The Spanish national team will be looking to put their disappointing World Cup behind them as Luis Enrique takes charge of his first matches as national team manager. Games against World Cup semi finalists England and Croatia will provide a tough test for Enrique’s team, who will have to cope without the experience of Gerard Piqué, Andrés Iniesta and David Silva after the trio announced their international retirements following the tournament in Russia.
Diego Costa withdrew from the squad due to the imminent birth of his child, while Atlético Madrid teammate Koke was left out of the squad altogether. By far the biggest surprise in Enrique’s first squad is the omission of Jordi Alba, who struggled to get into the Barcelona team at the tail end of Enrique’s tenure. The Asturian manager moved from playing 433 to 343 and deemed Alba unsuitable for this system so perhaps we will see Enrique use this formation with La Furia Roja.
David de Gea remains in the squad after a difficult World Cup and will be looking to put in a good performance because he is under pressure from Kepa who became the world’s most expensive goalkeeper following his move to Chelsea over the summer. Enrique has handed Pau López a first call up after his move to Betis but the Catalan keeper has had a controversial start to the season after being involved in Roque Mesa’s sending off in the Seville derby. There is no place for veteran Pepe Reina whose move to AC Milan perhaps signifies the end of his international career.
Enrique has included six players who have the ability to play at centre-back which does suggest that Spain will be playing a different system in the upcoming games. Captain Sergio Ramos is joined by clubmate Nacho and César Azpilicueta who remain from the World Cup squad and they are joined by the injured Diego Llorente, Iñigo Martínez and Raúl Albiol with the Napoli defender earning a recall at the age of 32. The inclusion of Albiol points towards Enrique requiring his centre-backs to have the ability to play the ball out from the back in order to provide alternative sources of creativity if the midfield becomes stifled. Marc Barta will be disappointed to have missed out, especially considering he has been the lynchpin of his Betis team’s three man defence following his move from Borussia Dortmund last January. It was Enrique who sold Bartra to Dortmund in 2016 so, like Alba, perhaps past performances are counting against him.
Alongside Alba, full-backs Nacho Monreal and Álvaro Odriozola depart from the squad and are replaced by Sergi Roberto and Marcos Alonso as well as unccaped Valencia defender José Luis Gayà. Dani Carvajal remains the sole survivor from the World Cup but the Real Madrid player will have to improve upon his showing at the tournament, where he was hampered by a lack of fitness. Both Gayà and Alonso are very direct, attacking players and it seems that Enrique wants his left flank to provide speed and width, although this begs the question as to why Alba was left out after the Barcelona full-back was given the free reign of the left wing with his team last season. Sergi and Carvajal, while also being potent attacking threats, will be looked upon to perhaps sit a little bit deeper and help support the midfield in the build up with their passing range.
It is yet to be seen whether Enrique will line up with two or three men in central midfield but it’s sensible to assume that his system will be reasonably flexible in that regard. Perhaps surprisingly it could be Sergio Busquets who has the most to prove in Enrique’s first games as national team manager. Although the midfielder was a crucial component in Enrique’s treble winning team he has never been the quickest of players and he has lost a yard of pace in the last year or two. This lack of pace left the Spanish defence exposed time and time again during the World Cup and with Enrique hinting at playing three creatively minded defenders then maybe Busquets’ time on the highest stage has come to an end. The players looking to replace Busquets are the Atlético duo Saúl and Rodri who are both capable of spraying passes from deep and providing cover for the more attacking midfielders.
Isco and Thiago Alcântara keep their places from the World Cup and both will need to improve if they are to impress the new manager. Their roles in the team will be put under pressure by Suso and Dani Ceballos who will be looking to make his debut for the senior national team. Ceballos struggled for game time last season but has been given more of a chance this term under new manager Julen Lopetegui. It seems the ex-national team manager’s goodwill has extended to Enrique who will be hoping that the player will be able to add some dynamism to his midfield. Suso will be looking to add to the one cap he picked up against Russia last November and his directness and ability to score goals as well as provide assists from midfield will put pressure on Isco to replicate his form from the 2016-17 season.
Álvaro Morata returns after missing out on the World Cup squad, originally to provide competition for Diego Costa; however, the Atlético striker has had to withdraw. The inclusion of two out and out centre forwards indicates that Enrique is looking to play with a reference point up top, with a second striker playing just off the target man, or two forwards looking to link up either side of the number 9. Morata will be looking to put a disastrous season behind him and a good performance for the national team might well give him the confidence to put a string of performances together for his club.
Rodrigo Moreno keeps his place from the World Cup and his great form for Valencia last season and at the start of this season should make him a nailed on starter for Enrique’s team. Iago Aspas earns a reprieve after he was initially left out of the squad but he returns as Diego Costa’s replacement. The biggest question mark surrounds the role of Marco Asensio, the youngster will be looking to cement his place as a starter and his versatility will work in his favour, as he is equally comfortable cutting inside from the wing (perhaps starting from the right) as he is linking play with the midfield more centrally. His exact role will depend on how Enrique intends to set his team up but these matches provide a golden opportunity for the Mallorcan to show that he is ready to replace the creativity of Iniesta and Silva.