Julen Lopetegui trusting his young stars as new Spain generation begins
LAS ROZAS DE MADRID, Spain -- There were a lot of familiar faces at Las Rozas this week as the Spanish national team's headquarters welcomed back men who have spent an enormous amount of time there over the years. Not just Andres Iniesta or Sergio Ramos, either, but pretty much all of them. If some of the Spain squad that gathered a short distance north-west of Madrid are a little less recognisable to football fans around the world, everyone here knows them very well indeed, from the groundsmen to the kit men, the guys on the gates to the chefs in the kitchens and the staff behind the desk in the residency. The manager, Julen Lopetegui, especially.
There are just three players left from the Spain squad that won Euro 2008 -- Iniesta, Ramos and David Silva, plus Pepe Reina, who was forced to withdraw because of injury -- and of the current 25-man squad, less than half have won titles with the Spanish national team. The
Spain's golden era is gone; or it's going, at least. Casillas, Xavi, Puyol, Xabi Alonso and Villa don't show up here anymore, although they still look out from the huge panels that decorate the façades of the buildings here and the photos on the walls inside. The World Cup victory is present here, a memory to cherish and an achievement to aspire to even if the manager believes that clinging to it may not be helpful. "I've always said the same thing: comparing generations will not help us win games," Lopetegui says.
"In my opinion, the generation that has just passed is without doubt the most brilliant not just in the history of Spanish football, but one of the best in the history of world football, so comparing anything to that is not fair and would be a mistake," he insists. "But that doesn't mean we haven't got good footballers: we have got good footballers, with ambition, personality, desire. Players who are making big steps, but to follow their path, not someone else's."
They have players he knows, above all, and their path is one he is familiar with.
Lopetegui has been connected with the Spanish Federation for a long time. Although he has changed offices, moving in upstairs, and headed to Portugal to coach Porto from 2014 to '16, Las Rozas has long been his place of work. He was there in 2010 when they won the World Cup and in 2012 when they became European Champions for the second time. He was Spain's U19 and U20 coach from 2010 to '13, their U21 coach from 2012 to '14. He believes those were roles help when it comes to being the senior coach.
"You know what a national team coach's job is, you know the environment, the culture. You know what it means: coach very good players but with specific conditioning factors. You also know the players from a previous period," he said, and this continuity is not just about the coach.
Iago Aspas, Vitolo, Nacho Monreal and Diego Costa aside, every player in the current squad has won something with Spain. Many of them have won something with Lopetegui. There are eight players in the current squad who were European U21 champions in 2013, for a start: as many as won titles with the senior side in 2008, 2010 or 2012. Others won the U21 European title in 2011, while there are U19 champions and U17 champions too. That latest of them is Kepa, the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper called up to replace Reina.
All that has given Lopetegui an advantage, or at least he thinks so. There is, theoretically, continuity and a natural progression there.
There is no guarantee that you get the very best players, of course, nor does it necessarily mean that players get senior opportunities especially young or that the process is smooth and uninterrupted. Lopetegui has had to re-establish the link, and he has not been rigid in applying it: he says older players with little history will be called up if they can offer something; Aritz Aduriz, not in this squad following injury but included last time, is proof of that. He also backed Vitolo and Aspas, giving them opportunities they'd not had before, and continued with Costa.
But there is an affinity with players, a profound knowledge not just of their play but their personalities too. That can lead to decisions that surprise but are rooted in a certain logic, a certainty about what you're going to get, how the player is going to react, how they are going to fit. It's not just a list of names; it's a group.
When Lopetegui took over, he included Isco even though he was getting few opportunities with Madrid. Lopetegui knew what he could offer and how to draw it from him, seeing something different in him to others. He also gave Ander Herrera his first senior call-up at the age of 27. "I know him from the U-21s," he said. "Ander is a good player who has evolved; he's an intelligent boy and has adapted to what coaches have asked, [developing and surviving] in a very physical type of football because he has been clever. He's a good player, an intelligent one. We like him a lot."
Something similar happened this time. The big shock was the inclusion of Gerard Deulofeu, called up unexpectedly ahead of players whose case appeared stronger. "If I hadn't gone to Milan, I wouldn't be here now," he said. If he had not been here before he might not have been here now, either. People asked what it was he had; whatever it is, Lopetegui knows. He has that background, a European U19 champion two years in a row.
Asier Illaramendi, also 27, was another surprise. He has never played for the senior side but was a European U21 champion in 2013 alongside David De Gea, Dani Carvajal, Nacho, Thiago, Koke, Isco and Morata. A long time has passed, but he was not forgotten. Their manager then was Julen Lopetegui; their manager now is Julen Lopetegui.
"It's a lovely opportunity to be back here," the Real Sociedad midfielder told Rodrigo Errasti. "I have very good memories of that U21 team. I made a lot of friends; many of them are here [now] and I'm happy to meet them again in the senior side."
"Julen knows me from the U21s; he knows what I am capable of and how I play," Illaramendi said. But he could have been speaking for many of teammates, too.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.