Spain 2018 Fifa World Cup team guide: tactics, key players and expert predictions
La Roja are smiling again. After the thrashing at the 2014 World Cup and the defeats at Euro 2016, Spain have bounced back in the last year and head to Russia looking a little more like the side who won three successive major tournaments between 2008 and 2012. Julen Lopetegui, who took over from Vicente del Bosque after Euro 2016, has reinvigorated the team without having to start afresh.
It is extraordinary that Spain have managed to find form with the same backbone that was there at their lowest point. Eight of the players who were in the side knocked out by Italy at the European Championships played a key role in the qualification stage for Russia (David de Gea, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Álvaro Morata).
If the World Cup were to start tomorrow, it is most likely that, seven of those would be in the starting XI, with only Morata missing out. He was not even named in the squad. The remaining positions would probably be taken by Koke and Thiago Alcântara (both in the squad in France), Dani Carvajal (who was injured), Isco and Diego Costa. In other words, the thread through the last decade remains intact in the shape of Ramos, Iniesta and Silva. That trio have been on board since winning Euro 2008 in Vienna.
Over the last year, Spain have been rejuvenated while keeping the same playing style as always. Although Lopetegui has been flexible, the team continues to cherish one thing above all else: the ball. It’s all about the ball. Their passing style remains in place thanks to an enlightened group of midfielders: Busquets, Thiago, Iniesta, Isco and Silva.
The only point of departure is up front. David Villa and to a lesser extent Fernando Torres have been the only forwards who have settled well with the tiki-taka style of Spain. It has been such a countercultural team that when they’ve played at their best it’s been while using a false forward concealed among the midfielders, whether with Cesc Fábregas back in the day or now with Marco Asensio.
Since Diego Costa was unable to play for Atlético Madrid until January, Morata spearheaded the attack after his explosive start of the season for Chelsea. But the Madrid-born player seemed to go downhill more or less at the time when Costa was able to reappear. Costa, however, has not managed to fit in. He has difficulty getting involved in a game that flows pass after pass. Iago Aspas and Rodrigo are better suited to Spain’s style.
In short, attack is where Lopetegui still needs to fit in the final pieces of the jigsaw. The rest of the squad is as easy to recognise as the that of 2008, 2010 and 2012. No revolution required, la Roja is once again la Roja. The only thing left is for the team to confirm this on yet another grand stage.
Probable starting XI (4-4-2)
De Gea; Carvajal, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Thiago; Silva, Isco, Iniesta;Diego Costa.
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Isco, who was key in Spain’s qualifier, will play in his first international tournament at a great time for his development as a player. He has matured immeasurably and is a great fit for this side’s mentality with his astute decision-making. He is a top-class dribbler and very good with the final pass. On top of that, he also has very good movement in the area between the midfielders and the strikers.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
With David Villa in the United States, Spain has played well without an orthodox striker. Diego Costa hasn’t quite settled and that is why he might struggle in Russia. He has found it difficult to connect with the midfielders – it seems as if Costa likes heavy metal when his team-mates prefers classical music.
What is the realistic aim for Spain at the World Cup 2018 and why?
La Roja has a squad to reach the final stages of the tournament. After the disappointments in Brazil (2014) and France (2016), the team has become competitive again. Lopetegui has kept the spine of the team and add, with great care, players such as Isco, Asensio, Lucas, Saúl, Aspas and Rodrigo. Spain can hope for the best again.