Spain's latest Euro squad is historic but will a lack of Barca or Real 'identity' help or hurt them?
LAS ROZAS DE MADRID, Spain -- Villarreal's players were still out on the pitch, stretching the morning session at the old orange grove where the club has its training ground, when the news reached them. Santi Cazorla, Raúl Albiol, Pau Torres and Gerard Moreno had been included in the Spain squad for this week's trip to Norway and Sweden. Together they travelled 450km west to Las Rozas, the Federation's HQ outside Madrid; others arrived from all over the country and beyond, and mostly the players came in one by one.
Striker Gerard Moreno, 27, and 22-year-old centre-back Pau Torres were there for the first time but Raúl Albiol and Santi Cazorla are familiar faces, welcomed back by old friends among the staff, if fewer among the footballers. Cazorla is 34 and has played for Spain 78 times going back 11 years. It's hard to think of a player who has been in and out and in again as many times as Raúl Albiol, a player always on the edge of the squad even though he's not often in the actual side. His first game came back in 2007 and he's got 52 caps.
Between them, those four are the biggest group of teammates there. Great news for the club but, and here comes the awkward question, is it such good news for Spain? Is it a symptom of a broader question? It is part of a problem?
Villarreal are currently the ninth-best team in La Liga, but no other club has more players in the national team than they do. No one even comes close in a squad that has changed dramatically to the one that was called up last month: eight of the 24 players weren't there then, including all four of Villarreal's current representatives.
Villarreal have more players there than Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid combined. There are only four other clubs that even have more than one solitary player in the squad: Madrid, Real Sociedad, Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain.
There are some specific reasons for this, of course, and an element of chance: injuries, temporary(?) loss of form, poor starts to the season and, crucially, what appears to be a continuing process of rotating auditions for the centre-back slot alongside captain Sergio Ramos. There are also some decisions that could be questioned: no Koke, who seems to have slipped out of the picture entirely, no Dani Parejo, no Iago Aspas, no Diego Costa or Álvaro Morata, no Iñaki Williams. But there is also something broader happening, a more profound shift. This squad, coach Robert Moreno said, is a reflection of "modern football."
This is the most fragmented Spain squad there has ever been. Seventeen different clubs are represented from five different countries: Manchester United, Chelsea, Roma, Sevilla, Villarreal, Madrid, Real Sociedad, Athletic, PSG, Bayern, Barcelona, Atlético, Napoli, Man City, Arsenal, Valencia and Lazio. The logistics of just tracking all these players are daunting.
"We watch an awful lot of games," Moreno said, smiling. He also admitted that he doesn't watch them all live or all the way through -- "We're not superhuman and we need our sleep too" -- and that he hasn't yet been to see any of his players in France, England, Italy or Germany in person. This isn't exactly ideal. He will, he says, which, despite his insistence that there are "tools" allowing him to follow footballers, he must given that he's adamant how it's not the same as watching them in the ground. "Bear in mind," he says, "that in an entire game you're only in contact with the ball for two to four minutes."
Fragmentation doesn't only make following them more difficult; it also makes it harder to build a coherent team. "But that's football now," Moreno said. It wasn't always.
"Historically, the great teams were backed by great clubs," Moreno says. "It used to be that you would bring together seven or eight from the same team. Look at those teams that marked an era: Bayern with Germany, Ajax with Holland..."
If the nucleus of a team comes from a dominant club or couple of clubs, it can help. There are more examples: take Juventus and their representation in the Italian team that won the 2006 World Cup and, although Moreno didn't name them, the Spain team that won it in 2010. On the day of the final, Spain started with seven Barcelona players. If there is no dominant club(s), that instant unity becomes impossible. Where once people might worry about groups from Madrid and Barcelona falling out, now there are no big groups to fall out: there's Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Dani Carvajal and that's it.
It is a shift the new coach must deal with; after all, squads based on a small number of elite teams may be a thing of the past.
"Football is taking us that way," Moreno said. "There are not many 'national' players in most teams apart from Athletic [Club Bilbao], of course, and that makes it hard. Villarreal are the team with the most [here], think about that... I'd love to have nine players all playing in a wonderful team together; it would make things a lot easier, they would understand each other. But at Madrid or Barcelona, there are not many who play regularly as starters."
At Barcelona, there are three Spaniards in their typical starting XI and one of those, Gerard Piqué, has retired from international football. The others are Jordi Alba, who is injured, and Busquets, whose position may genuinely be under threat for the first time. At Madrid, there are two: Carvajal and Ramos. And at Atlético there are more but only Saúl got the call up. Koke, Costa and/or Morata were left behind.
At Sevilla there are three: Jesus Navas and Sergio Reguilón, who are in the squad, and Joan Jordan, who isn't. At Valencia, there are three, maybe four: Jose Gaya, Parejo, maybe Ferran Torres or Carlos Soler, none of whom are in the squad, and Rodrigo who is. It may well be that between now and next summer, it is Real Sociedad who prove the most valuable to the selección. Seven Spaniards could be considered natural starters there and one former technical director at the Federation believes that they play the best football in Spain right now. For now, there are two (Diego Llorente and Mikel Oyarzabal).
Putting together that jigsaw puzzle isn't easy: there are a lot of pieces. "The good news," says Rodri, from Manchester City, "is that there are seven months to the Euros; we have time. We have to work on an idea and build from that. The main thing is that we have a lot of players, a lot of options."
They do indeed, and from a lot of different places. That means opportunity at least, and plenty of football, but it may mean less familiarity, less of a shared idea or relationship forged on the pitch. Without a dominant club, there might be no dominant idea and that can matter even at a micro level, where teams are often made.
Moreno insisted this week that this is not as simple as writing a list. "We don't bring the best 24 players; we look at those that coordinate, that go together best. It's a team sport," he said. Instead, it's about constructing complicity, building mini societies and partnerships all across the pitch, pieces that fit, players that understand each other. It's a team sport that sometimes starts with the teams themselves, but he must do so from scratch.
There is only one place where it's plausible to draw on something ready made (although Rodri and Saúl played together at Atlético). And when it was raised, even that arguably served to highlight rather than address the issue. At one point, the Spain manager was asked which was that that he thought would work best at centre-back: Ramos and...? "Right now, Pau and Albiol," he replied. "They're the two that play together."
They do so at Villarreal. Of course.