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Women's Euro 2022 Team Preview: Spain have a tough road ahead

Tomorrow, the Spain women’s national football team will begin their 2022 UEFA Women’s Euro tournament with their first group stage match against Finland. This will be Spain’s fourth ever Euro tournament and their third consecutive Euro qualification, a testament to their dramatic rise in quality in the 2010’s.

The Spain women's national football team celebrating their qualification to the 2022 UEFA Women's Euro / photo via @SEFutbolFem on Twitter

Spain enter this tournament coming off of a revolutionary few years in Spanish women’s club football. Their top women’s league- the Primera Iberdrola- professionalized prior to the 2021-22 season, setting a new standard for women’s club football in the country. That following March, FC Barcelona Femení shattered a 23-year-old world record for attendance at a women’s football match, attracting over 95 thousand people to the Camp Nou in a 5-2 thriller over budding Spanish giants Real Madrid. This record came just a year after FC Barcelona won the European treble in 2021, becoming the first Spanish club to do so. Also in 2021, Alexia Putellas won the Ballon d’Or, becoming the first Spanish woman and the first player in the Spanish league to win the coveted trophy.


However, in Spanish women’s football, you can only make so much progress until you hit another wall. This season saw the relegation of Rayo Vallecano Femenino from 19 years in Spain’s top division, after years of an exhausting back-and-forth between the club’s fans and players and their president, Raúl Martín Presa. Within the same couple of months of Rayo’s downfall, the RFEF attempted to sanction Primera Division sides Levante UD, Real Sociedad, and Villarreal CF with a deduction of three points each for not wearing the Federation’s massive patches with “RFEF” splayed across them in bright red letters. Each club did this in protest of the RFEF refusing to acknowledge the professionalization of the league, and after a series of league-wide protests, the Federation removed their three-point sanctions and fines. Up until yesterday, no players from any of those teams were called up to Spain’s Euro 2022 squad, including the many talented players from second-place Real Sociedad. Spain originally went into this year’s tournament without two of Spain’s brightest stars and best players- Nerea Eizagirre and Amaiur Sarriegi- until the latter was called up just a day ago in response to Alexia Putellas’s heartbreaking ACL tear.


Perhaps the most devastating news of all was the release of the 2021 documentary Romper El Silencio, where former Spain women’s national team stars such as Vicky Losada, Vero Boquete, and Natalia Pablos came forward about the decades of abusive treatment they faced at the hands of former Spain women’s national team coach Ignacio Quereda. Under Quereda’s 27-year-long tenure, Spain qualified for just two Euro competitions and one Women’s World Cup competition. When they exited the group stage of the 2015 World Cup, Spain’s entire squad, lead by their veterans, called for Quereda to step down from his role. Quereda complied, but the veterans of Spain’s squad paid the price. The majority of the veterans that called for Quereda’s removal were phased out under his successor Jorge Vilda, and for the two major international competitions that followed- the 2017 Euro and the 2019 World Cup- Spain’s squads contained zero players above the age of 30. This especially affected them in 2017, as Spain looked like a rudderless ship with minimal direction or confidence as they crashed out in the quarterfinals.

Spain after their loss against Austria at the 2017 UEFA Women's Euro / photo via uefa.com

Much has changed since 2019, though. FC Barcelona have launched themselves to the forefront of European football, and teams like Real Madrid have managed to defeat well-established European teams like Manchester City in UWCL qualification. These two teams, which make up most Spain starting XIs these days, are driven by a young core of extremely exciting and technically talented players. Performances of that level have put some very high expectations on their national team, both in terms of quality and entertainment value.


Those expectations haven’t quite translated over to reality. Aside from a 7-0 blowout against an Australia side in limbo, Spain played average matches and ended with draws against Brazil, Germany, Italy, and England, and escaped with a 1-0 win over Olympic gold medalists Canada. Their performances at the Arnold Clark Cup stayed consistent with their performances after the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Against bigger, higher FIFA-ranked teams, Spain have a good record, but neither their performances nor scorelines have been anything like what is routinely seen from their core of FC Barcelona players. A lot of this can be chalked up to the lack of chemistry Barcelona players have with players from other Spanish league teams. Barcelona play a very fluid, fast-paced, possession-heavy style of football that requires each player to have an acute understanding of where each of their teammates are at all times. It is a playing style that Barcelona’s core have had years to become accustomed to, and it is something that has struggled to transfer over to their national team. As a result, Spain’s play can be choppy, and they rely less on the possession football that Barcelona players are used to.


