This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2016 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the countries who have qualified for France. theguardian.com is running previews from three countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 10 June.
In the past two years, Vicente del Bosque has emphasised the concept of “smooth transition”. After Spain’s dismal attempt to defend their World Cup in Brazil, they have entered into a period of uncertainty and introspection not helped by a Euro 2016 qualifying campaign in which the football they have played has bordered on tedious and predictable. Strangely for a side that arrive in France looking to win a fourth European Championship title, they are surrounded by doubt.
Del Bosque talks about “transition”, but his message seems incomplete. Transition to where? There is an undeniable starting point: Spain must renew or die, but the manager has not yet defined how they must reinvent themselves.
During the triumphant years – Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012, lest we forget – Spain evolved from direct football to a more calculated and reserved game. Both styles came from the same possession-based idea, but with a different approach.
Even so, they were a competitive, secure and robust machine. Xavi Hernández and Xabi Alonso were the guardians of the style, but now Del Bosque no longer has those two screening generals. Can Spain play the same way without them? Del Bosque thinks so, but Spain seem to be playing like a team rooted in the past and the manager has found himself at a crossroads. Does he stick with the formula that worked so well and find new players to fill the roles or move away from the short passing and movement, the working the ball through the channels, maintaining possession at a calibrated pace that is very much in the blood of Spanish football?
Not only that, their game philosophy has become a key part of their national identity too: technical, precise, creative, intelligent, skilled players … their possession playing style has become a religion and midfielders are the preachers of that faith. But what midfielders can refine Del Bosque’s team game? Thiago and Cesc Fàbregas? Or maybe Atlético Madrid’s Koke?
The Atlético effect could lead to a possible path of reinvention. Del Bosque has never been a master tactician; his success has been built on his ability to manage a squad full of stars and to forge a strong team mentality at tournaments among players who know what they are capable of. This worked well for him in the successful years but is in danger of falling away now. He must show Brazil was a blip, not the beginning of a downward trend.
Doubts are everywhere. In goal, David de Gea, despite having established himself as a dominant force in the Premier League, has no guaranteed place yet because of the continued presence of Iker Casillas. On the other hand, key players such as Sergio Ramos, Fábregas and Pedro are worryingly out of form.
In addition, there’s the same old problem: the offensive system. Del Bosque has never really built a fluent and coherent attacking structure, and they have often played at their best without a striker (with Fàbregas playing as a false No9) or without pure wingers. Álvaro Morata has emerged as a solution better than Aritz Aduriz or Diego Costa, who did not even make the squad.
Apart from the inspirational Andrès Iniesta, it seems there are no players who can define a game single-handedly. But it would be wrong to focus only on Spain’s weaknesses, because clearly they have considerable strengths too. It is an experienced squad, highly competitive, and with a common goal. Spain abounds in talent.
It remains to be seen who will start in goal, the backbone of the team is clearly defined: Juanfran, Ramos, Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba in defence, Sergio Busquets alongside Iniesta in midfield. David Silva and Fàbregas will be key figures too, wherever they start in the front six.
The rest of the starting XI depends on what formation Del Bosque chooses. He can go with 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 (maybe in reality a bit more 4-1-4-1), but in the recent friendly against England he used 4-4-2. Thiago and Koke will wait for that tactical decision. Whatever the personnel, be sure that this team will not forget its spirit – or its philosophy. Whether that is enough to win the tournament again remains to be seen.
Probable Starting Line-up: De Gea, Ramos, Pique, Juanfran, Alba, Busquets, Bruno, Iniesta, Fabregas, Silva, Morata