It’s fair to say Spain’s World Cup preparations have hit something of a bump on the eve of the tournament, with manager Julen Lopetegui sacked after failing to discuss his decision to take over as Real Madrid boss with the Spanish FA.
The country’s under-21 coach Albert Celades had been expected to take charge of their opening fixture against Portugal on Friday evening, but Fernando Hierro has now been named as Lopetegui’s replacement.
It is an unenviable task for a man who has only spent one season as a manager, but also an unexpected opportunity. How will he cope?
Experience and hunger in the squad
On the face of things, it is difficult to feel too sympathetic for a manager with a squad like Spain’s at his disposal.
The 2010 winners failed to put up any sort of defence of their crown four years ago in Brazil, but the usual suspects of Iniesta, Ramos, Pique and the other experienced heads in the squad are now bolstered by a generation which seems to be coming of age at just the right time.
Hierro will have a task on his hands choosing from a litany of world-class attacking midfielders, and the choice between Diego Costa, Rodrigo Moreno, and Iago Aspas up front will be an interesting one.
He will also hope, with the players apparently unanimous in their support for Lopetegui, that there will be no split in the camp as a result of the decision. The Real Madrid players in the squad may face an awkward first few weeks when they return for pre-season, but El Clasico animosities have been put firmly to one side in the past so any disgruntlement here should be dealt with.
Senior players have to act as leaders
The senior players in the squad will be expected to shoulder a lot of responsibility, but that is perhaps no bad thing.
They are former world and European champions, with La Liga and Champions League titles coming out of their ears. They know how to win trophies, particularly knockout tournaments.
In 1974, Franz Beckenbauer shouldered a great deal of extra responsibility as captain of West Germany, after manager Helmut Schoen suffered something of a breakdown after an early defeat to East Germany, he went on to lift the cup.
Now, Sergio Ramos has released a defiant statement from within the camp:
“We are the national team, we represent a crest, our colours, our fans and our country. Our responsibility and commitment are with you and for you. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, together.”
As a former Madrid defender of 14 years, Hierro and Ramos will be on a similar wavelength. The new manager needs his leaders on the pitch to make their presence known.
Keeping faith in Lopetegui’s plan
How he will approach the tournament tactically is difficult to say given his singular season as a manager in the Spanish second division with Real Oviedo, but it is unlikely that he will be looking to change much from Lopetegui’s approach.
Preparations have been made, systems trained, set pieces drilled. There would be little sense in Hierro trying to stamp his own authority on the team with one day of training to spare – his role will simply be to steady the ship and try to maintain the course that Lopetegui had set. It is a course that had seen them touted among the favourites – why bother changing it?
In their recent fixtures, Spain have generally operated in some variation of 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, with a host of creative midfielders supplying a lone striker. Success has been mixed; an entertaining 1-1 draw with Germany, a 6-1 thrashing of a Messi-less Argentina, another draw with Switzerland and a narrow victory against Tunisia.
There is, perhaps, little Hierro can do in this situation. He simply has to trust in his players to deal with the news professionally and remain undistracted by the media circus which will inevitably surround them.
Theirs is a fearsome squad used to lifting trophies. Even with this shock news, ruling them out completely could be a mistake.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Spain’s World Cup group in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?