Everybody who’s been to a gym will be perfectly aware of the phrase: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Now, I can promise you that there’s no question of Luis Enrique’s sanity, nor does he need much time in a gym given that he’s probably even leaner and tougher than he was as a title-winning footballer for Real Madrid and Barcelona. The logical conclusion is, therefore, that he’s going to recognise the futility of Spain continuing precisely as they have been and simply hoping “it’ll be different or better or more successful this time” when they face Slovakia on Wednesday — stream LIVE, 11.30 a.m. ET, ESPN+ (U.S. only) — in their final Euro 2020 group game.
You can forget the idea of him suddenly abandoning his fondness of pressing opponents high up the pitch, or of trying to dominate a match. The sucker punch, the rope-a-dope, the percentages, a pragmatic style: none of it appeals to him, ever has or ever will. The malaise from which Spain are suffering — in boxing terms, they are stylistically attractive, they are in good nick and they carry some cachet, but they don’t have a knockout punch and they’re gradually becoming threatened by lesser fighters who throw a haymaker every now and again — is not a recent phenomenon. Occasionally La Roja will encounter a tired or naive team, and wallop them.
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Things looked set under Julen Lopetegui, and the red-letter days were beating Italy 3-0 in 2017 then Argentina 6-1 the following spring. It’s too bad he was seduced by Florentino Perez’s siren song on the eve of the 2018 World Cup, subsequently being chewed up and spat out by the remorseless Real Madrid machine. Something special was brewing back then.
Under Luis Enrique, there have been parallels. The 6-0 smashing of World Cup finalists Croatia in September 2018 owed lots to player absences and sheer exhaustion, but all the same, it was a notable gambol around the pitch in Elche where it felt like Spain could score at will and possibly had another four or five in their tanks.
The other, more recent glee spree, was the utterly astonishing 6-0 demolition of Germany last November. Joachim Low, as a matter of both honour and personal philosophy, wanted to go toe to toe with a Spain squad that was returning from a drab, nervy, almost disastrous draw in Switzerland. A Mannschaft masterclass didn’t look impossible. By the end of 90 minutes Germany were befuddled, dizzy and calling for their mothers. Everything Luis Enrique tried came off and, frankly, he’d told us that a real thumping win was just around the corner based on what he was witnessing in training. Kudos.
But the stark fact to be faced is that these are the exceptions that prove the rule. For months, the bulk of teams take a look at Spain’s potential and say “I don’t want to dance, but I’ll happily stand on your toes.” Teams that are stubborn, that soak up pressure, that play on the counter, and especially teams that can go 1-0 up have a very good chance of seeing a tepid, pallid and toothless Spain side getting notably harassed and losing confidence at the same time.
Luis Enrique talked on Tuesday about his players getting “unblocked” and the torrent of form and chance taking that might follow. And I believe him. But right now, the draws against Sweden and Poland are almost identical to what his team went through against Switzerland, Greece and Georgia in recent months. I’m not a great believer in the (admittedly) cute Spanish phrase that “La pelota no queria entrar,” or “the ball didn’t want to go in.” When you vest personality, free will and self-determination in a football, I think you’re struggling a bit. The ball hasn’t really wanted to go in for Spain very often in the past couple of years, aforementioned exceptions aside.
This week, it was interesting to hear former Real Madrid and Netherlands midfielder Rafael van der Vaart putting the boot in quite as strenuously as he did with his coruscating criticism of Spain. Just like he and his teammates in the 2010 World Cup final, when they literally tried to put the boot in, I think he missed his target and came off second-best.
First of all Koke, a loyal La Roja soldier, drilled off a superior comeback about “seeing a lot of Van der Vaart because he’s the Holland player captured in the picture of Andres Iniesta scoring the winning World Cup final goal.” If Luis Enrique’s strikers could tuck the ball away with the same gleeful, nasty style as Koke did Van der Vaart, then La Roja would be potential Euro winners.
But the Dutchman was wrong in another way. The key reason for some of Spain’s matches being both tense and a little repetitive is that there’s a tranche of teams who care nothing about how attractive a match is; they’re happy to defend, jostle, outmuscle and grab what they can from the scorched earth. Spain might not have a knockout punch, but they bob and jab and weave and body punch with the best of them — they try to win on points if they can’t put their opponent flat on the deck. They aren’t negative, and they aren’t dull … they’re just a little gentle up front.
Which brings us back to the definition of insanity — one that might be extended to not bringing Iago Aspas and Jesus Navas to this tournament, though that’s perhaps a conversation for another day.
What Luis Enrique has in his power is to expect different results by changing his pattern — not a full restart, but a refresh. Marcos Llorente, the producer of a total of 25 goals (split between those he scored and those he assisted) this season should not, under any circumstances, be playing at right-back. That has to change. Either he’s an attacking right midfielder, or a right wing-back at worst. And the wing-back concept opens the door to a change of setup from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2.
It’s doubtful that Luis Enrique will accept the widespread pressure for significant change from fans and media: that stubbornness is a fundamental part of his makeup. Across his career to date, it’s been a major plus.
That dulls the chances of him going to three at the back. But it’s a system in which Pedri, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets flourished this season. It’s a system that helped bring Koke and Llorente the Spanish title and it’s a system that, once imposed at Chelsea by Thomas Tuchel, helped make Cesar Azpilicueta a fixture in the team again and a Champions League winner.
Azpilicueta at right centre-back in a 3-5-2 would also help move Aymeric Laporte into a position where he’s much more comfortable on his stronger (left) foot. The supply from wing-backs like Llorente and Alba, or Jose Gaya, would be meat and drink to Alvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno up front.
Busquets will be back in place of Rodri, who celebrated his birthday on Tuesday by suffering slaps on the back of his head and neck from teammates who lined up a guard of honour and then dealt out stinging “collejas” to congratulate the poor lad. Traditions, eh? The Catalan might not yet be at his peak sharpness, not having played much football recently, but his brain is brilliant and he loves the push-prompt-prise approach to attacking midfield and I think he’ll love trying to unpick Slovakia.
Frankly, if Spain can’t defeat a Slovakia side that has recently struggled a little against some very moderate rivals, then they don’t deserve to be in the last 16. But they can and they will.
The key to avoiding accusations of insanity is simply a couple of smart, overdue retouches.