Vicente Del Bosque And Spain’s Golden Era Ended Four Years Ago And Not At Euro 2016
By David Cartlidge (@davidjaca)
Spain’s capitulation against Italy was the result of years ignoring problems within the setup, and living off their reputation from past successes. Just because they once won, doesn’t mean they would again. What brought them about success has eroded, and needed replacing. Those who have keenly followed the setup inside and out have known for sometime that things weren’t quite right. Italy were simply confirmation to a wider audience that Spain are no longer the force they once were – and nor are they close to being so again.
Del Bosque himself
There is no doubt, the primary reason for Spain’s decline has been Vicente Del Bosque. Four years ago, following a staggeringly abject World Cup display in Brazil, it would’ve been the decent thing to do to let Del Bosque go. In fact, it’s worth remembering that the 65-year-old did offer his resignation but was encouraged by the RFEF (Spain’s governing body) to stay on. Choosing a successor to Del Bosque probably would’ve been too much work for the RFEF however, too time consuming. Instead they chose not to rock the boat, to take the safe option. Del Bosque meanwhile would carry on and eventually sink the ship again in 2016. Del Bosque had learned none of the lessons handed out in Brazil, instead he sought to use the same solutions and players as before. He has always been seen as a great continuation factor. A safe pair of hands, someone to steady the ship. Innovation however, is not his comfort zone.
There was no new radical tactical plan, and when it came to those final minutes against Italy he turned to the old boys once again as a badly out-of-form and disgruntled Pedro was thrust into play as Koke and Thiago, part of the new generation, sat it out on the bench. An admittance almost from Del Bosque to his own failure. He may be a great man, a nice chap, but he’s nothing more than a steady pair of hands for Spain. The system that served him so well was brought about by Barcelona, and held together by Xavi. Once he would go, it would be vital to reinvent. A new coach at this time would’ve been ideal. However Spain persisted and Del Bosque would be the fall guy, and he can’t have any complaints. His failings mounted up, and as time went on his legacy of winning actually began to become eroded given that Spain were so far away from what they had created.
Since 2013 he’s been handed several lessons from opposing coaches. This time around first it came from Ante Čačić, then Antonio Conte in emphatic fashion. Before them Luiz Felipe Scolari, Louis Van Gaal, Jorge Sampaoli added their own sting to Spain’s floundering system at the hands of Del Bosque. The key factor throughout being that all those coaches had less at their disposal in terms of talent, but had more when it came to tactical acumen in a 1v1 battle with Spain.
It’s clear that every single Spain failing leads straight back to the coach. You could drive some in the direction of individuals, but it would be a myopic stance to take.
While the signs had been disconcerting for some time, the Spain squad announcement once again confirmed everyone’s worst fears. It was business as usual for Spain as the favourites like Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and David Silva – all badly out of form for club, and wth their country for years – were included. Isco, one of Spain’s most gifted creative outlets, was left to take his holidays in the USA. Saul meanwhile, a revelation at Atleti and a quite obvious outlet to press this stagnated system on with his energy and different skill set, was also ignored.
Then there was the case of Paco Alcácer. Left at home, with his season in a bad team cited as the reason. Yet he was all the while still top scorer with Spain in European Championships qualifying and managed 13 goals with his underperforming side in the league. Pedro and Cesc, so poor for a similarly underperforming Chelsea, were handed a free pass for their bad seasons however.
Atletico Madrid, where so much has been achieved, were badly under represented at a tournament once more. Spain didn’t produce a single tackle in the first 45 minutes against Italy – do you think that would’ve happened on Gabi’s watch? Hardly. On squad announcement day, there were no surprises. Simply further confirmation of what had become par for the course.
Del Bosque’s handling of the Barcelona and Real Madrid has often been commended, but was Aragones again who set that on its way. It was Aragones who gathered every member of that Spain squad together in the build-up to 2012, and created a feeling no other Spanish coach before him had. The talent was there, but you have to put these squabbles away. It’s playing for one flag, one shirt. Not an Ikurriña or a Senyera.
