It’s 23rd June 2014 at the Arena de Baixada, Curitiba, Brazil. Juan Mata has just put the finishing touch on a 3-0 win for Spain over Australia in World Cup Group B. The result is immaterial however, as the reigning champions are going home early having already suffered defeats to the Netherlands and Chile.
Normally when this kind of humiliation happens to a big footballing nation – and the 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands was a humiliation – there is some sort of existential crisis, a need to rip up the rule book and start again. Spain did not follow suit, with Vincent Del Bosque staying in charge until after Euro 2016, a tournament where they also had a limp finish.
Spain, however, have not had a radical overhaul since that time. Julien Lopetegui took over the helm from Del Bosque and has quietly put Spain back into the upper echelons of world football, but he has achieved this without performing major surgery to the team or its philosophy.
Ramos, Pique, Busquets still form backbone of Spanish side
Indeed, many of the main architects of Spain’s success over the last decade – Pique, Ramos, Busquets, Iniesta – are set to play an important role in this World Cup. Although, the last name on that list, Andrés Iniesta, will likely play a reduced role in what will surely be his swansong.
Of course, there have been some important changes to both the personnel and the way Spain play. Plenty of responsibility will be heaped upon the shoulders of Real Madrid star Isco, but there should also be a more prominent role for David Silva, with the Manchester City maestro becoming even more polished in his 30s. We also see David De Gea in goal, a man who may just be an upgrade on Iker Casillas.
As for the style, the emphasis on possession, or its manifestation in tiki-taka, has become much less important. In it place is a more efficient and, at times, ruthless style of play, one that is more dependent on the guile of Silva and Isco than on suffocating opponents. Spain’s recent performances, including a 6-1 mauling of Argentina, suggest the new way is just as effective.
Spain should be shorter price for World Cup glory
It is interesting, however, to see that William Hill have placed Spain as 6/1 fourth-favourites in the World Cup betting, coming in behind Brazil (4/1), Germany (9/2) and France (11/2). While those three nations clearly have their positive attributes, it is unclear as to just why Spain are not right up with Brazil, a side who also suffered humiliation at the 2014 World Cup.
The main concern for Spain might just be where the goals will come from. Diego Costa (22/1) and Isco (50/1) are on the margins of outsiders for top scorers at the World Cup, but this team is not one that relies on an individual. Moreover, the defence, marshalled by Pique and Ramos, may be a better weapon than the attack in Russia, as evidenced by the miserly tally of three goals conceded in qualifying.
This World Cup looks like being notoriously difficult to pick a winner, with nations like Belgium (11/1) and Messi’s Argentina (9/1) also capable of lifting the trophy. But Spain may just have been overlooked by bookmakers and pundits in recent months. They may not grab all the headlines in the way they once did, but we could be looking back on 15th July and saying they should have been favourites.