Managing Spain, Aragones – Del Bosque: As You Were

(by Paul Morrissey)

(Spain are 9/2 joint favourites with Brazil to win the 2010 World Cup.)

The passing on of the Spanish management from Luis Aragones to Del Bosque was akin to a relay baton pass from Usain Bolt; smooth, quick, and with minimal fuss.

The same could also be said for the way in which Del Bosque’s Spain went about qualifying for the World Cup, winning every game along the way. A shock defeat to USA in the Confederation’s Cup aside, it’s almost like no change was made, it’s been perfecto.

Squad selections have even had an Aragones touch to them, with Raul continuing in his role of persona non grata. Granted, he has hardly set the world alight over the last few years, but at only 32 and with 44 goals to his name for La Roja, that he is be so blatantly overlooked would demand a convincing explanation in many other countries. “It’s his character,” replied Del Bosque succinctly when quizzed recently as to the Madrid goleador’s absence. Case closed.

Even if there was little that needed changing to a team of young champions, Del Bosque’s input has been effective and typically subtle. He must feel like he’s back where he belongs.

When megalomaniac Forentino Perez (Los Galacticos, Parte Uno) thought better than to renew his contract at Real Madrid in 2003, after ‘only’ securing a hard-fought league title, Del Bosque was cast into the football wilderness. His parting signalled the first tremor in the inevitable Galacticos implosion, and it was only when it all eventually went tits-up at La Casa Blanca in 2006 that this was finally acknowledged as a grave error of judgment.

His man-management of that star-laden team laid the foundation for success.

Players look up to him; he commands respect. This may seem a prerequisite for the manager of a top club, but a quick glance through the motley crew who followed him at the helm of the Los Blancos ejector seat tells otherwise – it’s a ‘who’s who’ of managing has-beens and also-rans.

Onto the present – Spain’s prospects in South Africa.

With 10 wins from 10, there hasn’t even been the need for talk of a Plan B.

It’s tough to argue with them being among the favourites. The slow, patient passing game which was alleged to be on life support in the pessimistic build up to Euro 2008, is once again being championed.

The endemic problems with the style were typified in their elimination at the hands of Les Bleus in the last 16 at the 2006 World Cup – total possession domination but little in the way of more crucial winning indicator – shots and goals.

Aragones eventually tweaked the strategy sufficiently, and with more diversity and emphasis on direct play, and a pair of lethal strikers, La Roja finally rid themselves of their adhesive perennial underachievers tag and passed their way to glory at Euro 2008.

Many reasons were given for their enduring failure when it matters most. Spain don’t care enough. Too much regional nationalism to build a winning national team.

While underlying cultural issues did exist, a more rational explanation is that they really weren’t good enough in previous tournaments; the Euro 2008 squad were the first to enter a competition as genuine contenders since the mid 80’s. Boasting six Ballon D’Or nominees, this team is brimming with quality.

Although not much has changed on the playing side, a few developments are worth noting.

Aragones struggled to find a place for Cesc, relying on the defensive work on Marcos Senna, however his development since then has forced Del Bosque to find one for the todocampista. His combination play with Xavi for Spain’s exquisite opening goal against Bosnia in the final qualifying match has given food for thought, as well as an example of the more direct style they now offer.

Up front, there are murmurs among supporters that Torres’ absence from La Liga has had a detrimental impact on his international form; that he is consequently less in tune with Spain’s patient carousel passing game, and more inclined to move into space as in the Premier League. Such a statement seems much less ludicrous when backed up by his goals return in qualifying – zero. It is also said he has become a more introverted figure within the camp since his move to Merseyside. He will surely still be an integral player in South Africa, but Sevilla’s Alvaro Negredo’s recent impressive debut international week, scoring twice, has provided Del Bosque with an interesting striking back-up.

Perez el amigo

Ironically, Perez’s spectacular return to the Bernabeu last summer with suitcases of bank-rolled cash could prove to be the adequate apology Del Bosque had been waiting for from his former employer.

The Los Galacticos Parte Dos circus is in full flight while La Roja go quietly about their business- all the anticipated attention and pressure has been deflected from the European Champions in World Cup year. With Cristiano Ronaldo’s preening head peering out from billboards, metro stations, and Marca (issue 23 November dedicated page 1-5 to CR9’s recovery from injury) while El Niño bemusedly models discounted suits, it seems the hysteria which grips England in the build up to tournaments will not be an issue with La Roja.

Though the club scene has traditionally held sway in Spain, this season has seen La Liga has become a virtual duopoly with the media fixated on events at both the Camp Nou and the Bernabeu. The staging of the Champion’s League final at the Bernabeau in May 2010 has seemed to convince many that Real are already pencilled in as finalists.

Conditions seem perfect for them to take South Africa 2010 by storm.

¿Allá Madrid? Allá La Roja.