A pyrrhic victory against the fatigued Socceroos aside, Brazil 2014 has been an unqualified disaster for the Spanish national team. Even the most fervent hater of tika-taka could not have expected this; a humiliating 5-1 demolition job by the Dutch in Spain’s opening match - the heaviest reverse ever suffered by the reigning World Champions, which really should have been six, seven or even eight; a demoralising defeat to a classier, cuter and all-round better Chile side; and the ignominy of being the first team dumped out of this summer’s World Cup.
As defending your titles go, something the Spanish are supposedly good at, it’s been abject. There have been no ‘if onlys’ to cling on to, no bad refereeing decisions or untimely injuries to blame. Ultimately, Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain side, one-time footballing conquistadors of the world, have looked a shadow of their former selves from the off in this tournament. Two questions need to be answered, and fast; why on Earth was this the case, and what can Spain do about it?
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the La Roja manager, who has cut an utterly broken figure since the Dutch defeat. At times like this, it’s easy to call for peoples’ heads without thinking, but in many ways, del Bosque has played a part in his own team’s downfall. Renowned for his fierce loyalty to players and his unflappability, Brazil 2014 has left the ex-Madrid boss looking rigid, out of touch and out of new ideas. Losing any match isn’t great for a manager, but to be crushed so publicly, by such a fierce rival, must have left del Bosque wanting the sky to cave in. Contracted with the Spanish FA for two more years, it seems likely that the Salamancan will still guide Spain to France’s 2016 European Championships, though admittedly the lack of any other realistic candidate - Benitez? Pep? - helps del Bosque’s cause. A manager cannot be blamed if his players don’t perform, and del Bosque has been let down badly by the likes of Pique and Casillas. What a manager is in control of, however, is who actually takes to the field. Picking the same old faces without actually thinking about recent club form appears to have cost del Bosque dear.
As Sid Lowe pointed out in The Guardian, eight of the Spanish starting XI against Holland were from the Old Guard – of Barça and Real, of Euros 2012 and 2008, and South Africa 2010. Only one La Roja player, Diego Costa, represented the current La Liga Champions, Atlético Madrid. Out of the eight familiar faces, there was keeper Casillas, who had hardly played all season, and 34 year old Xavi starting in midfield. Great players do not simply turn bad overnight (though it appears Casillas is testing this theory out), but they are not un-droppable. A dangerous Dutch side out for revenge called for a little more thought in the team selection department. Admittedly, seven of that Old Guard eight have won every major trophy in football, but both Real and especially Barça have had disappointing seasons in the league this year, and overall, in the case of the Catalans as a whole; the clues were there for del Bosque that a little bit of tinkering with the usual Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets formation was needed. Tiki-taka didn’t work, players such as Mata and Fàbregas were not called upon until it was too late; others, such as Isco, weren’t even there. For the first time in six years, for the first time since del Bosque took over in 2010, La Roja needed a Plan B. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t one.
The most damning admission to emerge from the Spanish dressing room this week is the fact that del Bosque did not know that it was David Villa’s last international game, when he hooked him against Australia. This raises serious questions – are things really that bad in the Spanish camp, that del Bosque didn’t have an inkling that this was the case? A spat with Fàbregas, though understandable given recent pressures, is a further sign of del Bosque’s struggles. The manager is ready to talk about his future with the Spanish FA over the next few days, saying he will do whatever is best for Spain. Guiding a winning team to victory is one thing, but moulding a winning team is another. It will take a lot for del Bosque to restore his side’s trust in themselves, but he needs to do so fast if Spain want to retain their European Title for the third time of asking. If anyone can do it, surely the only manager to date to win the Champions League, the World Cup and the Euros can.
One thing that has become clear this summer, over the space of barely two matches, is the need for new blood in the Spanish side. After all, it’s not as if the country is lacking in this department; last year, Spain’s Under 21s dominated their European Championships, beating Italy 4-2 in the Final, getting 11 of their players nominated for Team of the Tournament, and winning the Golden, Silver and Bronze Boot awards (Morata, Alcántara and Isco respectively). Players the calibre of Illarramendi, Morata and Isco, players who would walk into the England senior team, didn’t get near Spain’s squad this summer, and perhaps should have. More competition and choice would only serve to make La Roja better. Spain also need to get motivated again; as well as getting old, the Old Guard – Xavi, Alonso, Pique etc – have seemed mentally jaded at this tournament. The hunger wasn’t there anymore, unlike two, four or six years ago. Players have admitted as such to the press, the much-maligned Casillas commenting almost laconically that the ‘...commitment was not what we would have wanted.’ Xabi Alonso also remarked that ‘[m]entally, we weren’t ready [...] The success, the happiness of before is gone [...] We weren’t able to maintain the same ambition and hunger, that real conviction that we were going to go for the title.’ Maybe when you’ve won everything, it’s only natural to feel such a way. Yet surely the onus falls back on del Bosque; why didn’t the Spain manager recognise such feelings in his squad, and perhaps in himself? Were they just too painful to bear, until it was too late? The problem with success is that it can leave you feeling flat, after the initial exuberance has faded. How ironic that after years of giving the nation something to cheer about during a time of economic gloom, Spanish football may be entering its own recession.
