It was all going so swimmingly. Unbeaten in 20 games since their round of 16 exit at Euro 2016, Spain had been many people’s favourites for this summer’s World Cup. (I mean, two of my fellow writers joined me in backing them as our predicted winners in this excellent preview).
Their last four friendlies have witness mixed performances, with a 6-1 win over Argentina mitigated by draws with Russia and Switzerland, but the football they’ve been playing has been superb. And at the heart of that had been Julen Lopetegui.
The 51-year-old was a somewhat surprise appointment to replace Vicente Del Bosque after the Euros, given the disappointing end to his tenure at Porto. However, to many in the know his appointment was a logical one. The former Rayo Vallecano goalkeeper had coached Spain’s under-19, under-20 and under-21 sides, something that gave him almost unbridled knowledge of the player’s coming through to the senior national team. Impressively he had won all 11 games in charge of the under-21 team, leading them to the 2013 European Championships.
Lopetegui was an establishment man, so, whilst the announcement yesterday (Tuesday 12 June) that he would succeed Zinedine Zidane as manager of Real Madrid after the World Cup raised a few eyebrows, very few thought that would impact Spain’s chances at the forthcoming tournament.
Then it all changed. An announcement this morning by the Spanish FA said that his contract had been terminated due to the fact his negotiations with Real Madrid had taken place without the knowledge of the Spanish Football Federation. Quite rightly the federation were annoyed and, despite the protestations of several leading Spanish players, dismissed Lopetegui, replacing him with Spain’s sporting director, Fernando Hierro.
Hierro’s managerial experience can fairly be described as limited. Less than a year as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid was followed by a season in charge of second division side Real Oviedo. A win percentage just shy of 40 was not enough as Oviedo missed out on the play-offs on the final day of the season and the former Bolton defender left the club.
Whilst Hierro is one of the most reputed centre-halves to have ever played for Spain, one of football’s true hard men, Lopetegui’s departure is certain to have had an impact on the squad.
Their opening game with Portugal now takes on even greater significance. Fernando Santos’ men are not the sort of team that will play Spain off the park but they will pounce on weakness. Victory will ensure the favourites tag doesn’t stray too far from the 2010 winners, but a draw, or worse still a defeat could be enough to set the alarm bells ringing. Iran in the second game will be tough to break down but limited going forward, so the real test will come against Herve Renard’s Morocco side. A dark horse for many to escape the group, that game could be make or break for Spain.
Those games were always going to be tough with the eyes of the world watching, but without the man who has cultivated this squad and developed their style of play, they become even more difficult. Especially when you consider the travel.
For the tournament, Spain are based in Krasnodar, over a thousand kilometres south of Moscow. Their three group games will take place in Sochi (Portugal), Kazan (Iran) and Kaliningrad (Morocco), meaning that during the group stage alone they will need to travel over 9,300 km. That amount of travelling to play three games in ten days will take a toll and they’ll have to do it with an unfamiliar face at the helm.
Then there’s the squad to consider. Lopetegui exhibited a considerable amount of flexibility when it came to his formations, but the most traditional approach most resembled a 4-2-3-1. Key to that was David Silva, but it is unclear whether Hierro may prefer Marco Asensio in his role, or change the formation and starting XI entirely. That amount of uncertainty can never be positive for a squad, especially just 48 hours before their first game.
Spain are still the favourites of many people. Many will look beyond this sacking and say that with a squad as talented as Spain’s is, the coach is only of secondary import. Many will see the similarities with France, winners in 1998 and finalists in 2006, where a new crop of players came through to reinforce the talented first generation. The likes of Isco, Asensio and Koke complement Iniesta, Ramos and Busquets who tasted success in South Africa. They all need someone to bind them together though, and the man who did that for the last 22 months has gone, and in acrimonious circumstances. Will Spain be mentally strong enough, and can Hierro led them adequately enough, to see them past the likes of Portugal, France, Germany and Brazil to lift the World Cup in a month’s time?
Time will tell, but Spain have made things as difficult for themselves as possible. This mess is all of their own making, adding layers of complexity and drama that will mean all the more eyes are on them when they take to the field against Portugal on Friday.
Over to you, Fernando Hierro…