Luis de La Fuente with Spain's mid-fielder, Álex Baena. AFP
The envy of Europe
A look at La Liga

The envy of Europe

Spain coach Luis de la Fuente doesn't have to find a system to fit the players; he already has the players who fit his system, writes Rob Palmer

Rob Palmer, ESPN commentator


Friday, 28 June 2024, 14:04

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Top of the group, the only country with maximum points, victory over the reigning champions, not a single goal conceded – it's ¡Viva España!

As the Euros reach the knockout stages, only one country can be totally content with their team. Elsewhere, there have been inquests since matchday one; here in Spain, there's a sense that the coach has hit every right note.

Italy are having the usual introspection; France are underperforming; and England are going through an identity crisis as Gareth Southgate tinkers with his team.

Spain's Luis de la Fuente is so comfortable with his team and tactics, he was able to change his whole outfield for the last group game with Albania.

Of course there's time for it to go horribly wrong - but right now, it's going spectacularly right.

De la Fuente may not be familiar to many as he didn't really register as a club coach. His personality and methods are known to all the Spain squad as he's developed as a coach while the players have honed their talents. He guided Spain to the European Championships at under-19 level in 2015, claimed the under-21 title a couple of years later, won the silver medal at the 2020 Olympics, and last summer added the UEFA Nations League title to his growing collection.

His speciality is clearly tournament football, shaping talent and tactical nous.

It could be argued that he doesn't have the array of individuals available to rival coaches. He makes this work to his advantage, as he doesn't have to find a system to fit the player, he has players who fit his system.

Spain have gone for the traditional 4-3-3 formation that has served the country and tops clubs well over the past three decades. The players operate in the same position for Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Club etc as they do for Spain. That's one complication out of the way.

It's certainly not tiki-taka football these days, it is the short-passing game they've been taught since their youth, at national team levels with De la Fuente for many of them. In fact, for the first time since they won the Euros in 2008, Spain had less possession than the opposition when they beat Croatia 3-0. He describes his style as more vertical than horizontal.

His selection system is also simple: he chooses the individual that he feels is in the finest form for that position. There has been little argument with the selection of his best XI since the tournament began. He's also proved that if a player doesn't tow the line, receives a suspension, or picks up an injury, there is a talented replacement waiting in the shadows.

Ten changes would be too much for most teams. For Spain, the rhythm remained the same as they all sang from exactly the same victorious song-sheet. Dani Olmo proved that he's pushing Pedri for his spot with a man-of-the-match performance, and Ferran Torres proved to be a more than able deputy for Álvaro Morata. Everyone is kept on their toes. If there's a hint of dragging heels, then they have a ready replacement.

It's far too early to rejoice; the team is still developing at these championships, but Spain are the current envy of Europe and exceeding all expectations.

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