Luis de la Fuente’s Spain: How ditching big names, texting staff and familiar faces moulded a winning team


A year ago, Luis de la Fuente was targeting his first trophy as Spain manager with his job on the line.

La Roja were taking part in the UEFA Nations League final four last June, a competition they qualified for thanks to their former manager Luis Enrique. Spain had suffered a bad loss to Scotland three months earlier, and De la Fuente’s philosophy did not seem to have clicked.

There were doubts about his experience managing at the top level — with two failed experiences in the Spanish third tier his only background in club football. He refused to call up national team legend Sergio Ramos, who was pleading to return and had the support of a large part of the country’s media. In February last year, the then 36-year-old decided to call it a day with Spain.

The team looked inexperienced and the Spanish Federation was in a tough position after sacking Luis Enrique in the wake of the 2022 World Cup exit. According to well-placed sources — who, like all those cited in this article, asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships — De la Fuente was set to be the next fall guy.

Instead, they won the competition.

It was Spain’s first piece of silverware since the all-conquering generation of 2008-2012. A year on, De la Fuente’s side have topped the hardest group at the 2024 European Championship. They have shown arguably the best football of the tournament and made themselves one of the main favourites to go all the way — with the 63-year-old De la Fuente hailed as the architect of a new wave of Spanish football.

A 1-0 win against Albania ensured a 100 per cent record in the group stage — and showed the strength of their ‘B’ team after De la Fuente made 10 changes to his starting line-up. Confidence levels are so high that Ferran Torres, who last scored in a competitive match in January, scored the winner and took home the man of the match award.

That made it three wins, five goals scored and none conceded in three games for Spain. They have generated the second-most expected goals (xG) in the competition (5.54), above Germany (5.1) and only behind Croatia (6.55).

Spain had a 100 per cent record in the group stage (Oguz Yeter/Anadolu via Getty Images)

A lot of this should be put down to De la Fuente’s leadership.

Concerns over his tactical knowledge have given way to an appreciation for his cohesive approach. His main goal with this group was to create a brotherhood, an atmosphere that everyone wanted to be a part of. And it has worked.

“De la Fuente genuinely hates seeing a bad face or gesture towards the team,” a source from the backroom staff says.

Since De la Fuente took over at the end of 2022, he has set himself the task of texting Federation staff members after every Spain camp to thank them for their contribution. Sometimes a chef, security worker or trainee is not part of the staff-wide WhatsApp group — so De la Fuente asks the organisation for their details and personally texts them one by one.

It is all part of the manager’s obsession with making every staff member feel relevant and eliminating any toxicity around the team.

It has impacted his team selection, as in the case of Ramos’ non-call-up. But it also happened with Real Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos.

Ceballos was once a star for De la Fuente’s Spain Under-21 team, but his last call-up for the national team ruined his chances of being at this tournament. The 27-year-old had some lingering tension with Barcelona midfielder Gavi after recent Clasicos. Ceballos brought that up during his last Spain camp last year and since then he has been left out.

Every Spain player is excited to be part of this squad. De la Fuente has worked on the connection and distribution of roles between his players. He knows some of them better than family given his experience in the national team setup.

De la Fuente, far right, and his players at Spain’s camp (Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images)

More than half of the Spanish squad were managed by De la Fuente before he took over the senior team. Rodri, Unai Simon and Mikel Merino played together in his under-19 team that won a European title in 2015. Fabian Ruiz, Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal joined them four years later in winning the Under-21 Euros — Fabian was man of the match in the final. Alex Remiro, Ferran Torres, Alex Baena, Pedri and Marc Cucurella have all been managed by him at either under-19 or under-21 level. Even the 38-year-old Jesus Navas had De la Fuente as a coach with Sevilla’s second team.

Outside of those names, De la Fuente has favoured players with different profiles who were desperate to join the national team. That is the case with Joselu and the former Newcastle United and Leicester City forward Ayoze Perez, both of whom understand their role as backups, have the experience to advise young talents and will take any chance they get on the pitch.

“I am not sure that I’ve ever seen a Spain camp with such a fun mood — possibly not even in 2008,” says a source from the team’s base camp.

The success of De la Fuente’s experiments and tough decisions has helped the cause.

Before the Euros, there was debate as to who would start at centre-back. Nacho had impressed in Madrid’s run-in, but on paper, Aymeric Laporte and Robin Le Normand were the starting partnership. De la Fuente was spared a headache as Laporte suffered muscular discomfort before the opener and had to be replaced by Nacho, while Laporte has covered for him in the next two games as he suffers from the same problem.

The coach chose Cucurella at left-back ahead of Alejandro Grimaldo, who had just enjoyed the season of his life at Bayer Leverkusen. But the gamble has paid off, with the Chelsea left-back giving the team balance and the defensive intensity they needed.

Cucurella has been a key player at the Euros (Andrzej Iwanczuk/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Fabian has been impressive in midfield after previously failing to shine with the national team. Pedri took advantage of a physical issue suffered by Dani Olmo to take his place in the starting line-up and rediscover his mojo. All that without mentioning Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams, who have offered invention from the flanks.

It has all been plain sailing — the downside is it might count for nothing from this point. Spain’s opponents in the knockout rounds will approach those ties knowing they are facing arguably the best team of the tournament. Everyone will be trying to find the flaws in De la Fuente’s system.

“Probably at the start of the competition, no one was taking us into account — and now they realise we might do something,” Grimaldo said after the Albania match. “But we don’t really look at this and will keep doing our thing.”

Williams had another way to describe it after the Italy victory. “We want to stay like this: flying low,” he said. “Flying low, we certainly live much better.”

Now it’s time to find out if this new-look Spain can fly as high as everyone expects.

(Top photo by Michael Regan – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Source link

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.