Euro 2020 team guides part 19: Spain

This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.

The upheaval in the Spain squad before the Euros may not be as bad as in 2018 when Julen Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the World Cup but this has not been an easy week for Luis Enrique.

His preparations for the tournament were thrown into disarray on Sunday morning when Sergio Busquets tested positive for Covid-19, forcing the squad to go into isolation and withdraw from their final warm-up game against Lithuania on Tuesday night, with defender Diego Llorente the second player to test positive. It was a small consolation for Enrique that Spain’s Under-21, who took the place of the senior squad on Tuesday, were so good that they won 4-0.

The news of the positive tests came after a disappointing 0-0 draw at home against Portugal, after which the team were whistled by the home fans in Madrid. Six players have been added to a parallel “training bubble” in case there is a coronavirus outbreak within the squad.

Things were already challenging for Enrique. Immersed in a regeneration process after consecutive European Championship wins (in 2008 and 2012) and a World Cup (2010), Spain still base their style around pass and move, possession and skill rather than strength but with the likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, David Villa, Gerard Piqué and Iker Casillas now gone, they have to prove themselves without obvious leaders on the pitch and with serious difficulties in attack and defence.

Tragedy was a part of this process – Luis Enrique had to step down as manager during qualifying when his daughter, Xana, died at the age of nine. His assistant, Robert Moreno, took over and continued with Enrique’s tactics, using a 4-3-3 formation. Moreno seemed delighted with his own work: “On the touchline I used to tell myself: ‘How well we’re playing!’ The team flowed, the ball went at great speed, with chances and goals.” Moreno might have liked what he was doing, but the Spanish football federation sacked him when Luis Enrique asked to return at the end of 2019 and discovered that Moreno still felt he deserved to be the man in charge.

Luis Enrique really needs to be the beacon of this team now, especially in the absence of Sergio Ramos, whom he did not select due to the Real Madrid defender’s lack of match fitness. In terms of senior players that leaves the squad in the hands of Jordi Alba, who is not even a leader of Barcelona’s dressing room.

Omitting Ramos leaves Spain without a true captain and without any Real Madrid player at a major tournament for the first time in their history. It remains to be seen how the defenders Pau Torres, Aymeric Laporte and Eric García will perform in front of the young Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simón, who is first choice ahead of David de Gea. Perhaps that is why Luis Enrique tried out a 4-1-4-1 in his most recent games, and even a 4-2-3-1.

Spain are a team of midfielders who then struggle to score in the absence of strikers of the calibre of Fernando Torres or Villa. Gerard Moreno, with 29 goals for Villarreal this season, could do well up front, but Spain are playing at a lower level now. They are difficult to decipher until you know if the pieces fit or not.

No one doubts the extraordinary ability of Luis Enrique to work with a 4-3-3 formation. It best accommodates the main characteristics of Spain’s players: their love for quick passing and their relative lack of athleticism. “Lucho” is fascinated by the idea of ​​conflict, but maybe he hasn’t gone about it the right way – not least the unprecedented call to not pick any Real Madrid player. His fighting spirit has not changed, and nor has his habit of climbing on to scaffolding to observe his players. The pandemic will deprive him of at least one of his routines this summer: a passionate cyclist, he will not be able to escape the team hotel on his bike.

Without Ramos, Spain do not have an icon, and so they must create one. If it is about class and athletic qualities, the man best qualified is Thiago Alcântara. This could turn out to be the defining moment in the career of this most unpredictable of players. If, at 30, he is capable of showing his best side – the one we saw in the 2020 Champions League final – then Spain will be capable of anything. If Thiago simply plays to fall in love with Thiago, as he has done in the past, then Spain’s Euros could resemble someone walking on the ledge of a skyscraper.

Pedro González López, aka Pedri, was not on the big clubs’ radar a year ago. He was not even a professional at Las Palmas, and had been rejected by Real Madrid for being too slight. His move to Barcelona in 2020 went unnoticed until Ronald Koeman gave him a place in the lineup: then Spain discovered a player who appears to be a football genius, maybe even a new Iniesta. At 18 this subtle, easy-playing midfielder has become La Roja’s great hope. “What I like the most about him is his calmness, his humility, and his balance between offence and defence,” says Luis Enrique.

Manolo Escobar’s ¡Y Viva España!, released in 1973, was a colossal success, selling six million copies. It still rings around stadiums, but is not without controversy. It was picked up by Franco’s fascist dictatorship as a promotional anthem to attract tourists. For many fans, especially those in the Basque Country and Catalonia, the song is bound up with fascist oppression, but most of Spain’s fans don’t think of it that way.

Spain is a country of painters, poets and musicians. Not of intellectuals. Playing football does not require verbalisation but talking about it takes a certain philosophical effort. Spain is the home of tiki-taka, but no fan is ever going to shout “pass and move” from the stands. Most will display their passion by uttering a war cry: “Echadle cojones!” – throw your balls into the mix. It is a call to do what Spain’s footballers rarely do, and get physical with the opposition.

Dani Olmo is the hero. Shaken by the suffering of the world during the pandemic, the RB Leipzig striker enrolled in Juan Mata’s Common Goal Foundation. As for the villain, there isn’t one. Luis Enrique has surrounded himself with obedient, disciplined players, paragons of civic virtue. This brings a question: are rule-breakers more competitive?

Diego Torres writes for El País.

Follow him on Twitter @diegotorresro.

For a player profile on Rodri click here.

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