Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 14 October 2019

Euro 2020 qualifiers: Robert Moreno the 'continuity' choice to help stabilise fragile Spain

Spain's fourth manager in the past 15 months takes charge of a squad for the first time for the upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers, against Romania and Faroe Islands. EPA

Robert Moreno speaks to the media during a press conference on Wednesday ahead of Spain's Euro 2020 qualifying match with Romania. EPA
Robert Moreno speaks to the media during a press conference on Wednesday ahead of Spain's Euro 2020 qualifying match with Romania. EPA

The most successful national team of this century will on Thursday come under the orders of their fourth different manager in 15 months.

It is a startling turnover, its latest episode tinged with an awful sadness, for Spain, not least because they are Spain, a side whose potential makes them a coveted project for any manager, and whose most successful football is all about fidelity to a system, to a sense of well-oiled order.

What can be said of Robert Moreno, the new man in charge, and no longer officially a caretaker, is that, unlike Fernando Hierro - who took over from Julen Loptegui on the eve of last year’s World Cup, when Lopetegui was sacked after revealing he had committed his future to Real Madrid - he is the carefully considered "continuity" choice.

Moreno has for the last year been on the coaching staff, as assistant to Luis Enrique, who stepped down to be with his nine-year-old daughter, Xana, as she battled bone cancer. The child, tragically, lost that fight at the end of last month.

Enrique, the former Barcelona and Roma manager, may return to the job in the longer-term, and the most significant announcement made by Moreno, his close friend, ahead of Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualifier in Romania, is that he would immediately return to his previous role as a deputy in that scenario.

“I would be delighted to step aside if Luis wants to come back,” he said. “Friendship comes before everything.” Moreno has kept in close touch withEnrique during his grief.

He will also honour the principles Enrique brought to the job of lifting Spain back to the pre-eminence they held over a sustained period, as European champions in 2008 and 2012, and World Cup winners in 2010. That era was guided by two vastly experienced coaches, the late Luis Aragones and then Vicente Del Bosque, whose departure after eight years in the seat triggered the unforeseen instability.

The Lopetegui crisis of June 2018 undermined the World Cup irreparably and left confidence bruised. Spain were eliminated in the last 16 on penalties by Russia, their emergency stand-in manager, Hierro, unable to coax more than one goal out of a team that had almost 80 per cent of possession over the 120 minutes against the hosts.

Hierro can scarcely be held entirely responsible for that. He had been catapulted into the job because he was on site, in his position as general manager, and his experience as a first-team manager was limited to a single season in Spain's second division.

Moreno has an even shorter background taking charge of a senior team, having worked, after a modest playing career, mostly as an assistant to Enrique. He was in that role, though, at Barcelona for the treble of 2014/15. A man who has worked with Lionel Messi and Neymar, with Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez comes with certain guarantees his instructions will be respected.

The squad picked for Romania, and for Sunday’s meeting with the Faroe Islands, gives off signals of a firm mind. There is no place for Diego Costa, the Atletico Madrid striker who has just completed a long club suspension, or Iago Aspas, the Celta Vigo forward. Both might have expected a call given that Alvaro Morata, who has three goals from his last three internationals, is out injured.

There will be no sentimental appearance for Santi Cazorla, either, in his native Asturias, where Spain are to host the Faroes this weekend. Cazorla, 34 and enjoying a remarkable comeback with Villarreal after his career had seemed ended by injury 18 months ago, played his first international for almost four years in June, finishing the game with the captain’s armband. But he is not in Moreno’s party, one that features a number of midfielders who have made significant transfers this summer: Dani Ceballos, now on loan at Arsenal; Pablo Sarabia, of Paris Saint-Germain; Manchester City’s Rodri.

Moreno has also spelled out a new approach to the position of goalkeeper, where, since 2016, Del Bosque, Lopetegui, Hierro and Enrique have had Manchester United’s David de Gea as their established No 1.

Enrique backed De Gea to that effect after the keeper endured a difficult World Cup. But the message from Moreno is that Kepa Arrizabalaga, of Chelsea, and Pau Lopez, who has joined Roma from Real Betis, should now regard themselves as De Gea’s equals in the hierarchy.

“I don’t believe in having a fixed goalkeeper,” Moreno said. “Competition for places is good. My idea is that the competition for the goalkeeping place is an equal competition.”

De Gea can take that as a strong hint he is under scrutiny.

Updated: September 5, 2019 12:52 PM

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