The homework is done. After their 3-0 victory over Albania, Spain have qualified for their eleventh World Cup in a row. Their last group match, away against Israel on Monday, will allow Lopetegui to give quality minutes to representatives of his under-21 squad, some of whom have already shown that they can deliver in the top international level as well as they did when they played for the Basque coach in Spain’s youth teams.
The best example is Isco Alarcon. Lopetegui has always trusted the diminutive offensive midfielder, and is now riding Isco’s amazing form as much as he can with the senior squad. Just like Phil mentioned in his match review of Albania, the 25-year-old can do no wrong at the moment, not only dribbling and passing with his usual skill, but also scoring with growing accuracy.
Among the never-ending flow of extraordinary Spanish midfielders – Lopetegui seems keen on starting Real Sociedad’s Asier Illarramendi and UD Las Palmas’ Jonathan Vieira on Monday, adding two more pieces to a puzzle of potential starters that has now surpassed the dozen –, Isco shines more than any other player. Under Zidane he’s finally enjoyed the full trust of a Real Madrid coach to let him play where he excels, which is nowhere and everywhere. While the Malacitano did fine under Ancelotti in a fixed midfield role, he looks at his best in a free role, similar to the one he’s performing for the national team.
Isco brings an extra bit of unpredictability to a side that knows how to keep the ball and what to do with it, but that at times can become easy to contain. In this sense, Isco shoulders a similar responsibility to that of Andres Iniesta, guilty part for most of the team’s magic during the 2008-2012 golden run. Of course, Iniesta is still the resident creator of the national team, and will keep making Lopetegui’s 23-man lists for as long as he wants to.
However, at age 33 and with plenty of injury issues during the last few seasons, it’s unclear for how long the Manchego will be able to keep playing at the top level. Yes, Barcelona just signed him to a contract for life – meaning that it’ll be renewed every season as long as the player says so – but the club’s former coach Luis Enrique had already given plenty of indications that Iniesta needed to rest as much as possible during the season.
Barcelona’s new manager, Ernesto Valverde, seems keen on giving Iniesta much more playing time than Luis Enrique did, and that influenced the player’s decision to stay in Barcelona. During the months leading to his new contract, Iniesta had suggested that he’d only stay if he felt he was important for the team, and that meant more time on the pitch and less on the bench. So far, Valverde has delivered.
But that is a bit more problematic with the national team. During the World Cup next summer, he’ll have become 34, will have played another 30-40 matches and it’s difficult to see him fresher than he was in last year’s Euro, during which his physical decline became obvious. He can play at an amazing level for one or two matches, but then he’ll struggle against strong, fit midfields as was the case when Spain faced Italy.
Isco must be ready to take over from Iniesta, even though the Real Madrid player also needs plenty of rest to stay fresh and make the difference on the pitch. Not a physical talent by any stretch of the imagination, Isco’s performances suffer without rest and Zidane knows that well. Last season, the French manager not only excelled at managing Cristiano Ronaldo’s playing time, but also Isco’s. Both players were the key for Real Madrid’s fantastic end of the season: they looked in better shape than in any of their previous months of May wearing the white jersey.
Even though they’re both players that need to be taken care of physically, the fact that Lopetegui has two amazing offensive midfielders such as Isco and Iniesta is indeed great news. Backed with a phenomenal contingent of midfielders and wingers, this duo can concentrate on what they do best: create chances out of nowhere, drive defences crazy and manage the pace of the match. They’re two huge reasons why Spain look as dangerous as they do right now, and will be a source of concern for any team facing Lopetegui’s squad in Moscow next summer.