There was one moment in particular which summed up Spain’s performance in their 8-0 drubbing of Liechtenstein, Julen Lopetegui’s first competitive match in charge since replacing Vicente Del Bosque. With Spain already 7-0 up, David Silva and Koke exchanged a quick one-two before Silva slotted in, only to find his goal ruled offside. Play was restarted and seconds later, the ball was in the net again – this time there was no offside flag. The scorer? Silva, thrashing home a half-volley with his left foot.
Lopetegui’s Spain are bound to face more challenging sides than 182nd-ranked Liechtenstein, but there was still cause for excitement in León and Brussels, where they were similarly ruthless against Belgium in a friendly despite only winning 2-0 (both goals, incidentally, scored by David Silva). Considering the collective gloom which followed La Roja’s Euros elimination in the round of 16 this summer, branded the ‘end of an era’, the former Porto boss has already succeeded in restoring some Spanish verve.
And yet Lopetegui, jobless since January, was not the obvious choice for the appointment when Del Bosque retired in June. Aside from a handful of appearances for Spain’s big two, his playing career as a goalkeeper was undistinguished, and his managerial record at club level is equally mixed. After unremarkable stints managing Rayo Vallecano and Real Madrid Castilla, Lopetegui’s spell at Porto started brightly – he vowed to revolutionise the club’s style of play and took them to the quarter-finals of the Champions League in his first season, where an exciting line-up including the likes of Danilo, Alex Sandro, Casemiro and Jackson Martínez beat Bayern Munich 3-1 in the first leg – but it petered out in his second year. Star players (including all four of the above) left, Lopetegui’s possession-based game went stale and the fans turned on him, leading to his sacking.
On the international stage, however, the Basque’s fortunes have been rather different. Lopetegui may not have the same credentials in club management as some of his challengers for the Spain job did, but from a holistic point of view he was Del Bosque’s natural successor. In the past six years, Lopetegui has coached Spain’s under-19, under-20 and under-21 sides, claimed the 2012 Under-19 European Championship and the Under-21 edition a year later, moulding a winning generation in the process. No other manager can boast of such success and involvement with Spain’s youth teams in the past decade.
Of his two trophy-winning sides, the one which stands out is the under-21 team who won the Euros in Israel, following in the seniors’ footsteps in Ukraine. Much like Del Bosque’s troupe in 2012, Lopetegui’s charges swept to the final unbeaten (albeit in a much smaller tournament format) where they too coolly dispatched Italy, though the 4-2 scoreline was not quite as emphatic as 4-0 a year earlier. The tournament was a stepping stone for players like David de Gea, Koke, Thiago and Morata, all of whom would make the transition to the senior team.
It is easy to see, therefore, why the Spanish football federation decided to place their trust in Lopetegui, though it is far from a case of just picking up where he left off. The game has changed since the golden generation of Andres Iniesta and co. won three international tournaments in a row and Lopetegui’s under-21’s won the Euros, as demonstrated by Spain’s misfortunes in Brazil and France. Other countries got wise to the style which brought Del Bosque’s team so much success and countered it with more pressing, pace and aggression in their play, as well as greater tactical flexibility. At club level, some teams reacted to the success of Pep Guardiola’s style at Barcelona by playing more directly, leading to a resurgence in counterattacking football. Atlético Madrid and Leicester City are just two teams who have reaped the rewards, but there are plenty of other examples.
It is clear, then, that Spain need to move with the times if they are to keep up. Lopetegui admitted as much at his presentation. “There won’t be a revolution, there will be an evolution,” he insisted. “Football doesn’t stop. We are very proud of the past, but we are looking toward the present and the future”.
While some might dismiss these words as mere filler, so far Lopetegui seems to be fulfilling his promise. Instead of dumping Iker Casillas unceremoniously, for instance, he met with the goalkeeper informally before he announced his first squad to inform him that he would not be making the cut. Fabregas, Pedro and Juanfran, all veterans of the Del Bosque era, were also left out, suggesting that Lopetegui will not simply choose players based on their reputations, a criticism often levelled at the former Spain manager. Another accusation made of Del Bosque was that he was too tactically rigid, as shown by his refusal to adapt his system to integrate Diego Costa after his naturalisation. Lopetegui, however, quietly assimilated Costa back into the team for the matches against Belgium and Liechtenstein, with the Chelsea striker scoring a brace in the World Cup qualifier. Spain already seem to be a more reactive and tactically flexible side under their new boss, a sure sign of progress since Euro 2016.
Finally, of course, there is a fresh batch of players coming through, many of whom Lopetegui has worked with previously. Of the starting eleven against Liechtenstein, five were members of that under-21 Euro-winning squad (De Gea, Carvajal, Thiago, Koke and Morata). While the cohort of Casillas, Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta will probably never be matched, the current crop holds great potential, having risen through the ranks together. Players from different clubs seldom have the time to form meaningful connections on the pitch when they are with their national teams, and so having a group who have already played together under the same manager is invaluable.
The foundations are in place for Lopetegui to restore Spain to their best, but while it would be foolish to disregard these, it would be just as nonsensical to stick to the same, outdated approach. A remarkable period for Spanish football has come to an end, but a new one could be on the horizon.