The 2010 World Cup champions will be heading into the World Cup with good odds to leave Russia with silverware. Despite a shaky few years since South Africa, the Spaniards have improved greatly, and will hope to make the knockout stages with ease.
Spain have perhaps the best defense in the world. With new golden glove winner David De Gea in goal, and a back line including the two champions of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, Spain will be extremely difficult to break down. They also have a player who, for me, is perhaps the most underrated athlete in the world: Jordi Alba. The Barcelona left back consistently plays to an outstanding level, and is easily the best left back in world football, and perhaps one of the best defenders, period. Moving forward, the Spanish midfield is also full of talent and character. Players like Andres Iniesta, who have world class abilities but with aging legs, will be working together with the new starlets like Marco Asensio and Saul Niguez in hopes of creating a passing and possession oriented team, that has killer instincts to create chances.
Taking their chances?
Spain, however, have a sizable problem. Though they have plenty of players primed to shut-up-shop at the back, and players to create goal scoring opportunities, they are lacking someone capable of taking the chances created by their exceptional midfield play-makers. Spain, put simply, doesn’t have a consistent forward, and this could spell trouble.
Roll back a year or so ago, and Alvaro Morata would be a definite starter in the squad. However, the Chelsea man has really struggled since moving to England. He has size, speed, and raw talent, but at a tournament where every game matters, it would be dangerous to rely on a player who lacks confidence. Morata plays in a similar style to Fernando Torres, a player who, in his prime, terrorized defenses in South Africa eight years ago. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to try and replicate that kind of starting XI this time around in Russia. Similarly, Valencia striker Rodrigo will be hoping to finally be able to play a key role in the national team, after missing out of the last couple of tournaments at the final squad cut.
Another viable option up top would be Diego Costa. He is one player who always plays his heart out, putting himself around all game long, and creates plenty of chances. However, a player like Costa presents new problems. Firstly, his game style is perhaps the polar opposite of the Spanish setup, meaning that playmakers like Iniesta will have to adapt their delivery style. Secondly, Costa is very easily rattled, and when playing against your neighbours and arch rivals in Game One — as well as teams like Morocco who are so strong and passionate defensively — Costa could be a liability in terms of discipline. Other tall players who could serve the same purpose include Aritz Aduriz from Bilbao, or even Tottenham’s Fernando Llorente, however both of these men lack Costa’s poacher mentality.
A false nine could be the solution
The final option that Spain could go for would to play more of a false 9, with a player like Pedro Rodriguez as the middle man. This not only allows the side to play their tiki-taka soccer with ease, but also presents the chance to bring someone with size like Costa or Morata off the bench later in the game to present a new challenge to the tiring defense. Additionally, this type of system worked well when Spain had a fully fit David Villa. The NYC FC man doesn’t have size, but he could blast past defenders with his pace back in his younger days, and utilize his dribbling ability to get an extra yard of space to shoot.
The issue with this playing style is that with the exception of at set pieces, Spain will not be much of a threat aerially. Despite this, it could work well given that it opens up opportunities to interplay between a front 3, and given Jose Callejon’s form for Napoli, as well as other young talent in La Liga, it wouldn’t come as a shock to see a false 9 strategy if players like Morata do not meet the high expectations of the Spanish hierarchy.
For me, I would love to see Morata find some form and play consistently at the World Cup. On his day, when he is confident, he is perhaps on par with some of the best strikers in the game. However, for a team like Spain who will want to win it all, they ought to adapt game to game given the opposition, utilizing power players and precision dribblers when most applicable. When playing teams like Germany or Brazil, they can not afford to carry anyone.
It’s a pity that players like Torres and Villa were overlooked this time around, particularly given the latter’s MLS form this season. Both could have provided much needed experience going forward in what will likely be a very young attacking quartet for Spain. Coach Lopetegui will need to find the right balance, as well as decide on which attack strategy will serve his team best going forward as they try to take the world by storm once again.