From a world-class keeper suddenly gone bad to a lack of leadership at the top, Spain’s World Cup has hardly gone to plan – here’s 5 things gone awry
1 – A keeper with cold feet
The David De Gea affair has been hands-down the biggest issue. We’re just not talking about his disastrous game against Portugal in the opener. Manchester United’s keeper has been as soft as a soufflé in all three games, displaying a lack of confidence never seen before.
The point isn’t to slam De Gea, but to seek the best for the team. Take Argentina, for example: a huge Willy Caballero mistake handed Croatia the win in Game two. The goalie was switched for Franco Armani and the move worked pretty well showing Spain the way to go. Kepa Arrizabalaga has the skills and Pepe Reina packs plenty of experience: the choice is Fernando Hierro’s, although it’s unlikely he will pull off such a bold stunt versus Russia.
2 – Grant Aspas more playtime
The VAR controversy surrounding the play detracted from just how utterly magnificent Iago Aspas’ finish was against Morocco. A back-heel goal which only a handful of players are capable of performing.
And that’s precisely what Aspas provides on the pitch: unpredictability and that much-needed magic touch. Up to this point, Spain hasn’t come even close to the lightning-speed, pass-and-run play style that allowed their dominance between 2008 and 2012. To get back on track, the team needs skill, imagination and a physical performance level that not many have after a long season. Aspas is fit, fine-tuned and ready. Starting the Celta Vigo striker against Russia would be the wisest choice.
3 – Iniesta and Busquets pay the price
The season has been excruciatingly long for a few players: The Madridsistas had the Champions League final and the Barça players chased an unbeaten record.
Spain’s midfield has traditionally relied on the fitness and competitiveness of the Culé engine room but with Xavi gone and both Andres Iniesta and Sergi Busquets low on gas, fans are demanding some new blood.
Koke is the safest choice and can perform containment tasks right next to ‘Busi’, but Hierro could also try a different approach by starting Saúl Ñíguez, who brings three positives: young and physically ready, combines recovering balls with quality circulation, and sports a precise mid and long-range shooting ability that could unlock tight games.
4 – Hierro and predetermined subs
Fernando Hierro’s inexperience with this group of players is holding the team back when things go south and he has to ramp up attacking productivity with players off the bench. Most of the time, the subs are predictable and, too ‘safe’. Making things easy for the scouts of other sides isn’t a smart idea.
The fact that Hierro became the manager only 48 hours before the national team played their first game means that his knowledge of each player’s strengths and weaknesses isn’t going to be the best. In that sense, Spain will do well if things go smoothly and according to plan… but, as we’ve seen in earlier games, they will suffer if the opposition scores first.
5 – Overall self-management
Some believe Sergio Ramos or Gerard Piqué have more power in the locker room than Hierro himself. That’s not a long-shot. After all, this group of players were manager-less only two days before the World Cup due to Lopetegui secretly signing for Real Madrid. The manager’s mind wasn’t 100% committed to the tournament, so the Federation’s president had only one choice: sack him on the spot.
It’s self-management, then. Hierro will act as the head coach but most of the success or failure will rest upon the player’s shoulders. Only they can play as a team, only they can score the goals, only they can detect any flaws and course-correct them from one game to the next. Up to this point, Spain have been pretty sucky, but finished first in Group B. Who knows: maybe their first ‘good’ game will come in the Last 16 round against Russia.