Moving forward, it’s essential that del Bosque, or his successor, rings the changes – not too many, but enough to get Spain back on track. As well as Isco and Illarramendi, young Barça starlet Deulofeu and Bayern’s Thiago Alcântara, once his knee has recovered, must feature; Mata and the quarrelsome Fàbregas must start more, especially now Xabi Alonso has signalled his international retirement. The omission of Real’s Dani Carvajal for Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta is rightly recognised by Goal.com’s Ben Hayward as a mistake. That’s the problem with trying out new players; the experiment doesn’t always work. It makes sense for Spain to stick with Diego Costa, who chose the competition of all competitions to nail his colours to the Spanish mast. What del Bosque must not do is force Costa into a team that doesn’t suit him. Wedging an out-and-out, long-ball, counter-attacking striker into Spain’s tika-taka lite side this summer was a poor choice; the player high on José Mourinho’s wish list this transfer window didn’t even get a shot on target in Brazil. Between the posts, David de Gea, once over his leg injury, is the obvious option for the long-term, and must be established by France 2016. Reina, still only 31, will provide adequate cover for the Manchester United goalie, whether or not Casillas chooses to carry on playing international football. The sad fact is, before Casillas shipped seven goals in three hours of football this summer, he was just minutes away from beating Italian Walter Zenga’s all-time record of 518 minutes without conceding a World Cup goal. As more of the all-conquering Spanish team slip from record-breakers into recorded history, La Roja will need the new lease of life that comes with fresh faces, different ideas and ambitious youth.
Sadly for La Roja, and fans of precision passing everywhere, it’s 2014, not 2008, and the rest of the world is no longer in thrall to tiki-taka. Or, to put it more bluntly, the current Spain side just aren’t doing it well enough anymore. In a way, Spain have resembled England in this tournament, and not because they’ve been atrocious. In the case of Costa, del Bosque has curiously chosen a player for his name and reputation, and not for how he fits into the team. To be fair, the Atléti striker was the third top scorer in La Liga last season, but as mentioned above, he just doesn’t fit into the tika-taka game plan, and looked completely out of sorts against the Netherlands and Chile. For all the big names in the La Roja sides of the past few years – all your Iniestas, Busquets and Xavis – Spain were always vehemently a team. If changing a losing side is difficult, changing a winning one is almost impossible, but with the wonderful gift of hindsight, it would have been wise for del Bosque to do just that. As Barney Ronay so drolly put it in The Guardian, ‘[t]here is a theory Spain were not really exposed by the tide of history here. What happened is that Xavi got old.’ Predicting if not the demise then the failings of tiki-taka may have been a bridge too far for del Bosque, though the warning signs were there, in Real and Barça’s humbling at the hands of Dortmund and Bayern respectively in 2012-13’s Champions League, not to mention Atléti’s anti-taka triumph over their city and Catalan rivals this season. What was obvious to Carles Puyol in March, and what should have been obvious to del Bosque and his team this summer, was age. The sad fact of life that David Villa is starting to come to terms with is that nobody can play top-class football until the age of 55, even if your name is Xavi. Dropping the Old Guard completely would have been stupid, and wouldn’t have spared Spain’s blushes at this tournament, but it will be a feature of the next few years for La Roja. Del Bosque did omit Pique and Xavi for the Chile clash, and eventually put Casillas out of his misery against Australia, but by then it was too late.
What is more pressing for whoever takes Spain forward than just dropping players for the sake of it, is which path La Roja choose next. Do they stick to tika-taka, refine it, relearn it, re-love it? Or do they look to their other strengths, their youngsters about to break through, and opt for a change? Such a fundamental re-tweaking of style is far easier said than done. Spain’s next generation of Moratas, Iscos and Deulofeus have all been schooled in the tiki-taka tradition, particularly those hailing from La Masia and La Fábrica. Opting to ape the counter-attacking zeitgeist is not necessarily the answer for La Roja, either. A team’s style has relevance beyond the field of play; just look at the confusion and apathy surrounding England, and which formations and philosophies the Three Lions should plump for. If Spain do decide to enter a brave new world and move on from tiki-taka, it will surely take time, maybe more time than is available before Euro 2016. Whether a nation so used to footballing success will be content to sit back and watch their side rebuild is up for debate. Spain have enough talent at their disposal to regain their crown as World Champions, and retain their European title. What all associated with La Roja must prove to us after this summer, however, is that they have the vision, desire and fight to come back better, too.