Luis Enrique’s recast Spain laid down an early claim to be considered Euro 2020 favourites during an electric international break.
From the chaos of head coach Julen Lopetegui’s last-minute defection to Real Madrid and the subsequent elimination at World Cup 2018’s round of 16 under stand-in Fernando Hierro, a new team is emerging.
A double of impressive Nations League wins began with goals from Saul Niguez and Rodrigo in a come-from-behind 2-1 win at resurgent England.
Ominously for the rest of the continent, a 6-0 dismantling of global finalists Croatia – that featured five different scorers and an own goal – was to follow.
Here, Sport360° reviews a consequential fortnight for La Roja’s latest generation.
ENRIQUE MAKES HIS MARK
Spain’s latest supremo has been here before.
Enrique came to a Barcelona in 2014 still left in former team-mate Pep Guardiola’s thrall. An injection of aggression, pressing and directness added necessary edge to a glorious game plan built on technical superiority – nine major trophies followed in three seasons.
“There won’t be a revolution, rather an evolution. You can evolve a style of play without altering it, as I showed at Barcelona,” Enrique told a news conference upon his unveiling in July.
The 48-year-old was true to his word in the past fortnight.
Average possession in the World Cup per match was 69.2 per cent. This figure dropped slightly to 61.2 per cent in the Nations League.
Interceptions (8.5) and fouls per game (10) went up against England and Croatia, compared to the event in Russia (7.5/8.5).
Average passes per game dropped from 782.8 to 730.5, while the average number of long balls per game rose from 50.3 in Russia to 60.5.
A decrease in shots per game (6.3-5.5) can be attested to the superior strength of opponent in the Nations League.
Lopetegui’s preferred 4-3-3 formation remained. Enrique’s only tweak to the shape was a switch into 4-4-2 when defending.
The major contrast to the World Cup was the use of a ‘false nine’ in either Iago Aspas or Rodrigo. Whether this choice was forced by the late withdrawal of Diego Costa or ineffectiveness of Alvaro Morata will be seen in the matches to come.
Spain were sterile in Russia, infamously notching more than 1,100 harmless passes on the way to elimination by the hosts.
Do not expect this failure to be revisited by Enrique. Both England and Croatia experienced early joy. In a change to the summer’s proceedings, it didn’t last.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Transition is not a process that Enrique fears.
He was denied the services of David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique because of international retirement. Only three World Cup 2010 winners were left (Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and the recalled Raul Albiol).
Huge calls then followed to leave out Koke and Jordi Alba.
Morata returned. Midfielders Dani Ceballos and Rodri and left-back Jose Luis Gaya were among those overlooked for the World Cup, but featured this time.
Anchorman Busquets was the only Barca star to start in either game.
Saul Niguez remained glued to the bench in the summer event. He notched Spain’s first goal against both England and Croatia.
Plus, as a player borne out of Enrique’s committed image, the Atletico Madrid midfielder is sure to symbolise this era.
Alongside him against England, Thiago Alcantara was a picture of refinement. An escape from Xavi and Iniesta’s shadows appears at hand.
Striker Rodrigo played just 23 minutes in Russia. He got two goals and an assist this fortnight, either stationed up top or on the right.
Forward Marco Asensio made one start at the World Cup. His sel-ection from the beginning against Croatia harvested three assists, one goal from 20 yards and another effort that rocked the crossbar. He’s a modern great in the making.
ALBA’S GONE FOR GOOD?
The headline omission by Enrique was Barca left-back Alba.
Rumours in Spain hint revenge being at play. The 29-year-old challenged team selection at Camp Nou – these things aren’t forgiven or forgotten.
Alba was one of few Spain players to emerge with any credit from the World Cup. On the evidence of this first international break, his debutant replacements aren’t without fault. Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso revelled in the space afforded to him at Wembley. His two crosses was the same number averaged by Alba in the summer. In the defence, howe-ver, issues emerged. He was nowhere to be seen for Marcus Rashford’s opener.
Gaya teed up Rodrigo for a goal ruled offside and saw Isco waste a glorious 30-yard pass. But he was not as ubiquitous as the effervescent Alba. On football alone, this appears a decision worth revisiting by Enrique.
Everton forward Richarlison was full of gratitude after he scored his first goals for Brazil in their 5-0 friendly thrashing of El Salvador.
Richarlison, 21, won a penalty in the second minute, which was scored by Neymar for his 59th Brazil goal. A double of fine finishes then followed, with the other goals scored by Philippe Coutinho and Marquinhos.
The £50 million summer signing from Watford was quizzed about his exploits after the game.
Watch his reply below:
The UEFA Nations League is officially up and running following the first set of matches during the September international break.
With a competitive edge much more apparent than in international friendlies, there were a host of standout performances across the week, from Marco Asensio and Saul of Spain, to Danel Sinani, who was excellent for Luxembourg in their two wins.
Here we take a look at our UEFA Nations League Team of the Week…
GK: Alphonse Areola (France)
In the absence of Hugo Lloris, Areola was given the opportunity to impress. The PSG stopper certainly did that in the world champions’ 0-0 draw with Germany, making six saves to ensure France of a clean sheet.
CB: Fabian Schar (Switzerland)
A fine all-round performance from Switzerland as they hammered Iceland 6-0, but Newcastle defender Schar was one of those who stood out. Playing his part in a clean sheet, he also assisted both Denis Zakaria and Haris Seferovic.
CB: Stefan Savic (Montenegro)
Savic made 11 clearances, four interceptions and two tackles to help Montenegro record clean sheets against Romania and Lithuania. The Atletico man also netted from the penalty spot in the 2-0 win against the latter.
CB: Nikolay Bodurov (Bulgaria)
Two fine defensive performances from Bodurov, who made an incredible 20 clearances in Bulgaria’s 2-1 win against Slovenia. He backed it up with 12 clearances and six interceptions in a 1-0 success against Norway.
RM: Marco Asensio (Spain)
A simply stunning performance from the Real Madrid man in Spain’s 6-0 thrashing of Croatia. Asensio was involved in five of his side’s six goals, including a fantastic strike from distance to make it 2-0, and three assists.
CM: Saul (Spain)
The Atletico man looks to have an important role to play in Luis Enrique’s new-look Spain side. Saul’s runs into the box from deep helped him find the net in the victories against England and Croatia.
CM: Christian Eriksen (Denmark)
The playmaker was the main threat for Denmark in their win against Wales. Eriksen, who made five key passes, took his opening goal excellently, before adding a second from the penalty spot.
CM: Danel Sinani (Luxembourg)
The 21-year-old was the standout player across the D leagues. Sinani scored once and grabbed two assists in Luxembourg’s 4-0 win against Moldova, before netting a superb goal in a 3-0 success away to San Marino.
LM: Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard is in imperious form of late and was superb in Belgium’s 3-0 win against Iceland. The Chelsea flyer was a constant threat, with four key passes and four dribbles, as well as scoring the opener from the spot.
ST: Rodrigo (Spain)
Another player who looks to have the backing of new Spain boss Enrique. Offering a more dynamic option in comparison to Diego Costa in attack, Rodrigo took his goals against England and Croatia with real confidence.
ST: Aleksandar Mitrovic (Serbia)
Mitrovic really is a man in form. Denied twice by the woodwork in Serbia’s 1-0 win against Lithuania, his luck returned as he scored both in the 2-2 draw with Romania, netting a superb volley for his second of the game.