Wembley was the birthplace of a new-look Spain under Luis Enrique – here are five lessons learned from the La Roja’s early days
5 – De Gea still remembers his glory days
One of the most heavily criticized players in Russia was David De Gea. To put it simply, he didn’t perform at his best, period. But football has that unique redeeming quality. Luis Enrique knows he has a very talented keeper and plans to maximize the Manchester United man’s qualities to the fullest.
Against England, De Gea once again resembled that impassable colossus that impressed over the past few seasons as United’s goalie. Marcus Rashford was his ‘victim’ on a night with a few amazing saves, denying his teammate twice after spectacular finishes to keep Spain ahead in the game. Another national team coach could have picked another keeper as a starter (Kepa?) and avoid all this hassle…but not Luis Enrique.
4 – Rodrigo and Hierro’s missed opportunity
Playing for Valencia means that the national media won’t be as generous towards Rodrigo as other players, but that isn’t an issue with Cricketsoccer: Rodrigo completed a monster of a game. A truly amazing performance. He assisted Saúl in the equalizer and scored the winning goal.
Rodrigo ran the show up front, generating spaces for his team-mates, fighting the defenders and showing his incredible harmony with his cousin, Thiago Alcántara, who assisted him in the free-kick that preceded the 1-2.
One wonders why exactly Fernando Hierro only played him for 23 minutes at the World Cup. However, this isn’t the most scandalous mistake made by the former Spanish coach…
3 – Hierro better have called Saul
…because Atletico’s midfielder Saúl Ñíguez did, in fact, play the huge total of zero minutes in Russia.
Spain’s midfield suffered in Russia due to a number of reasons (Iniesta nearing his retirement, Isco out of position, a tired Busquets) and Hierro didn’t even consider refreshing that area with the Colchonero player. Not a chance. And there went several of Spain’s chances of doing something worthy in the competition: down the wazzoo.
Luis Enrique, inversely, has trusted Saúl from day one. He is one of the most crucial players in his tactical plan and it showed against England. His box-to-box abilities came in handy when he finished Carvajal and Rodrigo’s play down the right. He ran, pressed, fought, recovered the ball and always had that one secure, accurate pass to improve the play he was involved in. Spain was seeking a much-needed regeneration and Saúl was the answer all along.
2 – Aggressive, intense, ball-chasing high pressure
Saúl wasn’t the only player to shine in the recovery aspect of the game. In fact, Spain’s game plan focused precisely on being able to snatch the ball from England’s mittens and to do so as close to Pickford’s area as possible. Busquets, Thiago, Rodrigo…everyone contributed to the collective effort.
High-intensity pressure was one of Luis Enrique’s commands and the players did exactly what the manager expected. Up to 32 balls were recovered and a few of them provided the team with several excellent chances to score. The typical Spanish passing game was shifted slightly: less passing, more directness. The outcome was a quicker, sharper, more dangerous version of the team.
1 – Tough mentality to bounce back
Being knocked out in the Last 16 round of the World Cup was a tough blow both for the team and for Spain’s fanbase. Luis Enrique’s arrival meant a breath of fresh air but it also came with quite a few questions surrounding the choice. However, everyone agreed on one thing: the team could play better or worse, but they would do it with an attitude.
Luis Enrique’s first game didn’t disappoint in that sense. The scenery wasn’t the easiest (Wembley) nor the opposition was going to be a cakewalk (a World Cup semi-finalist England), but Spain showed the expected flair in crucial moments and a resilient, tough personality throughout most of the match.
Even after allowing an early goal by Rashford (Nacho, Piqué’s replacement after his retirement from the national team, wasn’t particularly inspired in that play), Spain were able to pick themselves up and turn the game around. And that isn’t an easy feat under any circumstances.