Spain, Luis Enrique turn to new pipelines during La Liga's struggles
Spain head coach Luis Enrique Martinez during the Qatar 2022 World Cup, qualifying round. pressinphoto

We all saw it coming in slow motion, match by match, with little power to intervene. The viral stat last season was how no La Liga side appeared in the Champions League semifinals for the first time since 2007. This season was a predictable continuation, with Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, and Barcelona all knocked out in the round of 16 and only Real Madrid, Villarreal and Granada left standing in Europe. With a transition between generations, those same existential questions of La Liga’s place in the modern game would inevitably reach the Spanish national team. 

Luis Enrique’s latest national team call-ups reflect La Liga’s downturn, though maybe not in the way you’d expect. The 24-player squad featured four new players in attackers Pedri and Bryan Gil, fullback Pedro Porro, and keeper Robert Sanchez. Even more revealing, the squad has only six players from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.  

Spain still found results over this latest batch of World Cup qualifying matches, which is to be expected considering their individual quality against their opposition. They top their Group B table after a slow start, drawing 1-1 against Greece in their opening match. The side then grinded out a 2-1 win over Georgia thanks to goals from Manchester City’s Ferran Torres and an injury-time winner from RB Leipzig’s Dani Olmo. Spain relied upon the pair for goals against Kosovo, with Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno grabbing the third. 

Moreno’s goal represents the only goal scored from a La Liga player over the three games. Contributions from Manchester City, RB Leipzig and Villarreal are a far distance from the Barcelona and Real Madrid reliance that defined last decade. Sergio Ramos played just 50 minutes total with Enrique preferring City’s Eric Garcia paired with either Athletic’s Inigo Martinez or Leeds’ centerback Diego Llorente. Llorente especially has taken advantage of playing under Marcelo Bielsa in the Premier League. 

“You don’t realize just how different he is. At first, it’s a shock because his methodology is so different,” said Llorentein discussing how much he’s improved due to the Argentine manager’s meticulous nature. 

As for Ramos, Enrique tried to downplay any rift between the two sides. He did concede that any topic surrounding Ramos is going to “provoke debate” either way. 

We know half the story, of the struggles of the glamor sides. But optimistically, you could also say that the team has stronger depth due to its variety. On loan from Sevilla, the 20-year-old Gil is the first player from Eibar to be named into the Spanish side. Porro is with Sporting Lisbon, with Sanchez playing through the relegation battle with Brighton. That diversity of teams and styles could be Enrique and Spanish football’s response to the physicality and athleticism of the modern game, away from the singular tiki-taka style. 

Barcelona’s Pedri is the player who most reminds supporters of the Golden Age through comparisons to Andres Iniesta. Playing for Las Palmas in the second division just a season ago, the 18-year-old midfielder’s quality is rumored to have revitalized Lionel Messi’s relationship with this current Barcelona squad. If his domestic responsibility to convince Messi to stay with the club, then getting his first cap is simple by comparison. 

Enrique has been equally energized by Gil and Pedri, along with the 22-year-old Dani Olmo. The manager highlighted Gil’s two-footed dexterity while praising Olmo’s positional versatility in playing inside and on the wing. Olmo’s developmental background is as unique as any player in Spain, having left Barcelona’s La Masia for Dinamo Zagreb at 16 before moving to RB Leipzig. Is there any better place for a young player to learn right now than under Julian Nagelsmann’s direct, pressing system? 

And considering Olmo combining the Red Bull-directness with his Barcelona-developed skill, wouldn’t a national team benefit from players developing in different leagues? Nagelsmann often praises Olmo for his ability to win the ball and defend, with his on-ball skill a given. 

“It’s a very physical league, with many changes of pace, many counter attacks, very direct. But you have to adapt,” said Olmo of playing in the Bundesliga.  

That adaptation is essential, even if it necessarily wasn’t planned. City took advantage of Valencia’s financial situation in signing Torres last summer for just under $27 million. Due to injuries to his strikers, Pep Guardiola was forced to find unique ways to goal-scoring that included converting Torres from winger to striker. The 20-year-old played as a lone striker in a stretch of matches, including against Marseille in the Champions League and Sheffield United’s idiosyncratic 5-3-2 formation (Guardiola noted the difficulties of being a striker against that shape). The challenge uncovered a new skill that has also made an immediate impact on Spain’s results.  

The antithesis of that argument comes with the Spanish national team itself, with their Golden Age featuring a core developed at Barcelona (Spain’s starting lineup in the 2010 World Cup Final featured seven Barcelona players). Six Bayern Munich players started in the final of Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning side. Then again, the starting lineup of France’s 2018 World Cup Final featured four players from both the Premier League and La Liga, with only Antoine Griezmann and Lucas Hernandez as club teammates.  

Regardless, we’re used to the cyclic nature of domestic dominance, starting with nostalgic tales of Serie A in the ‘90s. The underlying reason for the end of a cycle comes from aging stars and past ideas holding on against new evolutions of the game. But taking into account the growth and challenges of playing abroad, wouldn’t Enrique not only mind a mini-exodus, but also encourage playing aboard? 

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The last time we saw Spain in an international competition, they were knocked out in the round of 16 by Russia in the 2018 World Cup. That side infamously completed 1,006 passes in the match, but for what? That starting lineup, reliant on La Liga’s big three, featured several players no longer with the side, including Isco, David Silva and Diego Costa. Not only do Olmo, Gil and Pedri add a decentralized energy, Enrique’s direct style fits more with modern trends than that Julen Lopetegui-developed possession side.  

In examining the relationship between a domestic league and its national team, you could even argue an inverse strength with exported players able to bring back different experiences to international play. Similar to the national team, Torres and Llorente leaving La Liga gave room for the likes of the Pedri’s and Gil’s to develop at a young age. And due to the selling nature of their clubs, Olmo and Gil will make at least one more move with Pedri’s Iniesta comparisons likely locking him into Barcelona for his prime. Granted, Spain still averaged 80% possession in their three most recent qualifiers. Even with their youth and meshing of new ideas, it’ll take more than a week to get rid of generational habits. 

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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