Euro 2016 – Spain

Reigning European Champions qualified for the Euros with ease and will be looking to defend their championship in what could possibly be Vicente del Bosque’s last international tournament as Spain boss. After a surprise loss in Slovakia in October 2014, the Spanish won the remainder of their games and ended the qualifying process with nine wins and that solitary loss.

After a miserable showing in the 2014 World Cup, Spain will be looking to re-establish itself as one of the top nations in world football with a vastly improved performance in France this summer. We caught up with Wilko Martínez-Cachero who writes for Read La Liga for a Q&A session about their chances at the Euros.

Spain are certainly one of the favourites to win Euro 2016 – what do you make of their chances?

When it comes to sheer talent, Spain are certainly right up there with the likes of France and Germany—the two teams I make out to be favourites for this summer. However, the team’s confidence has taken a significant hit after the last World Cup and the rebuilding job that many expected either Vicente del Bosque or a new manager to take on has not yet happened.

In the last squad alone, 12 players who were at the disastrous World Cup were included, and that is leaving out Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Javi Martínez, and Santi Cazorla who are all sure-fire names for the Euros if at full fitness, along with Xabi Alonso, Xavi, and David Villa who have all retired from international duty. That is a worrying sign for many, including myself. del Bosque is attempting to squeeze every last drop of talent out of a squad that most likely has their best days behind them.

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For me, Spain’s chances of winning the Euros highly depend on whether del Bosque replaces the “old guard” with the new generation of Spanish talent. For instance, it is still a big question mark as to whether Iker Casillas or David De Gea will be Spain’s starting goalkeeper. The answer should be and is obvious to everyone, except for the head coach. The talent is there, but the pieces have not come close to clicking yet. As of this moment, it’s hard to see Spain making it to the final, let alone winning.

Who were the stand-out players during the qualifying process? 

Starting from the back, David De Gea’s appearances have been a breath of fresh air after some of Casillas’ calamitous performances over the past three years or so. It is worth mentioning, however, that Casillas has not conceded a goal in 710 (and running) minutes for Spain, although I think that says more about the teams that Spain has faced lately rather than his form.

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Marc Bartra, who is likely to deputize for Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos at the Euros, has also been quietly impressive. He’s not put a foot wrong whenever he has been called to play and has maximized his minutes. Barring a poor display against Italy during the last international break, Juanfran has also been a significant upgrade on Álvaro Arbeloa and is expected to start in the Euros ahead of Mario Gaspar and Dani Carvajal who may not even make the final squad!

Alarmingly, no one has stood out in midfield, which is generally the area people think of when they talk about Spain. Thiago’s return to fitness has been a welcome one, but he is yet to have a particularly impressive showing for La Roja. The same goes for Koke and Isco.

Finally, although Paco Alcácer has not had the best of times at Valencia (having not scored in La Liga since January 17th before a hat-trick against Eibar last weekend), he has played very well for Spain. His link-up play and ability in tight spaces has come in handy with six goals in 13 appearances for the national team.

Spain will be confident of navigating Group D – can you see any of the other teams in the tournament springing a surprise or two?

Switzerland have a relatively easy group with France, Albania, and Romania, and should make it through to the next round. I cannot see them as dark horses to win the tournament, but they have a good squad with some talented players such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Ricardo Rodriguez, Timm Klose, Fabian Schär, Admir Mehmedi, and Breel Embolo. I could see a few of those players getting big money moves in the summer if they impress at the finals, particularly Rodriguez and Embolo who have already been monitored by some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

Belgium are another team who have been mentioned a lot in past years, but they did not meet expectations at the World Cup. A lot of the fault goes to Marc Wilmots for not getting the best out of his squad really. However, with lowered expectations, they could make it far in this tournament. Although their back four leaves much to be desired as they have no real quality fullbacks and are forced to play centre-backs there, Belgium has a great goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois, a more-than-capable midfield and two fantastic young strikers in good form with Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi – if he makes it after picking up an injury in the Liverpool derby. That is without mentioning the likes of Eden Hazard, Mousa Dembélé and Michy Batshuayi.

Finally, England are my dark horses to win. For all the criticism Roy Hodgson gets, I feel as if he has done a decent job building his squad and, although they have not been impressive sometimes, England has gotten good results. Its young core has developed very well this season, largely thanks to Mauricio Pochettino’s brilliant work at Tottenham, and they have a gaggle of options in attack that all possess real quality. Other teams could be in for a shock this summer.

There have been some wonderful teams and players over the years, especially over the past decade, how do you rate this current team?

As I mentioned earlier, the talent is there.

Spain has two good goalkeepers in Iker Casillas and Sergio Rico, and one world class goalkeeper in David De Gea. Juanfran, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, and Jordi Alba should compose the back four this summer and they are all very good players. Finally, the midfield is stacked as ever, and there are plenty of options for del Bosque to pick from (more on that later), ranging from the more established players like Busquets and Iniesta to the hungry newcomers like Thiago and Koke. For the first time in a while, Spain have plenty of good strikers at their disposal. Spain has not gotten the best out of Diego Costa yet, but he is still an option, along with Alcácer, Álvaro Morata, and Aritz Aduriz.

