‘This is Spain’: Luis Enrique’s stunning start unites press and fans

Sid Lowe in Elche on 12 September 2018

At the end of Spain’s Nations League game against Croatia in Elche, Luis Enrique was asked how he felt. “Embarrassed,” said the new coach. He was not talking about the way his team had played, he was talking about the moment fans began singing his name. Managers here are not often serenaded, national team coaches even less so, and certainly not after two games in charge. Yet there was no mistaking the sound coming from the stands at the Martínez Valero. That was Luis Enrique’s name ringing round.

“I didn’t expect it,” he admitted but then they didn’t expect this, either. It is eight years since Spain were in the World Cup final and just eight weeks since Croatia were there, but on Tuesday night Spain defeated the World Cup runners-up 6-0. Yes, six. “We’re empty, we fell down after the World Cup. Now we have to rise up again,” said the Croatia coach, Zlatko Dalic.

Spain had fallen down at the World Cup, defeated on penalties by Russia in Moscow, a caricature of what they once were, more than a thousand passes yielding a solitary goal. They too had to rise up.

There were specific reasons for their collapse in Russia – Julen Lopetegui had been sacked just two days before the competition began, changing everything – but some issues appeared to run deeper. They have now failed at as many consecutive tournaments as they conquered, not winning a knockout game in 2014, 2016 or 2018, a reality Luis Enrique referred to when he pointed at his chest and noted: “I’d like there to be another star on this shirt, but I fear that’s not the case.”

A debate began about their very identity, Spain’s style. Some wanted a rupture with the past, others a restoration. Both sides could, and did, claim to be right this morning. For now at least, everyone was satisfied. Delighted, in fact. “Like this, it’s a joy,” ran the headline on the front of the sports daily AS, its match report headlined: “This is Spain.”

This was why the federation had called on Luis Enrique, charged with doing something similar to what he had done for Barcelona: evolution not revolution, he kept repeating. His character is different, too. New rules were laid down in a 15-minute meeting with the players on his first day. He watched training from a scaffold tower. There were changes too, a generational shift.

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Only three World Cup winners are left in Spain’s squad: Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and Raúl Albiol, handed a surprise return three years on, but not given any minutes. Five of those who started against Russia were absent: David Silva, Andrés Iniesta and Gerard Piqué all announced their international retirement while Jordi Alba and Koke were left out. And in Elche there were minutes for Saúl Ñíguez, Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos, José Luis Gayà and Rodri, all of them 23 years old or younger. Some had been unconvinced by Luis Enrique’s appointment; even those who were convinced didn’t expect an impact this swift.

At Wembley on Saturday night, Spain beat England 2-1; three days later, they defeated Croatia. Two of the four World Cup semi-finalists faced, eight goals scored. “Bravoooooo!” cheered Marca, an “o” for every goal. But it was not just the goals, it was how they arrived, the way Spain played.

Saúl, who opened the scoring against Croatia having also scored at Wembley, had not played a minute in Russia; now he embodies the shift, technique and talent but athleticism too, blessed of impeccable timing, arriving in the area. Asensio, whose performance was barely believable, had never scored for Spain before. He got two in three minutes – if he is credited with the second, a thunderous shot that hit the bar and went in off the goalkeeper’s back – and provided three assists. Luis Enrique glowingly listed Ceballos’s qualities, describing him as “a player of the kind you don’t get.” At the World Cup, they didn’t: Ceballos didn’t go.

Luis Enrique had also eschewed a “traditional” No 9 for strikers of mobility and intelligence. Diego Costa had pulled out of the squad and Álvaro Morata did not play a minute. Instead, Costa’s replacement, Iago Aspas, started centrally at Wembley and Rodrigo began in Elche, scoring as he had done in London. “I’m delighted for him,” the coach said.

Saúl Níguez celebrates after scoring.
Saúl Níguez celebrates after scoring. Photograph: NurPhoto via Getty Images

While they initially struggled against Croatia, seemingly uneasy bringing the ball out from the back, Spain took control of the game. More than 600 passes were accumulated, yet this possession felt different, more purposeful. They were more aggressive with the ball, faster and a lot more direct, going long 34 times – a third more than they averaged in Russia. They pressed higher.

“The insubstantial, rhetorical Spain that left Russia amidst yawns, [fans] anaesthetised by a thousand passes, gave way to a decisive Spain,” El País wrote. AS said: “Luis Enrique’s new Spain have turned things upside down: the goals arrived before the play, the artillery did the cavalry’s job.”

The World Cup was forgotten, one columnist insisted, but in fact the opposite was true: this served to remind everyone just how bad it had been and how different it could have been, recriminations returning. But at least there is hope now; euphoria even. “If there was a World Cup now,” El Mundo sighed. “If they had been a bit more rock and roll.”

The best description came from Luis Enrique himself: “We created space, pushed the full-backs high, played between the lines. Marco Asensio was spectacular in his shooting, getting two goals; Rodrigo was incredible; Sergio [Ramos] and Nacho produced spectacular balls, switching the play; Busi and Ceballos, the inside midfielders played a spectacular game, Ceballos too on his debut; Gayà was incredible as well; Carvajal was like a dagger on the wing, continuously producing spectacular crosses.”

“What’s left?” he asked, pressing on much like his players had, eventually sitting back with a smile. “Rodrigo–Isco was very good, and even had chances to score twice. There’s not much more to say, but above all the attitude was excellent: we pressed every time we lost the ball, recovering possession very quick, stopping a national team that has [Ivan] Rakitic and [Luka] Modric who are two of the best in the world. There are lots of things to highlight. I can’t really say much more.”

He had said enough. In short, to use his word Spain were spectacular. They might also be back.

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