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World Cup 2018: Changes Spain could make ahead of the Knockout Stage
Alex Wrigley
Alex Wrigley
June 28, 2018
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Content Editor at Free Super Tips, Alex was born in the shadow of Old Trafford and is an avid Man Utd fan. After graduating from university he combined his love of football, writing and betting to join FST and now closely follows goings-on in all of the top European leagues.

Spain are through to the last sixteen of the World Cup as group winners but they’ve hardly reached the last sixteen in the most convincing of fashion. Things started brightly enough with an impressive performance against Portugal, when only some brilliance from Cristiano Ronaldo denied them maximum points in a game that came just two days after the dismissal of coach Julen Lopetegui.

However Spain have since made distinctly hard-work of games against Iran and Morocco, only edging into top spot courtesy of a VAR-reviewed Injury Time leveller against the North Africans in their final game. It was hardly the most convincing way to seal a place in the knock-out stages and there would have been plenty for Fernando Hierro to ponder on this week as he prepares his side to take on hosts Russia in the last 16.

Hierro is someone with limited coaching experience and has never had big decisions to make at anything like this level but now might be the time for him to stamp his authority on this team. La Roja have looked disorganised defensively while several big players have under-performed so it would be no surprise to see one or two changes as Spain move into the knockout rounds and a draw that has really opened up for them.

Read more: Spain’s Best Ever World Cup XI

An unlikely goalkeeping problem

In theory it should be a no-brainer that David de Gea starts in goal ahead of 35-year old Pepe Reina and Athletic Bilbao keeper Kepa, who has only won one previous cap. However there has been a surprising number of calls in the Spanish media for the Manchester United shot-stopper to be dropped after a series of errors in the national jersey.

De Gea, who is close to faultless for his club, looks less assured at international level and has made no fewer than three fairly blatant errors for Spain already in 2018, all of which led to goals for the opposition. His mistake in a 6-1 friendly win over Argentina was largely overshadowed by the quality of the performance but a few eyebrows were raised when he failed to hold a tame Swiss effort in a World Cup warm-up friendly. The pressure was then really ramped up when he was entirely responsible for one of Ronaldo’s three goals in Spain’s opening game against Portugal.

Hierro has so far kept faith with De Gea and he did make one key save in the draw with Morocco but it was another edgy display from a man who looks short on confidence and that nervousness seems to be transmitting into the defence, which was also very poor in the final group game. De Gea has spoken publicly about his view that he isn’t regarded as highly in Spain as he is in England and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could be axed at some point in the knockout stage.

Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos also made some fairly dreadful errors against Morocco but it’s inconceivable that either will be dropped and Spain still regard their back four as the best in the world. If there are to be alterations at the back, David de Gea is likely to be the fall guy and one more error may cost him his place in the side.

Read more: Spain’s Problems against Host Nations

Better Call Saúl?

His selections during the group stage suggest that the only thing Fernando Hierro is totally unsure of is who partners Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in central midfield. Against Portugal it was Koke, while David Silva was switched into a central role for the Iran game. By the final group game, Hierro made another alteration with Thiago starting in a one-time Barcelona midfield trio alongside his former teammates.

How Hierro will go against Russia is anyone’s guess. None of those three players fully convinced and the Koke-Thiago debate has raged for close to two years now with no clear answer as to who offers more. The solution may just be to pick neither of them and bring in Atletico Madrid’s Saúl. One of the criticisms of this Spanish side at the 2018 World Cup has been a lack of mobility and Saúl would inject a burst of youthful energy into the midfield and that might be just what this fairly old Spanish team needs. He also has proven himself to be a big game performer with several key goals in important Champions League ties over the past few years and there should be no doubts as to his temperament or ability to deal with the World Cup stage.

The one thing that may go against him and perhaps already has given his lack of game-time in Russia, is that he was the one player to openly criticise Spain’s decision to sack Julen Lopetegui.

A change to a diamond

With or without Saúl, a switch to a diamond has been widely discussed and it’s plausible that Spain line up that way against Russia. One of the problems with the current 4-3-3 is that it doesn’t allow for a natural number 10 and Spain have a squad brimming with players who thrive in that position. A change to a 4-4-2 with a diamond would allow most likely Isco to occupy that role and he has been arguably La Roja’s most impressive player at this tournament so far building on from an excellent year in international colours.

Things shouldn’t change much behind him with Sergio Busquets sitting in at the base of the diamond and then Andres Iniesta partnered by one of Koke, Thiago or Saúl in midfield. It would also allow Spain to get two strikers into the team but were Hierro to make the switch, he’d most likely have to drop David Silva which would be a big call even though the Manchester City man hasn’t had a great World Cup so far.

Should Iago Aspas start alongside Costa?

There is a growing clamor for Iago Aspas to start up front alongside Diego Costa, which is odd given there was talk Spain would be happy to go without a natural striker heading into the tournament. The change in coach and three goals for Costa has certainly changed that but there is certainly an argument now that Iago Aspas is also worthy of a start.

He produced a brilliant flicked finish to level the game with Morocco, a fact that was largely lost amongst the controversy of a ridiculous final few minutes in Group B. It could prove to be a huge moment in Spain’s 2018 World Cup journey as it fired them into the easier half of the draw and Aspas couldn’t realistically have done any more to stake his international claim. He’s yet to start a competitive game for his country but his 6 international goals have come at a rate of one every 63 minutes and his game compliments that of Costa pretty well with the duo linking up well when they played together in the warm-up matches.

Hierro may opt to continue to use Aspas in a super-sub role but a seriously poor all-round display against Morocco makes it more likely we could see a formation change to a 4-4-2 and that would put the Celta Vigo man in pole position for a start. Even if Spain stick with the current formation, Aspas could be utilised out wide with David Silva either dropping back into central midfield or out of the team altogether.

Read more: Who should start up front for Spain?

Does Marco Asensio deserve a chance?

World Cup 2018 - Spain

Perhaps the most exciting player in this Spanish squad is Marco Asensio. The 22 year old would offer something Spain have been lacking in terms of a burst of pace and an element of unpredictability in the final third. It’s hard to see him starting against Russia but having spent just 26 minutes on the pitch so far at this World Cup, Asensio has surely been under-used.

Perhaps the games haven’t suited him but he could have a real role to play in the knockout phase against more open sides and particularly in the latter stages of games against tiring defences. Should Spain be taken to Extra-Time then Asensio could be the real ace in their pack and the Real Madrid youngster is capable of making a big contribution at some point in this World Cup.

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