The omission of the Barcelona left-back from Luis Enrique’s first two squads was by far the biggest story of the new era for La Roja, and it was hard to give any credence to the manager’s claims that his decision to overlook Alba was not a personal matter resulting from their fall-out during their time together at the Camp Nou.
With Alba fit and starting the season in excellent form, it was very difficult to explain how he was being left out on sporting grounds.
It is possible to argue that Marcos Alonso is a better option thanks to his greater physical presence: Alba’s small stature leaves him vulnerable in the air, something which many opponents attempt to target by sending in deep crosses to a centre forward who has pulled to the far post.
So you could say that Alonso’s greater height – he is seven inches taller than Alba – led to Enrique selecting him ahead of the Barcelona man, especially if Enrique intended to ask his defence to sit deep and hold the edge of their own penalty area.
But that’s pretty much the only argument you can make for ditching Alba, and it certainly doesn’t explain why he was left out of the squad – never mind the starting XI – at the expense of Valencia’s Jose Gaya, who is almost exactly the same height.
It also doesn’t make sense in the context of the style of play being employed by Enrique. Far from sitting back and defending their penalty area in the style of, say, Atletico Madrid, the new Spain boss has been instructing his players to push high up the pitch and condense the play into the opposition’s half.
England fans will remember with glee how this strategy was gloriously exploited by the Three Lions during their remarkable first-half performance in Sevilla last month, when it was abundantly obvious that the pace of Alba – rather than the far more pedestrian Alonso – would have been extremely useful in covering the lightning counter-attacks launched by Gareth Southgate’s men.
In any case, Alba has now finally been recalled, and the only conclusion we can make is that his exclusion was, indeed, personal. Enrique is obviously fully aware of the left-back’s attributes and weaknesses, so it can hardly be the case that he has suddenly decided that Alba is now worthy of a place in the squad whereas previously he wasn’t.
So we can only assume that Enrique was flexing his muscles during the early stages of his reign, perhaps using Alba as an example to the rest of his players to show that he was the man in charge, and that he was prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions if his authority was questioned.
Now those muscles have been suitably flexed, and we can surely expect to see Alba back in the starting line-up for Thursday’s trip to Croatia, which Spain need to win to ensure finishing top of the group.
There could also be another new face in the centre of defence following Enrique’s decision to call up Mario Hermoso, whose outstanding start to the season has played a major role in Espanyol’s unexpected rise to second place in La Liga.
Rather than starting a power-play fire with Alba, the biggest priority in defence for the new coach is finding a long-term replacement for another Barcelona player, Gerard Pique.
Delighted to see Brais Méndez and Mario Hermoso make the latest Spain squad. Two players that are young but don't come with the hype of Asensio and others. Been working extremely hard, progressing under the radar.— David Cartlidge (@davidjaca) November 8, 2018
There are surprisingly few options. Nacho, Inigo Martinez, Raul Albiol and Marc Bartra – the players called up by Enrique so far – are all unconvincing for different reasons, and it would be a very handy solution if Hermoso’s current form is a sign of things to come over the next few years.
One specific attribute of the 23 year-old – who came through Real Madrid’s youth ranks and is now being strongly tipped to return to the Bernabeu in January – is that he is left-footed, providing welcome balance next to right-footed skipper Sergio Ramos.
It also means that he would be positioned next to Alba in the back four, giving a new complexion to that part of Enrique’s line-up. And if all goes well in Croatia, they could both be there to stay.
Gareth Southgate insists Wayne Rooney‘s England swansong will not have a negative impact on the next generation – either on or off the pitch.
England’s all-time leading goalscorer will be honoured in next Thursday’s friendly meeting with the United States, with the match now officially known as the Wayne Rooney Foundation International.
Rooney, 33, will receive his 120th cap despite having not featured for the Three Lions in almost two years – although Southgate confirmed the former captain will not start the match nor wear the number 10 jersey.
He will also not be considered for selection for the Nations League meeting with Croatia three days later.
The decision to mark Rooney’s contribution to the national team in such a way has split opinion, with some questioning whether indulging in such a move will come at the detriment of other, up-and-coming players such as Callum Wilson – the Bournemouth striker receiving his first senior call-up for the United States and Croatia games.
But Southgate – who revealed he has not spoken to Rooney since the announcement – feels having the former Manchester United man on the training ground next week and in the squad for the United States friendly can only help the current crop and show them how England treat their greatest talents.
“It’s a shame because you want it to be a fitting tribute to an outstanding player who I think has often been undervalued in terms of how well he played for England,” Southgate said of the criticism of the Football Association’s gesture.
