Even though some pundits [ahem] were tipping them as big favourites to win the trophy again during the first week of Euro 2016, there was a sad inevitability about Spain’s 2-0 last 16 exit to Italy on Monday afternoon.
90 minutes at the Stade France showed up a team and coach who have struggled on way past their prime, while mirroring years of inertia and rudderless leadership at the Spanish FA.
Italy were phenomenally dominant during the opening stages, with Spain goalkeeper David De Gea touching the ball more often than any of Andres Iniesta, David Silva or Sergio Busquets during the first 15 minutes. Such problems had been predicted by none other than ex-La Roja talisman Xavi Hernandez, who told Gazzetta dello Sport last Friday that “Italy are the worst team Spain could have got” due to their style of play.
Xavi had pointed out that Spain always struggled against teams who played 3-5-2, and it seemed Del Bosque formulated a plan to get around Italy's high-press. That plan failed awfully though - De Gea hit 12 of his 14 passes long in the first half but that was just giving the ball away.
The only surprise was that the opening goal took 33 minutes to arrive via an almost unbelievable series of mistakes from Spain. Sergio Ramos gave away a needless free-kick, the wall was still being organised when Eder drove the ball goalwards, De Gea’s pushed it straight back out and Giorgio Chiellini was one of four Italians who reacted quickly [versus only Gerard Pique] to bundle it over the line.
“You get the feeling Italy are playing with 13 players," said ex-Spain striker Kiko Narvaez on Telecinco, soon before Italy’s Daniele De Rossi nut-megged Iniesta to sum up things were going.
At only 0-1 at half-time, the game might have been saved, but Del Bosque’s substitutions were also baffling. Taking off a struggling Nolito did make sense, but sending on target man centre-forward Aritz Aduriz when the midfield needed stiffening with Koke or Bruno Soriano did not. Then withdrawing goalscorer Alvaro Morata was very strange, and looked even worse when Aduriz got injured and there were no more forwards left on the bench.
Spain’s tactics remained pretty much the same, and Iniesta kept playing little five yard balls forward to the feet of Fabregas or Silva, who were just get eaten up by three/four/five Italians. The zip and panache of the team lead by Xavi between 2008 and 2012 was nowhere to be seen. 2-0 was a fair result - with De Gea and Pique the only Spanish players who came out of the tournament having played close to their best when the pressure came on.
Del Bosque’s 115th game in charge of La Roja will surely be his last - although he stonewalled when repeatedly asked about his future plans after Monday’s game, saying he would speak to RFEF [Spanish FA] president Angel Maria Villar before saying anything publicly. “I’ve not said anything to the players,” he said. “The president is the person to talk to.”
No decision is now expected until mid-July at the earliest - especially as presidential elections at the RFEF are overdue and Spain’s sports minister Miguel Cardenal has asked the courts to force Villar to step aside [after 28 years in the position] due to his involvement in alleged misuse of federation funds.
Acting UEFA president Villar may have his eye on taking the top European job, while he is also currently FIFA’s head of the Russia 2018 World Cup. Nobody knows his future intentions as the former Athletic Bilbao midfielder almost never speaks to the press, and has not talked even once to the Spanish media all the way through the current tournament.
Amid such inertia and confusion, Del Bosque was the perfect man to remain as Spain coach even following the disaster at the World Cup two years ago, and the federation might even ask him to stay on again now for the upcoming WC 2018 qualifiers. To be fair to the veteran coach he probably would have stepped aside after the Brazil embarrassment, but Villar wanted him to remain as a 'company man' who would not challenge the way things are done.
The same reasoning is behind the lack of exciting names in local media speculation about who could replace Del Bosque now. Outgoing Sevilla coach Unai Emery, Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde and Villarreal’s Marcelino Garcia Toral have all done excellent work lately, while ex-Chile Copa America-winning coach Jorge Sampaoli was on the market this summer.
But AS say that Joaquin Caparros is best positioned, while Marca predict Julian Lopetegui. Both Caparros and Lopetegui have huge holes in their CVs. The former did well with Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao a decade ago, although most recently has failed in various ways at Neuchatel Xamax, Mallorca, Levante and Granada. Lopetegui guided Spain to European U-19 and U-21 success, then lasted only 18 months at Porto in his only top flight managerial club job. The pair have however cultivated good contacts with the RFEF hierarchy and can be trusted not to rock the boat. Motivational, tactical or organisational skills do not seem so important.
La Roja going out of Euro 2016 to the team they hammered 4-0 in the final four years ago was for many a neat closing of the circle and end of an era. Del Bosque surely knows he cannot continue for the World Cup qualifiers. But unless there is more change at the very top of the Spanish game, a new start for the team looks very unlikely.