There is the feeling that this summer’s World Cup may mark the start of a new era for Spain. It it is the first time in a decade that they head into a major tournament without Vicente Del Bosque at the helm. While some of the old guard remain, bright new talents such as David de Gea, Isco and Marco Asensio have emerged over the past few years and they are no longer seen as players capable of keeping the established stars on their toes but as player who could be pivotal to Spain’s chances in Russia.
However for all the talk of a fresh start following recent disappointments, the same problem remains in that Spain are heading into another major tournament, not fully convinced by their strikers. It has been a common theme ever since the powers of David Villa and Fernando Torres started to wane, a point which could perhaps be traced all the way back to some time between the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. While Spain’s back four has been pretty consistent from that point onwards and midfield options have always been plentiful, a true heir to the throne vacated by a declining Torres and especially Villa, who remains La Roja’s record goalscorer with 59 international strikes, has yet to emerge.
Villa even earned a surprise international recall earlier in this season but that was more out of desperation you sense with the former Valencia man now four years into his time in the MLS and 36 years old. Ultimately he didn’t make the World Cup squad and neither did Alvaro Morata, who was at one stage seen as the man most likely to be used as Spain’s striker in Russia.
In the end, Lopetegui opted to name just three strikers in his squad and that strongly suggests just one of those players will start. La Roja look set to play 4-3-3 as they have done in qualifying for the most part with Isco and David Silva most likely either side of the number nine.
Who will be Spain’s ‘number nine’? – The main options assessed:
There can be little doubt that Spain’s best striker is Diego Costa. Were they to be made available for transfer tomorrow, Costa is the only one of Spain’s natural strikers that would really stir interest amongst the giants of the European game. He has proven his worth in the two strongest leagues in world football by spearheading Chelsea’s Premier League title triumphs in 2015 and 2017, netting 20 goals in each of those campaigns. Prior to that he fired in 27 goals in Atleti’s surprise La Liga win 2014. He was an integral part in all of those successes and at 29 should be at the peak of his powers.
It almost seems a no-brainer that Costa should start when you compare his achievements and record to those of his two main rivals. However he is far from guaranteed a starting role when Spain take to the field against Portugal in their opening game at the 2018 World Cup. For all his success at club level, the sulky, hulk-like figure of Diego Costa has never quite seemed the natural fit for a Spanish side that prefers a more patient, artistic approach. The fact he was born and raised in Brazil has made it especially tough for him to win over the Spanish media and public, who were as perplexed as everyone else when he opted to play for Spain rather than his native country in 2014.
Lopetegui has seemed more willing to put his faith in Costa than Del Bosque ever was and 6 of his 7 international goals have come since the change in boss. He netted five times in World Cup qualifying but his chances of cementing himself in this side weren’t helped by his decision to rejoin Atleti and miss the first half of the 2017-18 season. His form heading into the tournament hasn’t been great either with just 1 goal in his last 10 appearances at club level.
Diego Costa will certainly have a role to play at this World Cup but whether he is trusted from the off is rather more doubtful. Either way it promises to be a make or break summer in the context of his international career.
The most viable alternative to Costa is Iago Aspas. The Celta Vigo striker has had another cracking season at club level with 22 goals in La Liga, ensuring Lopetegui had little choice but to select him in the squad. It marked the fifth straight season that Aspas has improved on his league goals tally and while that run did start in the Premier League at Liverpool where he failed to net even once, it’s still a real sign that Aspas is continuing to grow as a player.
He is now performing at a vastly superior level to the one he found during an ill-fated stint on Merseyside. Back in his native Galicia, Aspas has proved equally adept at starting out wide as playing through the middle and his rather more subtle approach makes him a better fit for Spain’s natural style than Costa ever will be.
Aspas has gone from outsider to make the squad to possible starter in the space of only a year. His debut came as recently as November 2016 when he scored a late goal for Spain at Wembley and he has added three more to his international tally since then.
However there are still doubts as to his ability to perform on the big stage and in the high-pressure situations that World Cup football brings. With only 8 international caps to his name, he has limited experience at this level and has also only spent two seasons playing in European competitions at club level so he needs to prove he is someone that can perform away from the home comforts of Vigo in a side that is geared to his strengths.
Like Costa, Iago Aspas will certainly see game-time at this World Cup. Should Spain find themselves chasing a game or needing to break down stubborn opposition he could well be introduced perhaps in a wide role, but it would be a big call to play him from the off as the central striker.
Read more: Spain’s 23-man squad for the 2018 World Cup
The third striker in this Spain squad is Rodrigo Moreno of Valencia. At the start of this season you’d have got very long odds for him to be preferred to the likes of Alvaro Morata but he is largely there on merit thanks to the best season of his career to date.
Rodrigo is another Spanish striker to have bad memories of English football. He netted just once in 20 appearances for Bolton in the 2010-11 campaign before emerging as a player of some potential at Benfica. However he struggled to make his mark initially at Valencia with just 10 league goals in 3 seasons from 2014 to 2017.
However under the stewardship of Marcelino in revitalised Valencia side, Rodrigo really excelled alongside Simone Zaza as Los Che made a flying start to the campaign that has just ended. He finished up with 16 goals in La Liga, the joint second best tally for a Spanish player behind only Aspas.
Like the Celta Vigo man, he can also play wide in a front three which makes him a good option to have given the system La Roja are looking to play. However of the three strikers in this squad, Rodrigo appears to be third choice and will mostly be used in a back-up capacity in Russia unless he can make a big impression in Spain’s final two friendlies. Even then he would most likely only be viewed as a player who can introduce a bit of energy off the bench.
A False Number Nine
Spain’s initial solution to their sudden lack of striking options was to simply not play a natural centre-forward. Their best team performance of the golden era saw them hammer Italy 4-0 in the Final on Euro 2012 with Cesc Fabregas being used as a false number nine. The Chelsea man won’t be going to Russia but they have a host of options if they opt to go with a similar approach again.
Lopetegui has already experimented with the approach and it has largely proved successful. They beat Italy 3-0 in the biggest of their 2018 World Cup qualifiers with a front three of Isco, David Silva and Marco Asensio. It would be no surprise if that line-up is used again from the off in Russia and it seems like the easiest way to get Asensio into the team, with the Real Madrid youngster capable of offering Spain a burst of pace and an air of unpredictability which might just make them tougher to defend against.
Silva was the player to occupy the most advanced and most central position in the front three in the win over Italy and given the doubts that linger over the three natural strikers in the squad, we could well see either the experienced Manchester City man or Asensio used in that role again.
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