Spain coach Luis Enrique going his own way, for better or worse

Spain coach Luis Enrique going his own way, for better or worse

© AFP 2022
updated at April 12, 2023 at 8:16 PM
Luis Enrique celebrates after Spain beat Portugal to reach the Nations League final four
Luis Enrique celebrates after Spain beat Portugal to reach the Nations League final four. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP/File
Source: AFP

Spain are among the World Cup favourites, boasting a deep squad which blends promising talents with experienced veterans who have won it all, but La Roja are still said to lack a star player.

While Lionel Messi leads the line for Argentina, Neymar gets top billing in Brazil, Kylian Mbappe is key for France and Harry Kane is the first name on England's teamsheet, the dominant figure with Spain is coach Luis Enrique.

The former Barcelona manager, 52, is the face of the team. He shapes his squad as he desires, refusing to bow to popular demand and call up players whom he does not believe will fit his plans, no matter the subsequent criticism he receives.

At times he has been accused of bias against Real Madrid players, with some of his previous squads seeing limited or even zero representation from Los Blancos, despite their domination at home and in Europe in recent years.

While he may ignore the increasing clamour to bring Paris Saint-Germain's fit-again veteran defender Sergio Ramos to Qatar, he is likely to take Madrid winger Marco Asensio on this occasion.

That in itself provokes a separate debate as the Spanish forward isn't getting many minutes with his club, like Pablo Sarabia at PSG, but Luis Enrique argues that they have not let him down when on international duty.

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Other players like striker Alvaro Morata and goalkeeper Unai Simon split opinions, but Luis Enrique sticks by them through thick and thin.

The coach does not hand out places in the Spain squad to reward good club form, but only thinks about how players could service his 4-3-3, possession-based system.

Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas has been punished by that in recent years, rarely getting called up for Spain duty despite finishing as the top Spanish goalscorer in La Liga across four of the past six seasons, although he is reported to be on the provisional long-list.

"There are players who in their teams, are the leaders, they score goals and the teams play for them," reasoned Luis Enrique.

"A team is not formed with the best 11 players in the league. You have to look at the context and with Spain, I want a team."

Biting back

After criticism of some of Spain's unimpressive recent performances, the coach took to Twitter to hit back against his critics, posting a table he appeared to have created.

"Just to put things in context," he wrote. The table highlighted the performance of Europe's top international teams over the past three years.

Using his own definition of success, he qualified Spain as the most successful country in that period for their performances across all competitions, despite not winning any trophies.

Some have interpreted it as a sign that the pressure is getting to Luis Enrique ahead of the World Cup, as he had previously claimed not to listen to or read media criticism.

Despite the mixed opinions, Spain undoubtedly arrive at the World Cup in far better shape than they started four years ago at Russia 2018.

Coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the tournament after Real Madrid announced he would be taking over as coach after the World Cup, and Fernando Hierro stepped in as interim manager.

Spain were eliminated in the last 16 by the hosts and Luis Enrique took over in July, although he stepped aside in June 2019 because his daughter Xana was suffering from bone cancer.

After she tragically passed away at only nine years old, Luis Enrique returned to his post in November 2019, replacing his former assistant Robert Moreno, whom he accused of being "disloyal" by wanting to keep the job for Euro 2020.

Given the controversy in previous years, Spain's arrival to this World Cup is much calmer, with the complaints and criticism aimed at him easy to ignore.

"What Luis is doing is incredible because the national team has great players but there is no star, like we had when we had the luck of winning the Euros and the World Cup," said Sporting Gijon manager Abelardo, also a friend of Luis Enrique.

Luis Enrique has not clarified if he plans to stay on, amid speculation he may leave after the tournament, or be sacked -- despite his performance table -- if Spain do not deliver.

"The future does not exist," said the Asturian, enigmatically, when questioned about it in September. He will write it in Qatar in his own way, with no concessions, for better or worse.

© AFP 2022 photo
© AFP 2022