Spain’s first game under Julen Lopetegui, the start of a new era after eight years with Vicente Del Bosque, ended with Belgium’s first defeat at the Heysel stadium in three years. But it was the “sensation” more than the “score” that the new manager said pleased him most.
And rightly so. This is an era that that begins with the seleccion no longer champions of anything for the first time since 2008, but with the hope that, who knows, they might become champions once again.
Time to calm down? Of course. Time to put this into context? Yes. Time to point out that Belgium really were very bad and that this was just a friendly? That, too. As Lopetegui himself noted, the game that matters is against Lichtenstein on Monday, while the games that really, really matter are against Italy on Oct. 6 this year and Sept. 2 next year. Time to resist the temptation to leap to conclusions? Oh, definitely; this is just one game, after all.
But it was a good one.
“Spain were far superior,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez admitted afterwards and not just because his side were bad enough to be whistled from the field.
It wasn’t the way Martinez imagined his debut would go, but it was just how Lopetegui hoped that his would. “A happy start,” ran the cover on the front of AS while Marca ran with “a recital to begin with.” Their match report opened: “Suggestive. Hopeful. Encouraging. Heartening … and all those adjectives that come to mind to mean the same thing.”
“Why do Spain usually have the ball?” comes the question, incisive in its innocence, after an hour of watching those men in red kick it a lot and those men in white run after it. Because Spain will be Spain.
Sergio Ramos completed 117 passes, Koke 112, Sergio Busquets was impeccable. The team’s possession percentage was not far off 70. Lopetegui was never going to lead a revolution; the former Spain under-21 manager represents continuity. More than Joaquín Caparros, the favourite to succeed Del Bosque, did.
There was something very familiar about the national team’s style of play, yet it was the small details, the shifts, the little differences that stuck in the mind Thursday, if only because we have seen this identity before, assimilated it so much as to be become blase, almost immune, blind to the stand-out feature so outstanding that a five-year-old sees it. Worse, people have become bored with it.
If the touch, the technique and the possession doesn’t impress much, it still should. It should still be the basis. That’s what Lopetegui thinks. The fact that Spain were recognisably Spain will have pleased him; he’s not here to be something else and he and his staff were clear that Spain have the basis of a very good side already.
Yet, that they weren’t quite the Spain that played at the past World Cup and at Euro 2016 will have pleased him too. He represents continuity, sure, but he also represents a shift, a rejuvenation: This is a man entrusted with seeing through a transition and bringing a new generation to the national team.
This week has seen small changes with Spain, a sense of things being tightened up a little. Training sessions have been behind closed doors — a shift significant enough for the Federation to beg journalists to respect the decision — while the daily planning circulated by the RFEF during this get-together outlined activities like “anthropometric and body composition evaluation” and “individual gym and injury prevention work.”
Which is not to conclude necessarily that was not done before, but there was something significant in saying so this time, for the first time. And when David Silva scored his second from the spot last night, it was not lost on people that Lopetegui had named him as his penalty taker; after Ramos missed what proved to be a tournament-turning penalty against Croatia in France, Del Bosque had said it was down to the players to decide who took it.
If there was something notable about Lopetegui’s first squad, it was how many players he chose who worked with him at U-21 level. If there was something notable about his first side, it was that, of the XI, only two — the injured Dani Carvajal, as well as Vitolo — did not go to the European Championship. After 26 minutes in Brussels it was three, when Alvaro Morata departed injured and Diego Costa came on.
And while nine players had a touch it was those three men who combined to accelerate the attack that opened Belgium up ahead of Spain’s first goal, scored off by Silva.
Afterwards, he offered a useful warning for anyone seeking too many conclusions. Beyond the typical thing of players rediscovering enthusiasm and effort with a change on the bench — “new manager, guaranteed victory,” as the old Spanish cliche has it — Silva noted: “We’ve hardly had time to do any work with the new coach.”
The Manchester City man was superb. Theoretically playing on the left, he came inside and dominated the game. Also impressive was Vitolo, who was involved in both goals. He played on the right but said, “I’d play in goal if the manager asked me to.” There was a dynamism and directness about Spain’s right side, where he combined with Carvajal, and a willingness to go at defenders.
Speaking of dynamism and directness, when he was left out of the Spain squad that went to France, there was a suspicion that Costa’s international career might be over. In that quiet way of his, Del Bosque expressed disappointment and hinted that there was more to it than form. Few really missed Costa and no one cried for him, still less campaigned.
But Lopetegui called him back and, after 26 largely flat minutes of control but little creativity, called him on, whereupon Costa changed the game: “He gave us enthusiasm,” the manager said. Costa was exactly what Del Bosque had sought but so rarely found: The player who stretches games, who gives a focus, speed and aggression, if not yet goals.
Costa was too good for Belgium; Thibaut Courtois stopped him getting a third for Spain. Asked if it was his best game, Costa replied: “Yes.” He had a point to prove and, also, a point to make.
“If I played for Madrid or Barcelona they would say I played well, but as I am not naturally Spanish, people criticise me,” he said. “If I no longer went to Las Rozas (where Spain’s squads meet up) because of my character, I wouldn’t have returned [to the squad] because I’m not going to change. Of course I go too far at times, like everyone does, but if I do it, it seems like I get criticised in a different way. A storm is made of it. I don’t need people to tell me when I have made a mistake: I know.
“When I do well, I would like them to say so.”
Against Belgium, he did do well and they said so. They all did; players, press and fans. The new manager, too.
“It was a great game; the lads play well and enjoyed it,” Lopetegui said. “And when they enjoy it, you enjoy it.”
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.