Luis Enrique’s Spain squad selection reflects players that fit his system, not the big names
First came the scaffolding platform. Then there was the giant screen. Now there’s the walkie talkie too. When Spain‘s players turned up at their Las Rozas HQ this week for the final two games before the World Cup this winter, Luis Enrique gathered them together in the gym and explained that they would find that there was something different about their training kit. In the back of the vest, near where the GPS goes, he had added a little speaker, through which he could tell them exactly what to do.
“You’re going to hear the mister’s voice,” he warned them. He said he would try not to shout too much but from the platform alongside the training pitch Spain’s manager talked to them: delivering orders, correcting mistakes, directing their next move. Controlling everything, getting it just right.
“When you first find out, you imagine there will be lots of information, that he will be radio-controlling the game,” Borja Iglesias admitted. “But he does it very well and it’s a good way to get close to the player. It’s fantastic, useful, and he knows how to use it well: it’s clear, concise and it helps.”
At 29, Iglesias is in the Spain squad for the first time but he was in the Celta B team when Luis Enrique was their first team coach back in 2013. It has been a long route to the seleccion — he only played one league game in the Celta first team, in January 2015 after Luis Enrique had gone, he went to Zaragoza in the second division, joined Espanyol for two years and is in his fourth season at Betis, where he scored just three times in his first season — but Luis Enrique says he has been keeping an eye on him for a long time now. And Borja has seen his coach up close too.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (U.S.)
The first time Luis Enrique decided to build a scaffolding platform at the training ground so that he could watch over the session from a better vantage point was in Vigo, and he continued that at Barcelona. With Spain, where he became coach in 2018, other innovations have followed. If that platform enabled him to see their mistakes, he had a giant screen erected at the side of the pitch so that he could show their mistakes, live. Now, gripping his walkie talkie, he is in their ears, preventing their mistakes. That at least is the hope.
It’s all Big Brother — “Papa will come out from behind you,” he told his players — and a lot Luis Enrique.
He’s always been different, innovative, and very much his own man (even if sometimes he makes such a thing of doing it his way that it suggests it is partly about not doing things other people’s way, more aware of the outside than he likes to let on; even if his provocative nature is more playful than his critics like to admit). He was like that as a player, going from Madrid to Barcelona, and is like that as a manager. Driven by a fierce determination and complete conviction. One that he demands his players share.
“He is essentially the same as he was [back then],” Iglesias says. “Things have changed with time and experience of course but he is clearly the same. He communicates a very similar idea to the one he always had and in the same way. He makes the squad very aware of the way he wants to play, explains it. He did it then at Celta. Now he has more tools at his disposal. I don’t know if more ‘capability’ is the right word but he has more ways of reaching the players. I see a great similarity to what I saw ten years ago.”
“The way of playing is clear for everyone. It’s all based on a clear footballing idea: we’re better than opponents if we play like we do,” Luis Enrique said. “If we play long ball, lots of teams are going to beat us.”
And so they play his way — “even if if means giving the fans a heart attack” — and so the message is driven home repeatedly, in word and deed: via big screen and small speakers. The philosophy is not entirely inflexible but it can feel like it and for as long as it is held, it is held firmly. It is expressed directly, unflinchingly, without compromise, and explained fully, directly. It is non-negotiable.
Listen to him talk — in his first press conference of this get-together, he was there for almost an hour — and it is fascinating. Even if you still disagree with some of his decisions, things fall into place and it all makes sense. On his terms, at least. And it’s always on his terms.
The first day that Luis Enrique took over he made a statement of intent: he was the leader. This week he said “If you come and do what we want, you’ll be back; if you don’t…”
For Luis Enrique, the seleccion is not a reward, it is a team. And it is not about the clubs, it is about the country, under his leadership. “I watch the press conferences that other international coaches do and feel empathy with them because I see that the same things happen to them as happen to me: they always get asked about the players who haven’t been picked,” he said.
“It’s very hard to please everyone. I understand that. It’s normal that fans of a certain team say ‘hey, this guy should go.’ When I was a kid I did it too: I got annoyed when [Sporting Gijon players] Eloy and Ablanedo didn’t go. ‘Come on, man, how can you not take these guys when they’re the best?'”
How? Because they might not be a team. Which is why if Luis Enrique’s choices don’t make sense to some — and there have been many seemingly left-field choices, many that could be questioned — they do make sense to him, the man with more of a vested interest in the side than anyone else, the man with the analysis, the man providing the framework into which it must all fit.
There’s a footballing element, and a group element too, a question of authority: it matters, for example, that he felt Sergio Ramos wasn’t entirely honest about his physical condition the last time he joined the squad. While you can never fully know what might have happened with those that didn’t come, you can judge what happened with those that did. Once they are with him, identified as those that can be moulded to an idea, this is the place to win him over, the opportunity to become part of this group. It is here that the approach is drilled into them, that it must be followed and if not, you’re not coming back, almost no matter what you do on the outside. You don’t earn your place there, you earn your place here.
Gemma Soler speaks after Gavi became Spain’s youngest ever goalscorer in their 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic.
“Given choice between what they have done for their clubs and what they have done for me, I will always choose what they have done for me,” the coach says. And some of the biggest, most heavily criticised calls have been vindicated with time too: Dani Olmo, Pedri, Gavi, maybe even Eric Garcia now.
The obvious example is Iago Aspas, the best way to explain his approach — not least because it’s the decision that’s seemingly hardest to explain. Aspas is the best Spanish forward around and has been for really quite a long time. Not taking him seems frankly absurd at times. He deserves to play for Spain. Watch him weekly with Celta and it’s almost impossible to comprehend him not getting the call. But, then, deserves? It’s not about deserve.
Take this answer from Luis Enrique — which, it should be added, wasn’t explicitly about Aspas but kind of feels like it was and is at least applicable to him as it is to everyone:
“When journalists look at a player who really stands out at a given moment, they do so in the context of his club,” the Spain coach said. “But in the context of his club, that player is the number one and everyone plays to him. He scores all the goals, he doesn’t defend. The context of the national team is very different. Here the team doesn’t play for one player; we all play for each other. We all attack, we all defend. I have had lots of those players that the media demands, and they have come here and that what has happened, happened.”
“A team is not made up simply of the best eleven players in LaLiga. It’s not just: pick the guy that gets all the goals. You’re looking for a choral choreography. What I want is a team that goes for the game from the first minute, regardless of the score: we don’t fall deep, we always keep taking risks, keep pressing high. When we have to defend we want to get the ball back as fast as we can. That is the way we have always played since I have been here, always. That’s what I want the team to do and I look for the players who best interpret our idea of playing.”
It’s an idea that’s non-negotiable, and inescapable too — right there, in their ear, his master’s voice pursuing the players across the pitch.