Spain, it appears, are back. The team that won three international titles in a span of four years (the 2008 and 2012 Euros, and the 2010 World Cup), and then followed it up by crashing out of the 2014 World Cup in the group stage and losing to Italy in the round of 16 in the 2016 European Championship, looks poised to return to its former glory. Though their World Cup qualifying path wasn’t especially fraught—they were in a group with Italy, Albania, Israel, Liechtenstein and Macedonia—Spain absolutely trampled the competition, scoring 36 goals and only giving up three.
What’s remarkable about Spain’s turnaround is that the team, in important, fundamental ways, has remained unchanged from one international tournament to the next. Seven players from the 2016 Euro team are expected to start this World Cup: David de Gea, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, David Silva, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, and Andrés Iniesta. Eleven players from the catastrophic 2014 World Cup squad are on this year’s team. Their possession-first style of play, which—after the the 2016 Euros exit—was cast as stale and ill-suited for dealing with the game’s shift to more aggressive pressing and counter-attacks, also remains essentially intact. So what’s changed?
When new manager Julen Lopetegui took over in 2016, he was tasked with weeding out beloved but no longer effective players and adding new ones. From the 2016 Euros team, goalkeeper Ilker Casillas, who showed that he was past his prime at the 2014 World Cup, is gone, along with Cesc Fábregas and Pedro, while the core of players dating back to the 2008 Euros—Ramos, Silva, and Iniesta—remain. The new faces are Marco Asensio, Isco, and Thiago Alcântara.
This careful pruning and planting has certainly contributed to Spain’s resurgence, but so has something else: hunger.
“You earn the title of favourites when you win. It’s not when people say you’re a favourite because of achievements, it’s when you show it on the pitch,” Lopetegui said in May. “We have the biggest ambitions but we are also very aware that we arrive at this World Cup feeling humble and wanting to prove ourselves.”
Spain also has the added benefit of familiarity. While some national team’s players are spread out all over the world, the majority of Spain’s players compete with and against each other in La Liga, allowing for a natural cohesion and identity. Of the 17 players in the squad who play professionally in Spain, a sizable chunk play for the Champions League-winning Real Madrid: Sergio Ramos, the defender and hitman who literally knocked out two Liverpool players en route to that Champions League victory; Dani Carvajal, Real Madrid’s star right back who was injured in the Champions League final but still made Spain’s roster; and Isco, the surgically precise midfielder who makes space wherever he is and is more than capable of scoring. Marco Asensio, Lucas Vázquez, and Nacho Fernández also are key pieces of the Real Madrid squad, if in more reserved roles.
Goalkeepers: David De Gea (Manchester United), Pepe Reina (Napoli), Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao)
Defenders: Jordi Alba (Barcelona), César Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), Nacho Fernández (Real Madrid), Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Álvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad)
Midfielders: Thiago Alcântara (Bayern Munich), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Saúl Ñíguez (Atletico Madrid), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), David Silva (Manchester City), Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid), Isco (Real Madrid)
Forwards: Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Rodrigo (Valencia), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid)
La Furia Roja (The Red Fury)
As in the past, under former manager Vicente del Bosque, Spain thrive on the philosophy of tiki-taka: relentless short passing and careful ball movement designed to maintain possession and open up holes for attack. After all, the theory goes, the other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball. It’s not the most thrilling way to play the game, but as evidenced by Spain’s past success, it can be ruthlessly effective.
With the defensive duo of Ramos and Piqué, and a midfield full of genius—Iniesta, Isco, Thiago, and Silva—Spain’s success may end up depending how they shape their attack. A huge question mark will be the mercurial Diego Costa, whose preferred playing style is “Tasmanian Devil.” In qualifying, Costa scored five goals in four games, one of which, against Macedonia, saw Spain playing a more aggressive attacking style. Costa could be the spark Spain needs, but he has struggled in the past, especially in the 2014 World Cup, to settle into Spain’s favored playing style. He’s generally less comfortable with tiki-taka, and has appeared isolated at times, waiting to run onto a long ball that doesn’t often come. Neither Iago Aspas or Rodrigo is near as good a striker as Costa on paper, but both offer more of the kind of play Lopetegui’s style calls for. Either Costa needs to adapt better in Russia or one of those other two needs to chip in with the kinds of goals Costa guarantees if Spain hope to win it all again.
David De Gea
Manchester United’s David De Gea is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. This year, he won player of the year for Manchester United for the fourth time in five years, and the Premier League golden glove award for the most clean sheets. In the Manchester Derby this past April, he stymied Sergio Agüero with the kind of save that’s somehow routine for him.
Over the weekend, though, Spanish media pounced on a mistake by De Gea during Spain’s friendly against Switzerland on Sunday, which allowed Switzerland to equalize. De Gea bobbled a save and Swiss striker Ricardo Rodriguez slammed the rebound home.
When you have arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, I guess you have to find flaws where you can.
All times Eastern
June 15, 2 p.m.: Portugal vs. Spain at Fisht Stadium
June 20, 2 p.m.: Iran vs. Spain at Kazan Arena
June 25, 2 p.m.: Spain vs. Morocco at Kaliningrad Stadium