In the last few years, Spain have been blessed with an embarrassment of riches in the midfield. Practically any collection of midfielders that coach Vicente Del Bosque chooses seems like a dream team made up of gems from Europe’s best clubs. Their first choice defenders will also easily walk into any team in the world. And in goal, David de Gea is a world class talent who has arrived in time to take up the mantle from Iker Casillas.
Up at the top though, the puzzle has never really been solved since David Villa's powers waned. In the 2008 European Championship, when the Spaniards finally delivered the goods after disappointing in so many tournaments, Villa played alongside Fernando Torres as one of best front pairings in recent international history.
Even when Torres struggled for form at the 2010 World Cup, Villa stepped up and took Spain to success. However, after he broke his tibia playing for Barcelona – an accident that kept him out of Spain's Euro 2012 victory – he was never quite the same again.
This formed a hole in the Spanish squad which has yet to be filled. From big, direct No 9s such as Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente to false No 9s such as Cesc Fabregas and David Silva, Del Bosque has tried it all.
But it never quite clicked. When Diego Costa pledged his allegiance to Spain instead of his country of birth, Brazil, it was supposed to be the answer to Spanish prayers. Costa, however, never really fit into the Spain system and did not make the team for Euro 2016. Nor did Paco Alcacer, who scored the largest number of goals in the qualifying rounds, board the plane for France either.
True No. 9
The two players, then, on whom Del Bosque has decided to place his bets are ex-Madrid man Alvaro Morata and club veteran/country rookie Aritz Aduriz. Of these, Morata seems to have more of both short-term and long-term potential. This was evidenct in Spain’s opening match against the Czech Republic.
Morata played like a true No 9. Working mostly off the shoulder of the last defender and just staying onside, he also drifted wide and showed strong hold-up play. He even made a few intelligent darts and would have scored but for the magnificent Petr Cech.
Morata is good in the air, for he exploits his height. This gives Spain an aerial threat in their attacking line, which they haven’t had in some time. The Spanish midfielders, as well as the fullbacks, are extremely capable crossers of the ball, and Morata gives them a big target to hit. He can also harry defences with his effort and work-rate, as anyone who has seen him play against the big teams with Juventus will attest to.
The problem faced by Nolito and Aduriz is that they do not really fit into Spain’s system. Nolito, in particular, tends to be caught offside as he attempts to get closer to the goal. He does not participate in the intricate passing routines that the Spanish philosophy is based on. This results in a disjointed attack and a lack of goals.
As for Aduriz, though it is difficult to judge his performance as he has just started his international career, even if he does work out, Spain can at best hope for two or three years out of him at the top level, given that he is 35 years old. Morata is 23 can easily give them more than 10.
Nolito and Aduriz are also used to playing with midfielders of a class below Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas and Busquets. This means that they try to do more on their own and do not link up as well with the midfield.
Morata, on the other hand, has played with top midfielders throughout his career. First at Real Madrid, he played with the likes of Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Angel Di Maria and Mesut Ozil, all of them midfielders of extraordinary talent. Then at Juventus, he ran onto passes hit by the master of the aerial through ball, Andrea Pirlo, and others such as Paul Pogba, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal. Playing with such elite footballers has ensured that his link up play with the Spanish midfield is better than that of the others.
It seems that, finally, Spain have a striker who can work in their style and philosophy. Against the Czechs, the fullbacks got a few crosses to him. Silva, too, was able to link up with him effectively. But most importantly, Iniesta was able to find him with a couple of beautiful passes. Iniesta is the heartbeat of this Spanish side and it is crucial that Spain’s first-choice striker can read his passes and get to them, which Morata can and did.
At 23, Morata clearly has his best years ahead of him. He is still a work in progress, but he could just be the man to lead Spain’s line for many years to come. Adding an effective striker to the already stellar midfield and defence could very well put them back on the road to the summit of international football.