
He was withdrawn at half-time, with Lopetegui unwilling to overuse him given his age, but it is clear that he will still be a key player for Spain this summer, 12 years after making his international debut.
Another stand-out performer was Isco, who has become something of a misfit at Real Madrid of late. It seems as though Lopetegui, who managed Isco in the under-21 side, considers the Andalusian playmaker one of his key men. He was instrumental in the 3-0 victory over Italy in qualifying, and turned in another fantastic performance before being replaced by Marco Asensio on the hour mark. He seemed to enjoy the freedom and to revel in the faith shown in him by Lopetegui. On his day, he can be unplayable, and he will surely be a key factor in any success Spain may have in Russia.
It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from the second half, what with the constant disruption caused by the multiple changes in personnel on both sides, but based on the first-half performance there is a huge amount for Spain to be positive about heading into the World Cup.
The style of play was similar to that adopted by Lopetegui throughout the qualifying campaign – a fluid 4-3-3 who press effectively without the ball and counter attack with speed and precision. Unlike other international sides, they seem to play with a distinct plan and identity, and everyone seems to know their role. It’s as though they are a team that plays together week in, week out rather than a motley crew of players from multiple clubs who only come together every few months. This cohesion can only be down to the influence of the manager, and will no doubt serve them well in Russia.
But as England fans can testify, it’s all well and good being impressive in qualifying, but if you fail to perform at the tournament then it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. The way it stands at the moment, Spain can rightly count themselves among the favourites to lift the trophy in Moscow come July. Lopetegui’s job now is to ensure they bring their good form into the summer to make ensure all the hard work hasn’t been in vain.