Del Bosque's quest for youth a good sign for Spain
Winning a major tournament is an incredible challenge. Finding another group of players capable of doing so is equally daunting.
Spain's unrivaled international success in recent years has exponentially raised expectations among supporters, so after their humbling at the 2014 World Cup confirmed it was time to move the old guard on, head coach Vicente del Bosque is now tasked with rebuilding -- and rebuilding to an elite standard.
Creating an exact replica of the Spain side of years gone by is an impossibility given that golden generations don't simply fall from trees, but thanks to a youth structure that is the envy of football nations the world over, Del Bosque has an impressive pool of talent to work with. The squad he has named to face France and Macedonia over the next week reflects that, with plenty of new names to get excited about.
Spain's failings at the 2014 World Cup were not simply a consequence of poor performances from one or two players, but rather, structural weaknesses were evident across all of the lines. Aware of that, Del Bosque has drafted in a host of fresh faces desperate to make their mark on the national team, ranging from goalkeepers, through the back four and midfield, to the forward line. Some are awaiting their senior debuts, while others have registered minimal experience in pre-World Cup friendlies.
An example of the latter is Barcelona centre back Marc Bartra, whose senior Spain experience is so minimal that it has been wiped from the record books. The defender made his debut in Spain's starting lineup against Equatorial Guinea in November, but FIFA later deemed the friendly void due to an administrative error regarding the referee. Bartra could therefore make his second debut against either France or Macedonia, and there is a strong possibility he will be granted playing time given that Del Bosque is a known admirer of the young Catalan, who combines athleticism, quality on the ball and aerial prowess.
Bartra isn't quite the finished product, but perhaps more importantly, he has shown the will to learn. The defender is not yet marred by the complacency that can come when a player wins successive major trophies for club and country, and that kind of drive is exactly what Del Bosque is looking to inject into a Spain side that only four months ago he complained lacked hunger.
A similar story is Espanyol stopper Kiko Casilla, an uncapped 27-year-old who, aside from being one letter away from sharing a last name with Spain's greatest-ever goalkeeper, happens to possess exceptional talent. Like his compatriot, Casilla came through Real Madrid's academy; but unlike Iker Casillas, the Espanyol man excels in the air. When it comes to collecting crosses and challenging for aerial balls, there probably isn't a better goalkeeper in Spain, so Del Bosque has added another string to the national team's bow with the inclusion of the 6-foot-3 Catalan, who will join the familiar face of David de Gea as support for Casillas. Espanyol have been working desperately to renew Casilla's contract in recent months, but a bright showing with the national team will only further increase the chances of him leaving Barcelona's other club sooner rather than later -- particularly when he seems made for the Premier League. A habit of confounding Cristiano Ronaldo hasn't hurt his reputation, either.
One name that most observers will be well aware of by now is Real Madrid's Dani Carvajal, but the right back is also still waiting for his senior Spain bow. Del Bosque ignored calls for Carvajal to be included in the Spanish 2014 World Cup squad despite the 22-year-old's excellent performances in his club's Champions League win, and with Cesar Azpilicueta failing to replicate his Chelsea form in Brazil, there could now be an opening for the Real Madrid man. Carvajal is the archetypal modern fullback: He provides great width, good technique and solid crossing, while he has also made significant improvements to the defensive aspect of his game in recent months. Once the understudy to Martin Montoya in Spain's 2013 U21 European Championship-winning side, he has now leapfrogged the Barcelona man in the senior pecking order by quite some distance.
Further changes to the Spanish back line have been made in the form of Athletic Bilbao's 25-year-old defender Mikel San Jose, a somewhat surprising inclusion given he wasn't a nailed-on starter for the Basque side last season. San Jose is a decent but not spectacular centre back, and there is a suspicion in Spain that he is there to make up the numbers due to the absence of Gerard Pique, who asked to be omitted following fitness concerns. That said, should the Basque seize his opportunity and perform well, Del Bosque will likely be hailed as a genius, such is the fickle nature of football analysis.
