Will the Spanish national team make this humble scribe eat his own words? According to the sounds I hear from their concentration hotel, they very well might.
I’m referring to my irate piece on the bizarre chain of events that ended up with Fernando Hierro on the Spanish bench for this World Cup. Among other decisions from different individuals who earned my righteous disapproval, I could not see how Hierro’s arrival could improve Spain’s chances of winning the tournament, but here we are, and it now seems like most players have warmed to the arrival of Fernando Hierro faster than could have been expected.
The new coach participated in three World Cups as a player and another two on the staff of Del Bosque, so he knows how this works, and players tend to value that. Similarly to when Zidane took over Real Madrid, Hierro speaks to players of this level in a way that makes them feel comfortable quite quickly. The training drills, the way he approached the match against Portugal, his chat after the match… Hierro has made a positive impression inside the dressing room, and the atmosphere just five days after Julen Lopetegui left Russia feels like that of a team that has moved on, as though nothing had happened.
Of course, Hierro is still the same man he was last week. He won’t break new grounds with tactical innovations that will disarm a threatening rival, but even if he could, he just does not have the time. They’ve given him a team that would have a chance of winning with any average coach, and what he needs to do is to find the right tone to motivate his players, use a bit of the siege mentality / “nobody believes in us” speeches that work so well in any sport, and keep a meritocratic approach that shows the squad that every one can make the line-up if they work hard.
Spain will face group-leaders Iran (this sentence never gets old) on Wednesday evening. After the consistent performance last Friday, the line-up should be almost the same, unless Daniel Carvajal feels like a bull – he’s already available – and Hierro decides to leave Nacho on the bench. Before the Portugal match, there was still some debate about Diego Costa starting, but his brace, and especially his first solo goal, showed what the Brazilian can add to the team, and how it finally seems like his team mates have understood how to find him in space.
Another question mark could be David de Gea, as impressive with Manchester United as prone to error with Spain. But Hierro won’t change that either, at least not judging by the last few training sessions and his words in the pre-match press conference on Tuesday afternoon. “I see De Gea very calm, he has all my confidence. He needs trust and my decision is already made. He’ll play tomorrow”.
Watching the Portugal match with Phil, I saw the team as quite confident, even when trailing. The ball moved around fast, they didn’t rush, no one hid when the going got tough… They looked the part for most of the match against a surprisingly underrated European Champions. A similar performance against Iran should bring three points, leaving the squad in a much better place to face Morocco in the last group stage match.
Adding a Hunteresque bit to this preview, I’ll say that on the few occasions I interacted with him, it was obvious that Hierro is not afraid to make decisions when a player looks out of shape or tired, and that he supported Del Bosque in a few situations in which the former Spanish national team coach had to deal with that. If he sees Ramos, Pique or Iniesta faltering, he’ll replace them. He shares with Lopetegui a certain fondness for Isco’s skill, in Hierro’s case perhaps to a greater extent, as they both come from Malaga.
Needless to say, this is a must win for Spain. They played like real candidates for the title against Portugal, but now they need the results that actual champions tend to get on the road to the final.