La Roja struggled with age four years ago, an issue that was most clearly seen in goal. Del Bosque opted not to phase out the old guard and used Iker Casillas in goal, even though Casillas had been dropped from his club earlier that year. In hindsight, things went about as well as you might expect. Casillas gave up seven goals over Spain’s opening two games against the Netherlands and Chile. Spain went on to give up 1.4 expected goals against per game (tied for 20th out of the 32 teams).
If we fast forward to today, the goalkeeping spot is much more solidified. Manchester United star keeper David de Gea will be the No. 1 throughout the tournament. He is a wonderful shot stopper — 18 clean sheets and 115 saves for Manchester United this past season in the Premier League — and is a fantastic distributor. His comfort on the ball allows Spain to play the build-out passing style that it is so well known for.
Spain also addressed another area of concern from the 2014 debacle: the lack of consistent finishing from up top. Enter Iago Aspas, a unique backup solution in case Diego Costa’s World Cup struggles continue. Aspas is a versatile forward, capable of playing out wide or up top. He is excellent on the ball, capable of both creating chances and scoring goals. He tallied 22 goals and five assists for Celta Vigo in La Liga, and ranked fifth in the elite league in both expected goals and expected assists.
In addition to his tangible and analytical production, Aspas should blend perfectly with Spain’s unbelievably talented midfield. Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Thiago, David Silva, and Isco combining with another skillful attacker playing as a number nine? If Spain opts for a different attacking look with Aspas instead of Costa, it is going to be entertaining.
Team-wide, one big thing in Spain’s favor is its recent form. It has not lost a match since a 2-0 defeat against Italy in the round of 16 of the European Championships, nearly two full years ago. The only team in the field that has goner longer without a defeat is Brazil.
But it will be so without Lopetegui, who was fired Wednesday by Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales after Lopetegui agreed to join Real Madrid after the World Cup but told national team officials just five minutes before the deal was announced.
“We have been forced to dispense with the national coach. We wish you the greatest of luck,” said Rubiales at a news conference Wednesday.
“It’s the Spanish team. You cannot do things this way,” Rubiales said at a news conference.
Lopetegui will be replaced by Fernando Hierro, but Spain’s style of play is not expected to change with its first game Friday at Portugal.
With an improvement in goal, a couple of varied options up top, and a truly impressive string of results over the last year and change, we will see a string of quality performances from Spain in 2018. The Elo ratings certainly appear to think so. In 2014, Elo — which assigns points to national teams based on the quality of opponent, tournament and result — had Spain on a negative trajectory coming into the World Cup. Out of the top four favorites, Spain was the only one with a negative net rating in the year leading up to the tournament. In fact, Spain’s 48-point drop in the metric was more than any other team in the top half of the tournament field.
This year, things are very different. Spain sit third in the Elo ratings with a 2,042 score (anything over 2,000 could be considered elite or favorite), but it is coming into this tournament with a 37-point improvement over the past year. No other team in the top five can match that.
Spain has one of the best goalkeepers in the world. It has a pair of forwards with different styles ready to go. The squad is on one of the best runs of form of any team in the World Cup field. Even the Elo ratings like them as one of the hottest traditional favorites coming into this tournament. All signs point to Spain making a deep run in this year’s World Cup and avenging their poor 2014 performance.
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