While focus will no doubt be on Spain’s failure to create a Plan B once again, Plan A itself was ridiculously flawed. For one, it was based upon the same system that brought Spain so much success, but had the caveats of the right personnel to run it. Xavi and Xabi Alonso were no longer present, for instance. Those two were cornerstones of the way Spain played, it made sense to account for their loss. But there was no such plan installed. Instead Spain tried to do things like they always did, with lesser parts.
The more Del Bosque saw this failing, the more he attempted to engineer something more direct. Diego Costa was the supposed answer in Brazil, and a combination of parts such as Nolito and Alvaro Morata were in France. Both were not given the right level of integration into the system though, and more to the point the system did not suit them. Morata was up against deep block defences with much of his time spent with his back to the goal – it’s simply not where he’s used best. Then when he was asked to do something different, it was the impossible.
The sight of aimless long balls pinged up to Morata to chase and win against two of the most colossal centre-backs in the world, Giorgio Chellini and Leonardo Bonucci, was difficult to swallow. Morata was in turn hauled off against Italy, another victim of Del Bosque’s inability to create a functioning system. Morata, and along with the only other striker in the squad, Aritz Aduriz, were always going to struggle in a situation that didn’t suit either of them. That their support cast failed to show up didn’t help, as Spain produced only the 8th most shots per game at the tournament, while also taking the 8th most on target. The Welsh, Hungarians and Swiss all took more. Never mind the natural favourites such as France and Germany.
Nolito meanwhile looked nervous all tournament despite his fine display against a poor Turkey side. He too wasn’t afforded the space and time he is at Celta, as he was flung in a system where he was encouraged to pick the ball up in more central areas than he’s used to and without support in wide berths. It’s something he wasn’t comfortable doing, and claims levelled at him that he was the new David Villa were silly before, and look even more so now. Few had better understanding of systems, and executing what was required, than the NYCFC striker.
Spain for much of the tournament were far too narrow. A key factor over the years during their possession based success was retaining width, and filtering the ball out wide and bringing it back inside to keep things moving. The idea was to wear down the opposition, make them step out and make the mistake. This time things backfired, as Spain cut down their own outlets and were themselves worn down by their approach play going nowhere. All five goals were from open play, none came from a counter attack nor from a set-piece. Spain were a single pronged threat going forward. Against Italy, they couldn’t even do that.
The failure to bring on the new generation
It’s a parallel to Del Bosque’s favouring of the old guard, that the younger players would have to suffer. Someone would have to, and it was those who would not speak out or question any decision. As Pedro made his ridiculous claims halfway through the tournament, voicing his frustration at not being picked, a core of Spain’s youth must’ve sat opened mouth. For they hadn’t even gone to tournaments due to the favouritism that existed at the top. Saúl, Isco and Paco Alcacer suffered this time around, while Koke and Thiago – included in the squad – might as well be on a beach somewhere.
This final chance to alleviate the dated system, and inject it with a new energy was once again passed upon. As Italy ran rings around Spain’s players, who gesticulated at one another in a search for answers, a solution was on the bench. But even if it had come, it was too late. Like Diego Costa in Brazil they would’ve simply been experiments of trial and error at a major tournament. An embarrassing state of affairs for a national team built that eventually ended their curse via exhaustive long term planning behind the scenes.
A continuation post-exit or removal?
This is the question the RFEF must now ask themselves. Continue with Del Bosque, which seems to be growing ever more unlikely, or appoint someone not too dissimilar from him but who can quell the stagnation that has crept in. If they go with the latter, Joaquin Caparros and Julen Lopetegui look obvious candidates. If they wish to remove themselves entirely from this era, and take a new approach, Paco Jemez’s name rings loud. The favourites for many seem to be Marcelino of Villarreal and Ernesto Valverde of Athletic Bilbao.
Both have performed superbly in La Liga with their unglamorous sides and limited resources, while also flexing their muscle on the continent. Valverde’s time abroad could be an advantage for him too. With the belief that the system isn’t entirely broke and doesn’t need a revamp, Caparros and Lopetegui are no doubt favourites. Spanish football is at a particular juncture but it’s not one that requires a revolution, instead it requires a change of face. A different approach to what constitutes as being worthy of a squad place, and equally as important, a new system at playing level. It doesn’t sound much, but seem a million miles from it in the current regime.