Spain’s love affair with major tournaments lasted four years. Scooping back-to-back European Championships with the 2010 World Cup sandwiched in the middle, this ‘golden generation’ of players looked set to dominate for years to come.
However, what goes up, must come down.
We saw this in dramatic style in the years that followed, with group stage and second-round exits in the two successive tournaments. Had Spain lost their identity? Had their football philosophy been exposed?
Momentum has begun to build, again, after a disappointing four years.
Enter, the 2018 World Cup.
Four points taken from their opening fixtures against Portugal and Iran, Spain have looked back to their old self. Tiki-taka passing, movement off the ball and a control of possession underline the fundamentals of the Spanish game, with Fernando Hierro continuing the good work Julen Lopetegui had began in the run-up to this year’s finals.
Spain play Morocco in their final group game on Monday, with eyes on topping the group if they can better Portugal’s result against Iran.
But, can Spain really win the World Cup again this time around? The answer is no. Here’s why…
Plan A, Plan A and… Plan A
We’ve heard it all before when it comes to Spain – and forgive me for banging the drum – but Spain’s reluctance to impose a contingency plan may leave them vulnerable when they least expect it.
Possession football is Spain’s identity, and despite the opposition, La Furia Roja will continue to implement this tactic.
Moving the ball from side to side in attacks that may last two or three minutes are all designed to create that one moment in front of goal. That unmissable opportunity carved through the opposition’s defence.
But what happens when that doesn’t come?
Let’s look at Hierro’s set up for two dramatically different prospects in Portugal and Iran.
Starting XI vs Portugal
Portugal were expected to offer much more in terms of attack than the two other sides in Group B. Fast on the break, Spain conceded three goals to their Iberian rivals – despite flashes of Cristiano Ronaldo brilliance and a David de Gea error.
However, against two sides who set up completely different in their approaches to the game, only a slight tweak in midfield was seen in Hierro’s selection.
Starting XI vs Iran
Iran dug in deep.The narrative of Spain vs Iran was written by ITV as good vs evil from mid-way through the opening half.
Iran’s low block defending and early time wasting was lambasted, with irony ringing around the studio as Roy Keane and Slaven Bilic criticised their professional tactics.
I enjoyed the way Iran set up. With three points in the bag already, a 6-3-1 system against a ticking Spanish side is a sensible option in search of a point.
This point nearly materialised; a disallowed goal deflated the Iran balloon as Spain ground out a 1-0 win due to a lucky Diego Costa strike.
But what if that goal never came?
Sure, Diego Costa is a different breed of striker that Spain have been used to implementing in the past years, but when the Atleti striker can’t find that extra yard in behind a deep-lying defence, Spain’s fluid midfield are left trying impossible balls.
Their system suits playing better teams who are willing to attack, moving from their defensive shape.
However, if Spain are to win the World Cup they are going to have to break down stubborn defences time and time again. On the evidence of the Iran game: this will be an arduous task.
When a Hierro comes along
It’s all fun and games at the moment, however, when Spain are tested in the latter stages of this World Cup, Fernando Hierro’s experience will likely unravel.
With a year at Spanish Segunda Liga side Oviedo the only other entry in his managerial portfolio, the former Bolton Wanderers player will soon be in unchartered waters as a football manager.
He is riding a wave of momentum at the moment. The side pretty much picked itself for the opening fixture, but what if injuries, suspensions and squad unrest begin to surface over the next two weeks?
Hierro’s position doesn’t lead me to believe he will act in a reactionary way during this World Cup. A laissez-faire approach will separate Hierro from blame if their tournament implodes, with Lopetegui and the RFEF likely to be lambasted by the Spanish public.
A four-week period isn’t enough time to implement your tactics on a team. Playing ‘substitute teacher’ is likely to prove disastrous.
Despite their clean sheet against Iran, Spain’s backline was breached in a goal overturned by the buzz-term of this World Cup: VAR.
Taremi, too, should have found himself on the scoresheet after heading over the bar with minutes to spare; slack from a Spain side so comfortable in possession.
We can’t read too much into the three goals conceded in the Portugal draw, but if Spain are to continue giving chances to their opposition they better be ready to out-gun them up the other end, something that history suggests won’t happen.
Spain have scored four and five goals in their two last major tournaments. With four already notched up in Russia, they are likely to exceed these previous feats, but by how much?
If Spain continue to revert to type, then expect a sting in the tail when they least expect it.