New manager is transforming the way Spain play with a nucleus of young players from Real Madrid rather than Barcelona
Tiki-taka Spain consigned to history as Luis Enrique favours a more direct approach
Though he has only been in charge for three games, Luis Enrique has enjoyed the perfect start as Spain manager. His side destroyed World Cup finalists Croatia 6-0 in his first match, when a base of young Real Madrid players rather than those from Barcelona previously had been the mainstay of Spain’s success provided the magic. Enrique’s second game against England at Wembley saw another triumph.
His third match last week was also in the United Kingdom, a convincing 4-1 victory, this time over Ryan Giggs’ Wales. Striker Paco Alcacer, who Enrique took to Barcelona during his hugely successful three-year spell at Camp Nou, scored twice. Alcacer is now at Borussia Dortmund, which is where another of the goalscorers in Wales, Marc Bartra, went after leaving Enrique’s Barcelona in 2016. Bartra plies his trade these days at Real Betis, so will feel very familiar with the surroundings when Betis’s 60,000-seater Estadio Benito Villamarín hosts Spain against England on Monday in another Nations League Group A game.
Enrique, 48, enjoyed a year off after leaving Barcelona on his terms. He stayed in the city where his family have been based since he joined Barca from Real Madrid as a player in 1996, using his time to improve his English and cycle with friends. He was relaxed about his job prospects and didn’t want to look for work. Despite being linked with several positionss, he said he would wait for the right one to come along. He was interested in the idea of coaching Arsenal, but thought too many changes were needed to make the Gunners the best team in England.
He was fine about extending his sabbatical into this season when the surprise vacancy for Spain manager came up. He was the natural choice, a player who had been successful at both Barcelona and Madrid as the lungs of their sides, and a European Cup-winning manager who had excelled at Camp Nou.
Enrique’s personable manner doesn’t always come across in public. He is reluctant to do interviews beyond those required, for he doesn’t want to add to Spain’s pantomime culture, so his players were delighted and surprised by his personal warmth when he took charge of a Spain squad still reeling from their last-16 World Cup exit to Russia this summer.
“Because I am so passionate, it’s easy to empathise with players and for them to believe in me,” Enrique told this writer in a rare interview. “I’ve always been enthusiastic about whatever I’ve done. I mark out challenges in life.”
Given that he had played in matches with most of them, he can empathise with players more than most. Not many footballers appear in defence for Madrid and attack for Barcelona.
Enrique is absolutely his own man and has freshened up Spain’s squad after the retirements of stalwarts Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and David Silva. He also left out Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba, with 66 caps to his name, despite his fine start to the season. Sergio Busquets is the only Barcelona player in the squad.
Spain have a much younger profile under their new Asturian boss, with only four players age over 30. Madrid’s Marco Asensio, 22, starred in Elche in the win against Croatia, while Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez, 23, also shone in his hometown. Valencia full-back Jose Gaya, also 23, is featuring, as are a pair of 22-year-old midfielders: Dani Ceballos of Real and Atletico's Rodri.
Enrique thinks that Spain are evolving away from their much copied tiki-taka approach, which saw them dominate possession in Russia but produced few goals. He has stuck with under fire goalkeeper David de Gea, but it’s up front where the changes are more noticeable. Enrique demands fast passing, more risks. He did the same at Barcelona with great success, but then he also had a front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Valencia’s Rodrigo Moreno, or Alcacer, with nine goals in five games this season, may not be in the "MSN" class, but they know how to finish. As does Asensio. Spain are more direct, too.
Enrique has history with Spain. His first memory in football was watching the national team trounce Malta 12-1 in a 1984 European Championship qualifier on a TV at home in Gijon. And it was playing for Spain at USA ’94 that led to an incident which he still says is his most asked question. An elbow from Italian defender Mauro Tasotti saw Enrique’s face bloodied and Spain eliminated.
Enrique played in talented Spain squads which won nothing. “We had no luck,” he explained. “Sincerely. We had no luck on any of the occasions. Tassoti in ’94, the illegal goal against South Korea, penalties in Euro 96, the Morientes goal which wasn’t given in 2002.”
Such experiences have made him determined to create his own luck with his emerging, youthful squad.