A new Spain team may finally be emerging from the shadow of their all-conquering predecessors of a decade ago, with rookie La Roja national coach Robert Moreno having shown a careful but decisive hand during the opening weeks of his first senior management job of any sort.
Six points from this week’s Euro 2020 qualifiers against Romania and the Faroe Islands means that Spain have maintained their 100 per cent record and are already seven points clear of nearest challengers Sweden in Group F.
Last Thursday’s game away to Romania was the first Spain international since Moreno, 41, was officially named as Spain’s fourth national coach in less than 12 months, after his former boss Luis Enrique had to step away for deeply sad family reasons.
Spain’s performance in Bucharest was not perfect, but suggested the long-time number two has settled quickly following his surprise ascension to the job, and is blending together a noticeably different team which should be among the favourites for next summer’s finals.
Romania had lost just one of their previous 14 games, but Moreno’s side were full value for their 2-0 lead early in the second half, through Sergio Ramos’ coolly converted penalty and Paco Alcacer’s close range effort.
Although Brighton forward Florin Andone took advantage of continuing defensive issues to head home from close range and make for a nervous closing stages, over the 90 minutes Spain were much the better team. And a big improvement from when a mixed performance was flattered by a 3-0 scoreline at home to Sweden last June.
Although there remain plenty of things to work on, a new cohesive side is coming together after what has now been six years of transitioning forward from the team of 2008 to 2012.
Only untouchable captain Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and, most surprisingly, Jesus Navas remain from that ‘golden generation’. Spain’s most effective player on Thursday night was Arsenal’s Dani Ceballos – who marked his seventh senior cap by both drawing the foul for the penalty, and playing a superb pass to open up Romania’s defence for the second.
Alongside Ceballos in midfield against Romania was his fellow European Under-21 championships winner this summer Fabian Ruiz of Napoli. The functional 4-0 win over the Faroes on Sunday in Gijon also saw playing time for their contemporaries Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad), Rodrigo Hernandez (Man City) and Unai Nunez (Athletic Bilbao). Another member of what in Spain is called the ‘1996 generation’ is Real Madrid’s currently injured winger Marco Asensio.
This group have now overtaken the players previously expected to be the core of Spain’s next great team. Although David De Gea, Dani Caravajal and Thiago Alcantara started against the Faroes, they are no longer members of Moreno’s strongest XI. Neither Koke nor Alvaro Morata have even made recent squads, while Isco is another whose career looks to be heading the wrong way long before he reaches 30.
Able to walk unrecognised down most Spanish streets until very recently, Moreno has settled confidently into a job he admits he never expected to be given. Barcelona born, he got his first coaching badges aged just 18, then worked his way through Catalan youth and amateur football into the La Masia academy, where he first met Luis Enrique in 2010. The pair then worked together for nearly a decade through Barcelona B, Roma, Celta Vigo, Barca’s first team and Spain.
Along the way Moreno also wrote a book explaining his tactical ideas called ‘My 4-4-2 recipe’, and gained a reputation as a methodical thinker and planner. Given his lack of playing or managerial CV he knows he must win arguments by persuasion and reason.
“Authority has to be earned, not imposed,” he told El Pais recently. “If one day I tell a player to do something just because I want him to, I will have failed. I don’t accept imposed authority myself. If a player asks me one day who I have played against, I won’t be able to answer him back. But that is the easy answer, that’s what you say when you don’t have any other response.”
Moreno’s biggest call so far has been to drop Manchester United’s De Gea, whose confidence appeared shot after a string of high-profile mistakes. Kepa has looked very solid so far – and his superb reflex save to deny Reading’s George Puscas a late equaliser on Thursday was further confirmation that the Basque is now Spain’s number one.
The most pressing issue now is to find a replacement for Gerard Pique, who spent last week in New York promoting his new version of tennis’ Davis Cup tournament, having retired from international football following last summer’s World Cup. Real Sociedad’s Diego Llorente struggled against Romania and was shown a straight red card for a professional foul on Andone. Atletico’s summer signing Mario Hermoso played against the Faroes, but has had an unsteady start at this new club.
Youngsters Ceballos and Fabian have brought energy and trickery to midfield, although veteran Busquets is for now still ahead of Rodrigo in the holding role. Up front Alcacer scored twice late off the bench against the Faroes, taking him to 12 goals in his first 17 caps, and his clever movement makes him a better fit for Spain than Morata or Diego Costa.
Given his Camp Nou past, Moreno is understandably keen not to be seen to favour Barcelona’s players or style. He has mentioned all of Johann Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp as influences, and Spain’s display in Bucharest was quite reminiscent of the Luis Enrique adaptation of Guardiola’s Barca which won the treble in 2015. This Spain want to dominate possession, of course they do, but they also press high and aim to be more direct.
Both full-backs Alba and Navas were inside the Romania penalty area during the multi-pass move leading to Alcacer’s clincher in that game, while Busquets was breaking forward and having shots on goal at 2-0 up. This would never have happened during the days that Vicente Del Bosque’s side were almost invincible but also super cautious.
Under Del Bosque, Spain always had a big Barcelona core, then Julen Lopetegui’s side for World Cup 2018 was heavy on Real Madrid players. But Moreno is taking a very different approach. The team-sheet against Romania had names drawn from 10 different clubs – which had never before happened in a competitive Spain team. The most recent squad has representation from seven Spanish clubs, three in England and Italy, two in Germany and one in France. It goes against a trend in international football, perhaps, but the wide spread of clubs and leagues seems to bring a better balance both on and off the pitch.
Within Spanish football there is always the possibility of infighting messing things up, and Moreno has felt the need to publicly support Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales in his personal battle against La Liga counterpart Javier Tebas. That may be understandable as Rubiales is his boss, but hopefully petty political squabbles can be avoided ahead of next summer’s tournament, where Spain will play some games in the Bilbao home city of now disgraced former federation chief Angel Maria Villar.
Leaving those concerns aside for now, Spain can wrap up qualification during games away in Norway and Sweden next month. Moreno is a very unlikely La Roja national coach, but he seems keen to make an immediate impression.
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