They might have drawn their opening World Cup game, but Spain offered up something of a rebuttal with their performance against Portugal just days after sacking manager Julen Lopetegui.
Many had predicted that the turmoil experienced by La Roja would critically hit their World Cup chances, but against their Iberian rivals all appeared fine.
Had it not been for the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernando Hierro would have lead Spain to three points at the first time of asking. The 2010 World Cup winners dominated the ball, particularly in the second half when Portugal were forced back deep inside their own half. They were in control.
And yet their three goals that evening came from a long ball, a set piece and a wonderful strike from outside the box. Were it not for their battering ram of a centre forward, Diego Costa, Spain would have been left frustrated against a well-drilled Portuguese defence that plugged the gaps at the back.
For that game, Hierro started with a midfield unit of Andrés Iniesta, Isco and David Silva supported by Sergio Busquets and Koke. All five players are among the best in the game. Busquets and Iniesta, in particular, are legends. But together, there was very little variety in their play. Portugal found it easy to defend against.
This was a problem for Spain in the lead up to the tournament. Against Tunisia in their final World Cup warm up game, the attacking midfield trio of Iniesta, Isco and Silva struggled to break down the North Africans, who sat deep for much of the game. That was a sign of things to come at the tournament itself.
It was therefore encouraging, at least from a Spanish perspective, that Hierro dropped Koke to the bench for the second group game against Iran this week, picking Lucas Vázquez over him. This was key to the improved diversity of Spain’s performance in the win over Iran.
The 1-0 scoreline might have been rather narrow, but there was more variety to their midfield play. They were less predictable and much of that was down to Vazquez’s inclusion in the side.
A new kind of Spanish midfield
Vázquez was used in a similar way for Real Madrid last season. Zinedine Zidane frequently picked the 26-year-old over the likes of Gareth Bale and Isco in the big games. He recognised that the pace and directness of Vázquez was key in opening up space for others. When Isco in particular played, Real Madrid were too narrow through the middle. There wasn’t enough space for their midfielders to operate.
With 80 minutes of the game against Iran played, Marco Asensio came off the bench to replace Vázquez. This indicated that Hierro now has an appreciation of what Spain need in midfield. He could have thrown on Thiago Alcántara or Saúl Ñíguez.
Instead, he recognised that it wasn’t Spain’s system and approach that needed to change, but only the personnel as Vázquez started to tire.
Asensio and Vázquez’s games for Real Madrid are quite similar, characterised primarily by chance creation, compared to the very different games of Thiago and Saúl, more focussed on build-up and defending respectively.
This dynamic, attacking verve of the two Real men is valuable in the lone striker system adopted by Hierro and Lopetegui before him. Diego Costa needs support and Vázquez provides him with that when he is on the pitch.
These are the sort of qualities Spain will need at this World Cup if they are to stand any chance of emulating their 2010 triumph. Even now, eight years after they won the tournament for the first time, Spain find themselves trying to replicate the Busquets-Iniesta-Xavi Hernandez midfield unit. Those three players set the zeitgeist for a whole generation of midfield players, but the dynamic has changed since then.
‘Tiki-Taka’ is no longer the prevalent philosophy at the top of the game and more variety is now required to cut through opposition defences, who have become accustomed to sitting deep and plugging the gaps against teams comfortable on the ball.
Both Asensio and Vázquez represent Spain’s changing identity as a team. Hierro must make use of them.