New-look Spain still dominate possession but lack bite
A new-look Spain team were beaten 1-0 by a more cohesive and confident-looking France in Thursday night's friendly in Paris. The match offered further evidence that La Roja coach Vicente del Bosque still has plenty of work to do as he looks to reinvigorate his side after their World Cup debacle.
Del Bosque had played down talk of "revolution" pregame, but the veteran then surprised most observers by including three newly minuted internationals in his XI and finishing the game with just three of his Euro 2012 winners on the pitch. The inexperienced side looked good in patches, holding possession for long spells, especially in the first half, and almost managed to equalise during a late burst of pressure, but were deservedly beaten through Loic Remy's well-worked second-half goal.
Most impressive of Spain's debutants was Real Madrid's Dani Carvajal, 22, who after just 90 minutes of international football now looks the clear first-choice right-back. Twice inside the first 10 minutes he had to come across to clean up after Sergio Ramos had been caught out of position. Carvajal also got forward regularly to put dangerous crosses into the box, and was generally composed on and off the ball throughout.
In the centre of defence, Athletic's Mikel San Jose had a more difficult debut, with Ramos (who was captain for the night) not really offering too much help. The pair had a warning when Karim Benzema got behind them to volley wide midway through the first half. They were lucky when once again they were pulled out of shape and a Benzema goal was -- probably incorrectly -- ruled offside just after halftime. Their luck ran out, though, when Mathieu Valbuena cleverly outfoxed them to create the game's only goal for Remy.
In midfield, Ander Iturraspe came on for his second cap at halftime, replacing Sergio Busquets. With Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta all missing, the real midfield leader was Koke, in his just his 11th cap. The Atletico Madrid youngster took his team's corners and free kicks around the area, and was also constantly involved in open play, but did not create too many clear chances. Still just 22, he had some simple misplaced passes, and it looked at times as if he were taking on too much responsibility and thinking too far ahead. But with Xavi and Alonso both now retired from international play, he will certainly get more time to settle in.
Koke's clubmate Raul Garcia was perhaps the most surprising call-up, and did not look on the same wavelength as Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla in the centre of the park. He was removed on the hour mark to bring in another tiki-taka expert in David Silva. The 60 minutes looked more like a reward for work done with Atletico, rather than the 28-year-old being a serious option for the future.
Another taking time to get used to Spain's style is Diego Costa. Chelsea's new centre-forward has started like a house on fire in the Premier League, but again found it more difficult in his fifth cap for his adopted country. There were some barging runs that drew fouls in dangerous areas, but he generated just one shot, off target, during his 65 minutes on the pitch. Del Bosque seems to like him, however, and is likely to stick with the experiment for now at least.
In goal, David De Gea made some routine stops from Benzema (twice) and Paul Pogba during the first half, and looked safe and confident throughout. There was little he could do about Remy's well-taken goal. Del Bosque's biggest call thus far looks to be whether he recalls long-serving captain Iker Casillas. Given his form over recent months, only loyalty to San Iker can come between De Gea and a long run in the team.
La Roja finished the game with eight players on the pitch with fewer than 12 caps. Allowing for there being so many new players, this was a pretty recognisable Spain performance -- with some long spells of possession alongside a lack of cutting edge up front or willingness to have a go from 20 yards.
They did look more dangerous as the game opened up late on, with Madrid youngster Isco (in just his third senior cap) impressing in a 13-minute cameo, and almost setting up an equaliser for fellow late substitute and another debutant in Paco Alcacer of Valencia. But throughout the game, France keeper Hugo Lloris was not really troubled at all.
Of the experienced players, Fabregas looked good in the first half especially, when he drove for goal from midfield, while Cazorla was as usual neat and tidy in possession. Other well-known figures will surely come back in -- Iniesta, Thiago Alcantara, Gerard Pique once fit and in form. Del Bosque has shown a willingness to regularly give new players a chance -- 46 players have made their debuts under him now -- but also tends to go back to people he trusts when bigger games come around.
But for the moment, a quite similar team to tonight's is likely to start Tuesday's first Euro 2016 qualifier against Macedonia at Levante's Ciutat de Valencia ground. A group that also includes Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus and Luxembourg also provides plenty of time to experiment. For now, though, Del Bosque looks to have found a new right-back but his team still needs a reliable way to turn their acres of possession into goals.