Despite that, the team has not clicked. The possession football that characterized Spain in 2008, 2010, and 2012 has not shown its face for a good while. Instead, prodding passes and static movement have replaced that. The previous winning generations of the Spanish team were largely based on Pep Guardiola’s very successful style of football at Barcelona, but despite the focus on possession still being there, football has evolved.

Barcelona are a lot more direct under Luis Enrique than they were under Guardiola or Tito Vilanova. Atlético, who have taken Europe by storm under Diego Simeone, are masters at sitting back and feeding off chances other teams create with their own mistakes. Even Real Madrid’s best performances in the past few years have come based on a counter-attacking style of play.

Until Spain finds its new identity, I would have to rate this team several steps below the versions seen in 2008, 2010, and 2012.

Are there any late pushes for inclusion by Spanish players?

Aritz Aduriz’s rise over the past few seasons has been remarkable. Like a fine wine, he has only gotten better with age. Since returning to Athletic Club in 2012, he has scored 18, 18, and 26 goals over the last three seasons. This season alone, he has 33 goals and 10 assists in 52 appearances. He is indubitably the best Spanish striker at the moment and it was pleasing to see him get his first Spain cap since 2010 (and second cap overall) last month. He did himself no harm, putting in two decent performances against Italy and Romania, and scoring the equaliser against Italy in his “re-debut.”

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Although he hasn’t been included in a Spain squad since the World Cup, mostly because of fitness issues, I expect Javi Martínez to come in for either Nacho Fernandez or Mikel San José at the Euros. He is an exceptional player and one that del Bosque clearly trusts, both as a centre-back and as a defensive midfielder.

In midfield, Sergi Roberto got his first Spain cap last month after a great season for Barcelona. His versatility is very handy and he can play all across the pitch basically. Although Cazorla should be fit for the Euros and del Bosque sees him solely as a midfielder, I think that he should make it into the final squad.

Another midfield option that on current form could even start for Spain would be Saúl Ñiguez. His emergence under Diego Simeone has been spectacular this season. For the past few months, he has consistently put in great performances. He knows how to play the “Spain way,” as seen through his many appearances for La Roja‘s youth teams, and should be Spain’s wildcard for this summer. He is tireless, diligent, and can get you goals. However, I fear that del Bosque will be loyal to other players like Juan Mata or Cesc Fàbregas regardless of their poor form.

Lastly, Fernando Torres could be making a final push for a spot in the final squad for the Euros. For those who are not regular watchers of La Liga, this is not a joke. El Niño has been absolutely superb since the start of 2016 and has become a key player for Atleti. He’s scored five goals in his last five games and is averaging a goal every 88 minutes in 2016. With there still being doubts over Diego Costa and Paco Alcácer’s goalscoring record not being stellar, he could yet be an option for the reigning European Champions.

Are there any potential star players coming through the youth? Who is your tip for a future star in the making?

One of the great things about Spain is that there are always players with amazing potential coming through. Some of the names that stand out to me are: Jesús Vallejo (19, CB, Real Zaragoza on loan from Real Madrid), Borja Mayoral (19, ST, Real Madrid Castilla), Marco Asensio (20, MF, Espanyol on loan from Real Madrid), José Luis Gayà (20, LB, Valencia), Sergi Samper (21, DM/CM, Barcelona), Héctor Bellerin (21, RB, Arsenal), Jorge Meré (19, CB, Sporting Gijón), Dani Ceballos (19, MF, Betis), Gerard Deulofeu (22, FW, Everton), Iñaki Williams (21, FW, Athletic Club), Santi Mina (20, FW, Valencia), Nahuel (19, RW, Villarreal).

I know that’s a lot to take in, but they are all superb prospects. If I had to pick just one out of that medley, I’d have to go with Iñaki Williams. As a youth prospect coming through the ranks at Athletic Club, he was dubbed the “Basque Balotelli,” but he is so much more than that. Beyond his physique and goalscoring record, he is a tricky dribbler with blistering pace. He is improving with every game and has been key under Ernesto Valverde this season at Athletic. While Iñaki has scored 13 goals in 33 games, he only has 3 assists, meaning that he still has to improve his decision making and vision, but that will come with experience and age.

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What is your opinion on the strength of La Liga compared to other European leagues? Many say it is a three-team league, but is that really the case?

In terms of teams that can win the league, then yes, it is a three-team league. However, the strength of La Liga should not be undermined because there are usually only three contenders for the title (two before Atlético’s recent emergence).Out of the seven Spanish teams in Europe (Champions League and Europa League) this season, four of them are in semi-finals and the other 3 three were eliminated by other Spanish sides. Along with that, Spanish clubs have won 44 out of the last 47 knock-out matches against foreign clubs. That is an impressive record.

Clubs like Villarreal, Athletic Club, Celta, Sevilla, and Valencia are not to be taken lightly. The biggest problem in Spain is the distribution of television money, which makes it extremely uneven and favours the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona. La Liga, for all its star power, has done a remarkably poor job at selling its marketability and the influx of money is a lot lower than some of the other major leagues. As a result, the disparity in the distribution of television rights is incredibly unbalanced and makes it very difficult for teams other than Barcelona and Madrid to challenge for the title (Atlético being an anomaly).

Until that changes, the level of competition within La Liga will remain the same, but La Liga clubs are very competitive outside of Spain.

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