Dani Carvajal’s injury in the Champions League final provided an unexpected question mark late in the season for Julen Lopetegui, with his choices both in terms of a goalkeeper and his back four already set in stone before the start of La Roja’s pre-World Cup friendlies against Switzerland and Tunisia. After a 1-1 draw against the former nation in Spain’s first friendly, there were positives to be taken despite the disappointing scoreline.
Plenty of discussion already existed surrounding who should lead the line and be the third man in central midfield ahead of the opening group game in Russia, but Carvajal’s absence was a big blow to Spain’s solid foundations. After conceding just three times in qualifying with a first-choice defence that largely consisted of Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Carvajal, some of the options waiting in the wings got their chance to audition at La Ceramica.
Illness for Sergio Busquets meant that Thiago got an opportunity to start deepest in midfield, with Alvaro Odriozola starting at right back. A rest for the busy Sergio Ramos saw Cesar Azpilicueta rewarded at centre back, while Iago Aspas had the chance to impress down the right-hand side after a terrific season once again with Celta Vigo. Lopetegui could allow his second-choice options another audition, and from most of his charges he got a positive response.
After an initially shaky start for the hosts’ right-hand side, where Aspas and Odriozola settled into somewhat unfamiliar surroundings, the latter gradually eased himself in for a comfortable evening. A low, neat volley found the bottom-left corner for Odriozola to open the scoring for La Roja in style, as he picked his moments well to throw caution to the wind and hare forward and beyond the players he was entrusted to guard against.
Iago Aspas struggled to made an impact ahead of his full back, however, with the Celta talisman running into trouble more often than not. Aspas is prepared to work hard, as both he and Diego Costa put in the miles to ensure that La Roja pressed high, but his contributions on the ball were limited, with David Silva a far more regular outlet on the opposite flank. Costa, too, failed to take the chances that came his way, leaving the door open yet again for Rodrigo Moreno.
Carvajal’s absence came at a dreadful time for La Roja, but it is clear that there is no need to panic. Always willing to press on and support the attack, which he was invited to do with a little more regularity after the half-time introduction of Lucas Vazquez, Odriozola offered a tireless presence. Lucas, too, highlighted that he is ready to make an impact in the World Cup after his best professional season to date with Real Madrid.
Koke provided the legs in midfield alongside Andres Iniesta and Thiago, with the latter duo setting the tempo and threading the more intricate passages of play, while the Atletico Madrid midfielder was keen to be on the front foot whenever Spain lost possession. His reactive optimism to try and win back the ball as quickly as possible set a precedent for those following in behind. With Iniesta and Thiago tasked with shutting the passing lanes with Koke as their reference point at the tip of the triangle, Switzerland could only find their full backs or hit the ball long to try and escape.
Lopetegui will have to decide whether it would be best to entrust Busquets and Thiago to look after possession in behind Iniesta, or whether some ballast in the form of Koke would make them a tighter unit in Russia. Marco Asensio showed his star quality from the bench, with his Real Madrid counterparts Nacho and Lucas Vázquez also looking strong in the late stages in Vila-real.
Although a 1-1 draw doesn’t look too impressive on paper, not least against a Switzerland side that were very limited, Lopetegui continues his unbeaten record with Spain. The control and patience exerted in the first half highlights how his side should be able to dictate their group games, with plenty of midfield and forward options showing that they can offer a sprinkling of star quality to break down negative opponents.
Silva and Iniesta linked up well in midfield, with Thiago and Koke both showing that they can perform well in several midfield jobs. Odriozola highlighted how he can be a straight replacement for Dani Carvajal, with Nacho also showing that in combination with a more traditional winger in Lucas Vázquez, he can offer plenty at right back too. The only real loser in terms of realistically putting their potential starting place in further doubt was Iago Aspas.
Before the invasion of second-half substitutions, Spain showed that they have the personnel and depth of squad required to control a game against a fellow World Cup participant. Although the general flow and cohesion of the match broke down after the changes were rung after the break, cameos from second-choice stars still gave individual cause for optimism, even if as a collective things took a slight downturn.
Lopetegui has the luxury of plenty of competition, as well as a range of complimentary options within his Spain squad. La Roja are heading into battle with a set system and way of playing, with various stars capable of filling in each specific role within the team. Should they suffer another high-profile injury, the evidence is there that the group can adapt.
There will be some players disappointed to be sat on the bench in Russia, but Sunday’s friendly showed that plenty of substitutes can pack a punch. Friday’s upcoming game against Tunisia will show which lessons have been learned, but Lopetegui will be upbeat in the face of trigger-happy criticism.