In unpacking the symbolism from individual moments of international matches, Spain’s opening goal against Croatia in the second matchday of the UEFA Nations League fused tradition and modernity into a neat package. A prolonged passing sequence drew Croatia’s defense out of shape - representing the fundamentals of Spain. Then, Sergio Ramos hit a diagonal cross field ball to Dani Carvajal to open up space, leading to an outside of the right foot cross for a late running Saul header that highlighted the side’s ability to thrive within the verticality and directness of today’s era. The sequence, which lead to various play by play deconstructions, showcased how Luis Enrique would revive the national team after a disappointing World Cup performance by emphasizing both their identity and the future of the game.
There were also signs of a high press, although Croatia’s lackluster passing lead more to Marco Asensio’s retrieving the ball in their opponent’s third and unleashing a screamer for Spain’s second goal than any coordinated approach. In speaking of directness in transition, he followed up that goal a couple minutes by creating space off a stepover and blasting another long range strike with minimal windup. The 22 year old Real Madrid midfielder, who at this time last year was known as the player Barcelona refused to pay $5 million for, had a signature match with two goals and three assists. In continuing our theme of symbols, he has the requisite creativity and skill required of Spanish midfielders, but at 6 foot tall, offers a physicality to thrive in space.
Despite Asensio’s performance, Saul was the breakthrough player of Spain’s international break. We’ve previously discussed the importance of the 23-year-old midfielder in Atletico Madrid’s team structure, yet his attacking ability showed how he could produce something more than a usual box to box performance and add another dimension for both club and country. It’s a sense of timing and a nose for space, how progressive managers emphasize midfielders arriving in the box as opposed to being in the box. Not only did he do so versus Croatia, he showed that trait days early against England by following this Rodrigo run into the box to level the match. Guillem Balague stated that Spain have never seen a midfielder who has everything like Saul, comfortable both in a pressing, Diego Simeone-influenced style and a one touch, quick passing Barcelona philosophy.
Saul, who didn’t play in the World Cup, sees himself as a player who “arrives to the area looking to score” before extolling the virtues of Spain’s midfield regardless of style or era. Dani Ceballos was given a surprise debut in the lineup against Croatia, playing next to Saul and Sergio Busquets. The 22 year old’s move to Real Madrid from Betis last season looked like a mistake and another example of a young player getting too much, too soon. But his ability in linking the defense and attack with clever movement and accurate passing kept Spain ticking (as in this sequence where he turned a Ramos pass into attack with one touch). And like Asensio, he is another midfielder with the requisite silky ability of Spanish midfielders but built for an era of transition. Enrique could only say that “there aren’t many like that.”
In going back to the original opening goal against Croatia, the pass from Ramos to Carvajal was honed through hours on the Real Madrid training ground. And if the foundation of Spain’s golden age from 2008 to 2012 came from Barcelona, Real Madrid are responsible for the look of this new Spain side with Ramos, Ceballos, Carvajal, Asensio, and Isco. It’s the same backbone to a side that’s won three straight Champions Leagues in a row, thriving in transition and counter attacks.
There is irony in the Barcelona legend Enrique overseeing the Real Madrid-ized Spain as Balague noted that this is the first time in a decade that the national side have no Barcelona influence. Enrique emphasized that he only sees the Spanish jersey, unbothered by the balance tipped towards his club rivals. Outside of that group, Enrique also introduced Marcos Alonso at left back and Rodrigo at striker. He admitted underappreciating Iago Aspas, highlighting the importance of the forward role for the national side post-Diego Costa.
And just like that, Spain are loaded again.
There was no David Silva, no Jordi Alba, no Gerard Pique, no Costa, and no Andres Iniesta this time around. Gone was the pointless, side to side possession. For Enrique, the difference in how his style has been received in 2018 highlights how context and era shape the perception of a manager’s career.
Enrique took over Barcelona from Tata Martino in 2014, with the club at a similar phase like this current Spanish side of teetering between their possession based style and a direct play the Argentine manager attempted to introduce the year before. And even as Enrique won a treble in his first season, the overemphasis on the individual play of their attacking front three of Luis Suarez, Neymar and Messi (who combined for 122 goals) was seen as a rebuke of their footballing identity. Constantly under scrutiny that his sides were “not Barca”, he left the club exhausted and burned out three years and nine trophies later.
Yet now, that same philosophy of balancing possession and transition is seen as the essential ingredient in modernizing the national side as they prepare for the 2020 Euros. We can look at how the opposition perceives his side as well. In regards to the England match, Dominic Fifield noted the class of Busquets, Thiago and Saul in their use of the ball, describing them as “utterly irrepressible.” The game has shifted, but the foundation still remains: intelligence on the ball remains as the deciding factor in controlling matches and scoring goals regardless of possession or transition.
This optimism was a stark contrast to the mood around the future of the side just two months earlier after getting knocked out of the World Cup in penalties in the round of 16. Though one could argue they never had a chance after firing Julen Lopetegui days before their opening match against Portugal, and the dominant display against Croatia makes the infighting that lead to his dismissal even more frustrating. Fernando Hierro did his best in an emergency role, yet Spain reverted to this usual possession style, passing the ball over 1100 times against Russia’s 300 passes in the knockout stage loss. And like a lever, the performance sparked a debate of whether Spain should emphasize transitions like France or Croatia or stick to their usual style.
But as the now dropped Pique once said, Barcelona were badly struggling when Enrique took over in 2014 and he immediately won the treble. And while possession or counter attacking will be the eternally debated as far as this sport exists, the versatility of Saul, Ceballos and Asensio splits that answer right down the middle. Possession or transition? Why not both? It is a modern style that gets goals and results, as last weekend can attest. But it is still built through skilled midfielders, as per tradition. Spain and Enrique can have it both ways.