Blog Written by Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial):
Earlier this month the inevitable was announced -- Vicente Del Bosque was resigning.
The man at the head of the golden era of Spanish football is gone. What Luis Aragones started, Del Bosque finished, winning a World Cup and European Championship, while leaving the world as it’s admirers in the process.
Unfortunately, he failed to evolve the team beyond mere sterile possession in his final four years as coach. Loyal to a fault, Del Bosque blindly held on to the glory years gone by, calling up players whose form, or attitude, didn’t warrant it. The world caught-up to tiki taka, and the engines that made it go -- Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso -- were retired from international football.
Perhaps four years too late, Spain have made their change. Many options were considered but not many were good ones. The surly Joaquin Caparros was seen as the front-runner, while the uninspiring Roberto Martinez was mentioned, but in the end, the RFEF went with someone they know well.
In steps Julen Lopetegui, a 49 year-old manager with promise and ambition. Born in the Basque Country, Lopetegui grew up to become a part of La Liga. As a player he was a goalkeeper, starting over 100 La Liga games for both Logroñés and Rayo Vallecano. In-between those spells he was even a back-up for Real Madrid (winning La Liga in 1990) and Barcelona (winning the Copa del Rey and Cup Winners Cup in 1997).
He first foray into coaching came back in 2003, and to say it didn’t go very well would be an understatement. He lasted just 10 matches at Rayo Vallecano before being sacked effectively into a brief retirement. Lopetegui began sports commentating, including for laSexta in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, before he returned to coaching with Real Madrid Castilla in 2008.
This experience eventually led to Lopetegui being handed the keys to perhaps the best youth system in the world. With the Spanish U19s, he built a side with the likes of Gerard Deulofeu, Jesé, Óliver Torres and Paco Alcácer starring, as well as Denis Suárez and Juan Bernat in lesser roles. They won the U19 European Championships in 2011, and again in 2012, extending the domination exhibited by the senior side.
As a result, He was promoted to the U-21 side the following year and the domination continued. While Del Bosque’s side were being embarrassed in the Confederations Cup, Lopetegui side won every game with an aggregate tournament score of 12-2. It wasn’t until the final until the defense conceded, but still, it wasn’t enough to deny the Spanish another title.
More so than just the end result was the players he accomplished it with. The starting XI was stacked with talent that now lights up the pitch at some of the world’s biggest clubs. But for all of their accolades on the club level, many have found the senior national side a tougher nut to crack. Del Bosque rode with his horses and the ponies were left behind. Lopetegui was obviously primed to take over from Del Bosque in 2013. One could say that 2012 would have been an even better time to make a switch, but nothing happened, even after the unmitigated disaster that was the 2014 World Cup.
This year's European Championship saw Alvaro Morata and David De Gea finally get their long awaited opportunity but others barely featured, or even worse, didn’t receive a call-up. Chief among the omissions was Isco. A polarizing talent, Isco has shown the potential to be one of the world's very best midfielders, but at times has let outside factors interfere with his form. With Lopetegui, he has a coach who instilled a consistent confidence in him and became a champion with. Players of his caliber hold the keys to future Spanish success and need to be treated accordingly.
La Furia Roja are dying for a refreshment of young legs and revitalized commitment, and nobody recognizes this more than their new manager.
"Everything we've achieved before no longer matters. Internally, we can be happy with what we did then but we are fully focused on the job we have to do now," Lopetegui said.
"Some of them have been the best in Spanish footballing history, winning honours that no one could before them. But they must also understand that they have to live in the present and what they bring to the squad now. We will focus on that.”
Instead of abandoning their established style and mentality in order to function with a new coach, Spain have appointed a young manager who knows and has worked with a large percentage of the young players that need to make up the majority of the squad going forward. His understanding of the systems and style of play will provide a smooth transition that is imbedded into this golden generation of talent.
For 44 years, an entire country was dying for the taste of victory. Finally, they were satiated, even more so than their wildest dreams could have imagined. Somewhere along the line that hunger and passion devolved into complacency. Lopetegui is now back and his puppies are with him. It’s time to eat.