San Jose's Athletic teammate, Ander Iturraspe, is a completely different story however, and his inclusion is well in line with public opinion. An intelligent, tidy holding midfielder who also provides a threat in the air from set pieces, Iturraspe was one of Athletic's best players in their run to fourth place in La Liga last season, and has chalked up significant experience both domestically and in European competitions at club level. The 25-year-old should provide excellent support for Sergio Busquets, who until now has proven irreplaceable for Spain. Iturraspe's great first touch and natural ability to make the right decision under pressure are certainly traits reminiscent of Barcelona's number five, but unlike Busquets, the Basque also likes to regularly make use of longer passes, providing a slightly different option for Del Bosque deep in the midfield.
The fresh injection of talent into the Spain midfield is also present in a creative capacity, with Real Madrid's Isco included by Del Bosque following two previous outings in minor games. At this time last year many would have predicted Isco to be counting up his caps from the World Cup by now, but since moving to Madrid the playmaker has struggled for continuity, in part due to the misfortune of sharing his favoured position on the pitch with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Isco has undergone a difficult process of adaptation after switching positions at Madrid, with Carlo Ancelotti largely using him as an inside midfielder since the latter stages of last season, but slowly, the Andalucian is growing in to that role, and if he can fully adjust it will be good news for those who see him as a natural heir to Andres Iniesta in the Spain side.
Perhaps as an unavoidable consequence of the increased tactical discipline required from a central midfielder in comparison to wide players, some of the 22-year-old's spark and inventiveness seem to have faded over the past year. Del Bosque will hope Isco can recover the unshakeable confidence he seemed to possess while at Malaga and begin beating players with brilliant dribbles once more, as the midfielder's capacity to do the unexpected is a priceless commodity for a national team that constantly faces rigid opponents.
The final noteworthy young player Del Bosque has thrown into the mix is Paco Alcacer, something of a wild-card inclusion from the veteran manager. The Valencia forward had a strange season at the Mestalla, marked by bright spots, like a brilliant hat trick in the Europa League quarterfinals against FC Basel, then marred by a lengthy dry spell in La Liga, where he failed to score a single goal after the second week in March.
Valencia's insistence on looking to sign not one but two new central strikers, including Alvaro Negredo, this summer doesn't say much about their confidence in the 21-year-old. But the raw talent is certainly there, and it's probably by that logic that Del Bosque has decided to include the forward, who scored important goals in Spain's 2011 and 2012 U19 European Championship wins. Spain's struggle to find new blood in the middle of the forward line led to them fast-tracking Diego Costa into the team earlier this year, so perhaps looking to a player with proven tournament experience -- albeit at youth level -- isn't such a strange decision when put in context. If Alcacer can add consistency to his undoubted potential, he could be a formidable forward for his nation. Seek out the long-range beauty he scored against AC Milan in preseason for an example of what the Valencia product can do when on form.
Some Spaniards felt disappointed that Del Bosque was the man tasked with renewing the national team following the troubles of the 2014 World Cup, and that stems from a common sentiment that he is a conservative coach who doesn't like to take risks. While in some instances that is true, it has to be said that Del Bosque doesn't always play it safe. It's worth recalling that he chose to include Pedro Rodriguez and Sergio Busquets in the squad that won the 2010 World Cup, despite vocal sectors of the Spanish media insisting they weren't ready for a place yet. Both ultimately played important parts in the tournament win, vindicating Del Bosque. The wily old fox deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to some of his more surprising inclusions in the current Spain squad therefore, even if Fernando Llorente can feel hard done by after yet another omission.
In all likelihood only a few of the young players mentioned above will make the final grade come the summer of 2016, with that handful joining previous fringe players like Koke and De Gea in shaping Spain's immediate future, but the fact that Del Bosque is considering some less-obvious options in his search for a new winning combination is an encouraging sign that he won't just settle for more of the same from the fading old guard.