Would you be scared of Mikel San Jose? Do you even know who he is? That’s not to say Athletic Club’s defender-cum-midfielder isn’t a good at his job: The one-time Liverpool man is having an acceptable season in La Liga, chipping in with goals and defensive nous, and he’s no doubt earning a decent wage, living in a nice house and driving a flashy car around Bilbao.
But is he going to drive Spain to glory at next summer’s European Championships? Probably not (cue a San Jose headed winner in the final against Germany in Paris).
The 25-year-old took his La Roja bow in a 1-0 friendly defeat to France at the end of last year, and once again finds himself selected in Vicente del Bosque’s squad ahead of Friday night’s qualifying match against Ukraine in Seville. Despite Spain’s recent impressive 35-game unbeaten run, that San Jose’s debut came in a loss isn’t all that surprising.
Since its sorry showing at last summer’s World Cup, Spain has been forced to undergo a generational change. “Soccer goes in cycles, that’s life,” Andrés Iniesta mused as he slept his way around Spain’s radio stations this week. “This is the start of a new one, but so was the European Championships [win] with Luis [Áragones] in 2008.”
That tournament signaled the start of the New Spain. The Spain that had opponents quivering in their boots. Prior to 2008 it had never quite managed to get its act together. In 1996, a young Rafael Nadal possibly cowered behind his sofa as his uncle missed the decisive spot kick in a penalty shoot-out against England — a nation who has not won a shoot-out since in five attempts.
But with the help of Iniesta, things fell into place. The World Cup followed and so did another European Championship, but that glorious era ended last summer in Brazil.
Of those who formed the Golden Generation with Iniesta, not many remain. Xavi Hernández and Xabi Alonso have retired, while Fernando Torres and David Villa are unlikely to be back. It’s been even longer since Carles Puyol and his lion’s mane were free to roar around the soccer field in Spanish red.
Instead, having contemplated his future and deciding to stay on as the boss, Del Bosque has to usher in a new generation. He’s handed debuts to 54 players, including Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, since he took over from Áragones. The worry at the moment is that those being called up now aren’t good enough to provide long-term success.
Is San Jose really going to scare some of Europe’s finest soccer players next summer? Would he even scare England?
But it’s not just San Jose, that’s being too mean. A new addition to the latest squad is Malaga forward Juanmi. “I looked at the pichichi [the top scorers in La Liga] and thought he had the qualities we were looking for,” Del Bosque said earlier this week, stopping short of saying he rates Juanmi because he’s good on FIFA.
There’s also a first call-up for Vitolo, who is doing very well for Sevilla, but again: Better than the Villa we used to know and love? Still, everyone deserves the chance.
Elsewhere, Del Bosque insists in padding the squad out with the likes of Raúl Albiol and Mario Suárez, presumably because he is obliged to pick 23 players. Albiol’s career stalled when he spent several years chilling on Real Madrid’s bench and Del Bosque’s constant reliance on the defender perplexes most Spanish soccer fans. Maybe it’s an in-joke and we just can’t see it, though Napoli fans are likely to be laughing. Or maybe there genuinely is nobody better to play second fiddle to Piqué and Sergio Ramos.
As for Suárez, he very much fits the San Jose category. Admittedly some of his battling midfield performances for Alético Madrid of late have impressed, but given the choice Diego Simeone would almost certainly replace him — and Del Bosque would, too.
Arguably, though, these players are just filling a gap, as José Callejón and Nolito when the Spain squad last met up for chorizo and tortilla just before Christmas. While players are injured, developing or not available for whatever reason may be, why not give some of the more mediocre players a chance to stake their claim for stardom?
Quality does live on; however, Spain has not yet found the key to switching from Xavi, Alonso and Villa to Koke, Isco and Diego Costa. All three have the potential to do bad things (in a good way) at an international level, as do the even younger José Luis Gayà, Saúl Ñíguez and Munir El Haddadi, but none have been able to stamp “This is my Spain” on this team yet.
Then there’s Javi Martínez and Thiago Alcântara. Both have proven at Bayern Munich they are capable of rubbing shoulders with the very best, but both have seen injury problems halt their progression.
Jesé Rodríguez and Gerard Deulofeu — who looks less like the Spanish Lionel Messi and more like the Spanish Andros Townsend with each passing minute — are two who’ve yet to explode into their undoubted potential, while Juventus’ Real Madrid-flop Alvaro Morata looks set to fill the No.9 role against Ukraine. He may be looking good in Italy, but in Spain doubts persist over whether he will ever be much more than a stop-gap (see Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente for past examples).
Spain has been spoiled by success, but, as Iniesta pointed out, soccer works in cycles. Patience will be the key as they look to jell together a new squad primed for more glory. At grassroots level, the nuts and bolts are in place. Spain is very good at bringing through youngsters and isn’t in a rush to throw its latest rock star onto the stage. Players are allowed to grow together, as teams, and with the same ideas on how to play soccer.
That means Spain shouldn’t have to worry about dropping back into the perennial underachiever era, but it shouldn’t hide from its problems, either. Behind Piqué and Sergio Ramos there’s a real lack of quality coming through in the middle of defense; working out how to get the best out of Costa, if at all, is still a grey area; and taking Isco and Koke to the next level remains a work in progress.
But above all — and despite his unequivocal success since taking on the job — Del Bosque needs to take a look at himself. Xavi, Alonso and Villa might not be there for him anymore, but the talent pool at his disposal (he was able to leave Juan Mata and César Azpilicueta out his latest squad) is still the envy of most other nations: Is San Jose really the best he can do?