Spain's resurgence under Luis Enrique leaves a painful sense of 'what if?'
For many in the Spain squad, the 6-0 victory over Croatia in the Uefa Nations League on Tuesday was not just a statement victory, but actually the best they felt they had performed in years. This, according to those who have been in the camp for years, was up there with anything from the 2008-12 era. That really isn’t far-fetched given the fantastic excess of the scoreline and the play.
It is, however, a far cry from what everyone saw in Russia.
There was no pointless possession, no passing paralysis, no hesitation, no doubt. There was only purpose, self-expression and certainty – albeit all emboldened with real confidence.
The first goal was a case in point, and the best: A glorious sweeping move that saw two passes of such indulgence and theatricality that you only usually see them in training games. They were deployed to thrustful purpose, as Saul Niguez’s powerful header was provided by Dani Carvajal’s divine outside-of-the-foot pass.
The point is Spain were so confident in their ability there was no constraint or containment about this. They were trying what felt natural, and now feel in triumphant form.
How quickly things have changed. That, however, is where there still might be an element of frustration.
Luis Enrique has managed this mental transformation – and that is what it really amounts to – in very short time, having had less than a week with the squad, and it is impossible not to wonder ‘what if?’.
This was obviously a glimpse of what might have been possible in Russia had Julen Lopetegui stayed on given how Spain were playing under him, and while the Real Madrid manager’s departure has now been debated to death, his possible replacements at the time have not.
Luis Enrique was one of them.
The federation went with Fernando Hierro, and there has been a sense that he couldn’t do much in an extreme situation, and was merely subject to a wider malaise after Lopetegui’s departure.
But is that really true? Hierro is not really a coach, and that came across. His substitutions reflected a manager who hesitated an awful lot, and was unsure of himself, and his uncertainty filtered through to the team on the pitch.
That would not have been the case with Luis Enrique. He has flaws, but hesitation is not one of them.
His sense of certainty might have been perfect for what was a wholly imperfect situation. He might have been able to do something with that squad, even with such limited and difficult time, given what the last few days have shown.
It is all the more frustrating for Spain because they look at a peak, but are now as far away from the peak of the game as they can be. These are the first fixtures back from the World Cup, so it is an awful long wait until the next one.
And while the European Championships obviously aren’t to be sniffed at, especially since Spain haven’t got past the last 16 of any competition since Euro 2012, they have won three of those. The one they really want is the World Cup, and all the history it represents.
The last few days have underlined to them that the recent past might have been very different, especially since the future now looks so bright again.