The successful Spain team that never was

Other than Spain’s goal-shyness, one thing has become clear in La Roja’s recent games: head coach Luis Enrique has moved on once and for all. For years, we believed that the generation that won the European Under-21 Championship in 2011 and 2013 would successfully step into the breach as the men who lifted the World Cup in South Africa succumbed to the passing of time. It hasn’t worked out that way, though. Those former Under-21 stars are all just under 30 now; in other words, they’re in their peak years as footballers. Yet they have been reduced to an irrelevance by the veterans who are still there - Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and Jesús Navas - and the new crop being brought through by Luis Enrique.

Under-21 Euros winners looked like continuing Spain's success

Won with a brand of football like that played by the seniors, those two Euro titles gave us hope that we had the replacements we needed for a Spain team that would stick to its philosophy and keep on winning. David de Gea for Iker Casillas, Marc Bartra for Gerard Piqué, Koke for Xabi Alonso, Thiago for Xavi, Isco for Andrés Iniesta, Iker Muniain for David Villa, Álvaro Morata for Fernando Torres... that was the plan. We had a group of youngsters whose trophy triumphs indicated they were up to it. However, the harsh reality turned out to be that, in each case, we were swapping out an extraordinary player for one who was merely very good. That couldn’t fail to have a negative overall effect on the team, and disappointment followed.

In truth, some had begun to show signs that they’d struggle with the step-up before making it. Several were at the centre of an ill-disciplined disaster at London 2012. They then started to be blooded in the senior side, where they had to put to one side the second-nature connections they had built up and adapt to a system that was similar but not an exact copy, among veterans for whom age was now taking its toll. The 2018 World Cup, with its pre-tournament strife and the pass-pass-pass nightmare against Russia, left their standing in shreds. De Gea (surprisingly so, given his poor World Cup), Thiago and Dani Carvajal are pretty much the only ones to have survived. A generation that did not to live up to its promise.