“That’s a disappointment. Hopefully by the time we get to the game, and him being with us next week, the focus will be on ‘actually, let’s think about what he did and how well he played, and there’s an opportunity here to thank him for that’. Any opportunity for us to honour a player we will hugely respect.
“I think the team totally respect what he did and I think it is important they respect what the players did in the past.
“We talk to them a lot about that they have the shirt now but it is not their shirt, great players have worn it before them and great players will wear it after them.
“That lineage and heritage of the shirt and the team is important to me because I think whether you join a club or (play for) your country you need to know the history of that shirt and the importance of it – then you are not playing for the name on the back but for the crest on the front.”
Southgate knocked down suggestions Rooney would play for the final moments in a match now named in honour of his charity – and intends to include the DC United forward in training sessions leading up to the game.
“I don’t want to give an exact minute because if I don’t get it right…there will be a bookmaker running a book on it,” he said.
“I think it should be appropriate that people are not heading for the tubes before he comes on and also we have got out of the game what we wanted and not taking someone off too early.
“We will look at all the players we want to look at. The football decisions are my decisions. There’s players who have either been with us who I feel need to play to make sure they feel valued.
“There are young players we want to see from the start – that has to be the start point. And then we are able to acknowledge Wayne’s contribution after that.
“We’ve got to get the part of the game we need. But we are able to facilitate both. With England there are many objectives we are trying to achieve.”
Asked if it would be a strange sight to see a man who retired from international football training with the current players at St George’s Park, Southgate replied: “But he is not a duck egg, is he?
“He is playing at a pretty decent level in the American league. I have joined in on training sessions so they will be thinking ‘we are one up from where we were last month, when the gaffer joined’.
“The fact is, given where a lot of our players are physically, and the games we have on Sunday, we are not going to have everyone training.”
Gareth Southgate has defended the inclusion of Wayne Rooney in the England squad for the coming fixtures with USA and Croatia, revealing he could even feature as captain in a tribute that has been discussed for over a year.
Rooney retired from international duty in August 2017 after 119 caps and a record 53 goals, and his England career is set to be honoured by a final, further cap against the USA at Wembley next Thursday with a substitute appearance.
The England manager remains adamant that the occasion will not devalue the shirt and also described as “strange” the divisive debate that has surrounded Rooney’s involvement, which the forward felt would not be appropriate in the friendly against Nigeria on the eve of the World Cup.
“Those discussions started over 12 months ago; I was quite happy for the tribute to be before the World Cup but Wayne didn’t want to detract from the team at that time, which everyone respected,” said Southgate.
“That’s why it was put back.
“Now we have the opportunity at Wembley to pay that tribute. I’m still able to look to the future with the squad we’ve picked, but also I’ve spoken a lot to the players about the shirt, the history of the shirt, honouring former players.
“The players would respect Wayne’s contribution deserves the best possible send-off. I understand that’s caused a lot of debate but it’s a small way of appreciating what he’s given to his country.
“We’re a strange country in that we bemoan the fact that we haven’t achieved as much as we’d like, and then we have a player who should be held in the highest regard and we’re spending a lot of time justifying giving him that tribute.
“I’m looking forward to working with him and giving him the send-off he deserves, which isn’t always possible.
“We can assess, once everything’s finished, whether that was the right thing to do and whether we’d do it again. Over a period I’ve tried to approach things differently, and some of those decisions are a bit risky; some have paid off, some won’t. I’m completely comfortable with the situation.”
The 33-year-old Rooney had also been England captain, but in his retirement Southgate’s youthful team created a new identity with Harry Kane as its new leader.
Dismissing suggestions Rooney would be handed his long-time number-10 shirt, Southgate regardless revealed he would have “no issue” if he again wore the captain’s armband, and his belief that the national team’s setup has too often overlooked great former players.
“The last game he played, when he came on, Jordan Henderson ran over and gave him the armband as soon as he ran on the pitch,” he said. “That would depend on the circumstances and who’s out there, but I’ve no issue with that at all.
“The value of caps is very difficult to be precise on. You can come on with two minutes to go because you need a change; I’ve played when we’ve changed the whole team at half-time. This fixture is an opportunity to learn about some new players; we then have the game with Croatia which is important to us and I want to protect that squad as much as possible in the first game.
“There seems to be a general feeling that the team from ’66 maybe wasn’t recognised as might as they much have been, for certain periods. We’ve tried to involve former players as much as possible.
“If I’m a current player, the way former players are treated is very important to me, because you can see what the future holds for you.”