What do you think of when someone mentions Spain?
Bullfighting? Quite possibly. How about paella and tapas? It’s some of the best food going. We also think of blaring hot sun, beautiful medieval architecture and expansive Mediterranean beaches.
What we also imagine, is some of the best football on the planet.
La Liga houses two of the most successful teams we’ve ever seen in European football. Real Madrid and Barcelona have won multiple continental titles, while the Spanish national side was one of the best in the business at beginning of the last decade.
During the reign of Vincente del Bosque, they achieved unparalleled success. In 2010, they won the World Cup in South Africa and then followed that up with victory at the 2012 European Championships.
However, their dominance started before Del Bosque even got his hands on the Spanish squad.
They were also victorious at the 2008 Euros under the stewardship of Luis Aragones. This was a period of success that had never really been seen on the international stage before.
Of course, we’ve seen Brazil win five World Cups, but three international trophies in a row were quite the accomplishment from Spain.
This all came at the same time that Barcelona ran riot in the Champions League, winning it both in 2008/09 and in 2010/11.
Coincidentally, much of the Spain side was made up of those playing for Barcelona at the same time.
Taking inspiration from Pep Guardiola’s Barca side, Aragones and Del Bosque introduced tiki-taka into the Spain set-up with devastating effect.
It moved away from the traditional style of football, basing the game on zonal possessional play, waiting patiently for an opening before a quick-succession of fast-paced touches of the ball led to a goal-scoring opportunity.
Considering who was in that squad, Spain made football look all too easy.
Despite playing with a false nine – Cesc Fabregas – they still looked fantastic, and that was no surprise given they possessed three of the best midfielders we’ve ever seen – Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets.
Add Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and David Silva to the mix and you have one of the most eye-catching sides to grace the game.
Just look at the team above, it deserved to win every trophy in front of it.
This was a golden generation for Spain but they managed to succeed under the pressure, something England’s side of the new millennium failed to do under Sven Goran Eriksson, for example.
Since that triumph at the 2012 European Championships, Spain have been in decline.
At the 2014 World Cup, they suffered a 5-1 defeat at the hands of the Netherlands and were consequently knocked out in the group stages.
They then tasted defeat in the last 16 of the 2016 Euros and were knocked out by hosts Russia at the same stage of the 2018 World Cup.
La Roja also sacked their head coach, Julen Lopetegui, right on the eve of that competition for accepting the job as manager of Real Madrid.
However, with Luis Enrique now in charge, there are few signs of a recovery.
They’ve lost to England and Croatia while drawing with Sweden and Norway all in the last two years. They then drew 0-0 with Portugal on Wednesday evening fielding a team that looked like one of the worst Spanish starting XI’s for a considerable period of time.
Here is the team that Spain started against Portugal and, as you can see, the difference in quality is alarming.
Yes, it still has some impressive players in – Busquets remains – but they look a shadow of their former selves.
Prime Casillas is replaced by Kepa, a goalkeeper whose Chelsea career has been littered with errors. The bullish partnership of Pique and Ramos has been replaced by Manchester City’s Eric Garcia and Leeds new boy Diego Llorente.
Meanwhile, Dani Olmo and Rodrigo replace the effervescent Iniesta and Silva.
As for the midfield, Sergio Canales and Arsenal’s Dani Ceballos are certainly no Xabi Alonso or Xavi.
It’s important to stress that players like Ramos are still in the squad, but it’s evident that the crop of footballers that Enrique has at his disposal is a far cry from what it was.
Of course, Spain could surprise us at the Euros next year, but they will need to put in a lot of work to make winning the tournament a possibility. After all, this side looks distinctly average to the one that won three international competitions in a row.
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