Spain has released a provisional squad of 30 for the World Cup that will be reduced to 23 by Vincente Del Bosque on May 25. While some countries are chucking in make weights to get up to 23 and entering the competition thread-bare in some positions, that is as far from the case as you can get with Spain. Rife with talent everywhere on the pitch, Spain’s next best 11 after starters are picked would likely push for a spot in the semi-finals.
For Del Bosque the biggest decision is whether to view this as time to transition away from Barcelona stalwarts like Xavi, Busquets and Pedro to other players who have proven their quality the past season or two or go with the experienced, cool heads that have now won two Euros and the 2010 World Cup. Let’s have a look at the choices he faces getting down to 23 and then some possible starting 11’s.
With Barca’s Valdes being out with an injury, Manchester United’s De Gea is brought in to accompany long time selections Casillas and Reina. Casillas has managed to remain Del Bosque’s #1 despite being relegated to back up keeper at Real Madrid for league games. How Ancelotti justifies playing one keeper for league games and another for Champions League games is beyond me but it seems clear Del Bosque will continue with Casillas as his keeper in Brazil. With DeGea winning both teammate and fan awards for Manchester United Player of the Year, it will be close for back up to Casillas should he go down.
There’s eight defenders on the 30 man squad and that will go down to six. None of them are Puyol and as someone who owns two Puyol jerseys and a ticket to the Spain v Holland game, that is really, really disappointing but not terribly surprising given how injuries have severely limited his play this year and he has announced his retirement at the end of the season.
Safer than safe are Ramos, Pique and Alba. Azpilicueta’a proven ability to play both left back and right back will also make sure he has a ticket to Brazil and Albiol is the only back up centre back to Ramos and Pique unless Del Bosque is comfortable moving Busquets or Javi Martinez back there.
Juanfran has been fantastic for Atletico Madrid this season and seems to be a logical pick over both Moreno and Carvajal, who at 21 and 22 respectively are the youngest of the defenders by a few years.
For other squads, Juanfran’s ability to play as both a right back and in right mid would be a very helpful asset. Not so with Spain. This is where some very tough choices will have to be made.
There’s thirteen midfielders listed, ten will likely make the final squad. Sorry Iturraspe but you’re the first one to go.
Then it becomes a matter of whether Del Bosque is going to stick with the mode of play that has made Spain champions the past six years and select players that complement that or pick players that give him some options to mix things up. A player like Jesus Navas is not a typical Spanish midfielder yet it was his run in the 2010 final against Holland that really led to Iniesta’s winning goal.
Iniesta is a lock. And then you look at the players who play a similar role to him in terms of playing higher up the field and linking with forwards. Silva, Mata, Fabregas. Is there room for all of those and still keeping Navas when you also need distributing mids like Xavi and Alonso and holding mids like Busquets, Koke and Martinez? And that still leaves Cazorla and Thiago unconsidered!
So before making further cuts to the midfield let’s look at Spain’s striking options.
Negredo was decent for Manchester City but was only fourth highest scorer for them this past season. Villa is clearly in decline and was a distant second fiddle to Diego Costa this year at Atletico Madrid. Torres, having lost a step, is shifting more from being a pure finisher in past years to being a provider; something Spain has stacks of. Llorente, having been frozen by Athletic Bilbao for a season after requesting a transfer had 15 goals for Juventus this year. Pedro, for me, is one of the most under-appreciated players in Spain. A consistent goal scorer. The only real notable omission from the squad is Roberto Soldado who had a disappointing first year at Spurs.
Traditionally, teams take four strikers in a squad of 23. Spain generally play a very fluid 4-3-3 that can look like a 4-2-3-1 if Alonso sits deep with Busquets, or a 4-5-1 if strikers sit deep in midfield. That fluidity and the comfort that many of Spain’s midfielders have with roles that are half mid and half striker opens the door to picking one less striker and one more midfielder. And if you’re going to pick one less forward in favour of a strong attacking midfielder (Silva, Mata, Cazorla, Fabregas) you’re going to then make sure your strikers give you something those attacking mids don’t. Diego Costa is the lockiest of locks and he typifies the sort of player that I’m describing. Llorente also give the team someone who will lead the line and dominate in the air. Villa and Torres would struggle to fit into a lineup that played up to five midfielders, as Del Bosque has done in past games.
Teams have adjusted to Spain’s tiki taka style and it has become harder and harder for them to have success. They need the ability to keep teams on their toes and that means different attacking options. I would take Costa, Llorente and Pedro and as much as it pains me to say this as I think Torres has had far more criticism than he deserves since his move to Chelsea, I would leave him and Villa out. I would also leave Negredo out.
That opens the door to keeping 11 midfielders, many of who play as pseudo forwards. Navas would stretch back fours with pace out wide and the ability to provide service to Costa and/or Llorente in the box. You have Koke, Busquets and Martinez as holding options, Alonso and Xavi as deeper distributing mids and then Iniesta, Silva, Thiago and Navas to link with strikers and score themselves. That leaves Fabregas, Cazorla and Mata battling for the last two positions on the assumption that Iturraspe has no chance. All three have been somewhat maligned this season while still scoring some impressive goals. I’d take Fabregas and then it’s a pick em between Cazorla and Mata.
So in terms of starting elevens, I’m now committed with this squad to playing what could be seen as a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1.
Here’s two options:
This is what I see as Spain’s best formation at this time. Playing with Navas wide and Costa up front forces teams to adjust how they approach playing Spain. In Navas they have a true wide threat who can beat a fullback and either cut in himself and cross to a big, physical option like Costa who is strong in the air. Yet they maintain the ability to retain possession through Busquets, Xavi, Alonso and Iniesta. And in Alba they have an overlapping fullback who will provide width on the left.
This one pains me. To leave Xavi out the starting eleven seems wrong but….
You could almost call this a counter-attacking lineup if Spain had even the slightest inclination to play that way. I could see this lineup should Spain face Brazil. Two holding mids and the threat of Navas being released to link with Costa and Silva or Fabregas trailing.
Spain are utterly fantastic to watch and have shown technical soccer can be successful. The game continues to evolve though and Spain must evolve with it. the knock on Spain has generally been that they don’t have a Plan B if tiki-taka is not working. That knock becomes more reasonable as teams show they can deal with Spain and make themselves difficult to play against. It’s hard to call Spain, with the tremendous fluidity and off the ball movement, predictable but to some degree they have become predictable. Having both a physical striker who can play high and win balls in the air along with true speed out wide makes opponents have to respect potential variety in attack.
Del Bosque has tough decisions ahead of him. If this team is not, as key players age, in transition now it will surely be by the time the 2016 Euros come around. How he handles that transition will be very interesting and even more interesting if we start to see signs of that transition a month from now at the World Cup.