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The end of an era for Spain: If you can’t beat them, join them

If you can’t beat them, join them. It was so often the refrain of teams in response to demoralizing defeats at the hands of the Spanish national team, or their club side equivalent the all-conquering Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, as teams sought to emulate what seemed to be the definitive answer to successful football. But now it may be just the mantra that saves the future of Spanish international football.

As the first team eliminated from this World Cup, the defending Champions were blown away by Netherlands and had little answer to Chile’s fast, direct style of play. They looked out of energy and out of ideas. However, the impact of this World Cup should not be over-exaggerated, something of this ilk has been on the cards for over a year since Bayern’s dismantling of Barcelona in the Champions League Semi-Final in 2013 was followed by Brazil’s dominant 3-0 Confederations Cup Final victory over the World Champions in much the same direct, counter attacking manner. The tiki-taka era has slowly been on the decline and its poor showing over the last few weeks in Brazil was simply the final nail in its coffin. Tiki-taka may have ‘died’ in Brazil, but the symptoms of its illness have been there for all to see for at least 12 months.

Yet, although this World Cup has seen the defeat of tiki-taka in the face of a more exciting, attacking style it would be unwise to suggest that we have seen the end of Spain, a nation who’s domestic club sides, Real Madrid and Sevilla, won both European competitions this season. This is certainly not the end for Spain as a major footballing power, but it does seem abundantly clear that a thorough reconfiguration of the Spanish system is needed.

Before the start of the World Cup, Xavi boldly stated that Spain would live or die by tiki-taka. The previously un-droppable midfielder’s words may have come back to haunt him as his side, without their longstanding conductor for the Chile game, quite visibly ‘died’ against the vibrancy of their opponents. Since their rise to the top in 2008, a Spain side without Xavi has been just an unimaginable as a Spain side not playing tiki-taka. The two go hand in hand. Yet now Spain’s admission that Xavi is not the be all and end all of Spanish football demonstrates that they may need to accept that, in the same way, tiki-taka has become outdated.

Spain certainly possesses the players to give fans confidence that the future is still very bright. The experiment with Diego Costa spearheading the team was unsuccessful, with the seemingly Chelsea-bound striker short of full fitness, he could not adapt to the national side’s playing style that is so antithetical to his current club side Atletico Madrid’s powerful, counter-attacking style. However, this does not mean that Costa has no future at international level. Nor that he made the wrong decision choosing to represent adopted nation Spain over Brazil. In fact, quite the opposite – he and Atletico teammate, the dynamic central midfielder, Koke should be made the linchpins of a new blueprint for the Spain team. Koke epitomizes the style that brought Atletico La Liga success and a Champions League runners up medal this season. He is exactly the type of energetic box-to-box midfielder that flourishes in this new brand of counter attacking football that has become so admired since Bayern Munich cruised to their fifth Champions League title. Fortunately for Spain, a key component of that treble winning side was central midfielder Javi Martinez, who, alongside Bayern stalwart Bastian Schweinsteiger, laid the foundations for the new era of counter-attacking football based on direct, dynamic midfielders.

Used out of position as a centre back for Spain and under Guardiola at Bayern this season, Martinez excels in the centre of midfield where he combines power and the traditional Spanish technical ability to impose himself on games. With the possibility of long-serving Spanish first teamers in this position, such as Xabi Alonso and Xavi, retiring from international football this summer, the time now seems ripe for Spain to build their team around this new breed of midfielder.
The core of the current squad must be kept together not only for their big tournament experience but also for the, often over-looked, fact that they possess genuine world-class talent. Players such as Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Ramos and Pedro, who’s pace on the wings must now be fully utilized as ‘Plan A’ for Spain, have to step up and take a leading role. Barcelona have high hopes for young winger Gerard Deulofeu, who made his full Spanish debut in the pre-World Cup friendlies in May this year, and along with currently injured Manchester City winger Jesus Navas, his pace and drive will allow the quick transitions from defence to attack that Spain sorely missed in this campaign.

In goal it is surely time for David De Gea to claim the number 1 spot after patiently waiting 5 years from his first team debut at Atletico in 2009 for an international call up. Goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas, arguably the best goalkeeper of all-time who has won every major trophy he has competed for, has been on the decline for more than 12 months and it is now the right time for this Spanish legend to depart the national scene, as well as perhaps Real Madrid in search of first team football.

This will pose another dilemma for manager Vincent Del Bosque, providing he continues in this role, as to who will replace Casillas as captain. The obvious choice is Sergio Ramos, the next highest capped player after the goalkeeper and Xavi, with 120 caps, who captained the side against Australia in their final group B game. The Madrid centre back, who is also likely to take over the armband at domestic level, is at just the right stage of his career to lead La Roja’s next generation into the most uncertain future it has faced since victory at Euro 2008.

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