Another big problem facing Spain is the same problem they’ve had for many years- the lack of an out-and-out striker. In the past few years, the majority of Spain’s goal scoring has come from two players that will not feature in this year’s tournament- Alexia Putellas and Jenni Hermoso. With Putellas’s injury and Jenni Hermoso controversially omitted from this year’s squad, Vilda has taken to relying on Real Madrid striker Esther González to be Spain’s starting 9. González’s poor performances against bigger national teams has planted a seed of doubt for Spain’s scoring abilities in these upcoming Euros, and many call into question Vilda’s refusal to look towards the youth. Vilda is unlikely to give much playing time to last-minute call-up Amaiur Sarriegi, who scored 11 national team goals in 5 appearances in 2021 and scored 17 league goals in this past season. In the past few friendlies he has also given minimal minutes to young star Clàudia Pina, who just exited an explosive 18 goal, 16 assist season as an off-the-bench player.


Manager:


The other reason for Spain’s lack of outright success can likely be attributed to their controversial coach Jorge Vilda. Vilda has never been a favorite of Spain’s faithful, as his many squad selection/starting XI choices have been put into question, as well as the lack of rest he gives to his most important squad players. The latter criticism has recently garnered a lot of media attention in the wake of Alexia Putellas’s ACL tear. Diario SPORT reported on Tuesday night that Barcelona are “monumentally angry” at Vilda’s player management and Spain’s medical team, criticizing them for pushing players too hard in training. It was also reported in a Relevo Deportes Twitch livestream that Vilda knew about discomfort in Putellas’s knee before he played her for 159 out of the 180 total minutes in Spain’s two friendlies this past week, but prioritized going undefeated en route to the Euros over managing his player’s minutes. To add to Barcelona’s anger, Putellas joins 3 of her club teammates (Mariona Caldentey, Bruna Vilamala, and Cata Coll) in suffering long-term injuries while with Spain’s senior and u-23 teams.

Jorge Vilda presenting Alexia Putellas with her award for Primera Iberdrola Player of the Season / photo via @SEFutbolFem on Twitter

Previously a coach of Spain’s youth national teams, Vilda has been in charge of Spain since 2015, after Spain’s veterans ousted disgraced Ignacio Quereda from his three decade-long role as manager. At the start of Vilda’s tenure, he phased out the majority of those veterans, including the very controversial, premature departure of Spanish legend Veronica Boquete.


Vilda has managed Spain’s senior team in two major international competitions- the 2017 Women’s Euro and the 2019 Women’s World Cup. In the former competition, Spain had minimal squad cohesiveness due to their veteran core being completely removed from the team. That squad, which contained fourteen players that had less than twenty caps, barely managed to exit the group stages and were defeated on penalties by Manuela Zinsberger’s Austria. Two years later, Spain had unconvincing displays in the group stages but gave the USWNT their biggest challenge on the way to their second consecutive Women’s World Cup title.


About a week ago, Vilda renewed his national team contract until 2024, but in an ideal world, this tournament would be a make or break moment for his national team coaching career. A team of treble-winners and UWCL quarterfinalists should be more than capable of winning against the many struggling national team sides that will feature in this year’s Euros. If he is not capable of delivering that, some serious questions should be asked about his ability to manage arguably the most talented group of footballers in the world, with or without Alexia Putellas.


Squad:


Spain’s final 23-player squad includes 8 Barcelona players, 7 Real Madrid players, 3 Atlético Madrid players, one Athletic Club player, one Real Sociedad player, and 3 players who play in the WSL’s Manchester-based teams.


GK (3): Sandra Paños (Barcelona), Misa Rodríguez (Real Madrid), Lola Gallardo (Atlético Madrid)


DF(9): Irene Paredes (Barcelona), Mapi León (Barcelona), Leila Ouahabi (Manchester City), Ona Battle (Manchester United), Ivana Andrés (Real Madrid), Olga Carmona (Real Madrid), Andrea Pereira (Barcelona), Laia Aleixandri (Manchester City), Sheila García (Atlético Madrid)


MF (4): Aitana Bonmatí (Barcelona), Patri Guijarro (Barcelona), Irene Guerrero (Atlético Madrid), Teresa Abelleira (Real Madrid)


FW (7): Esther González (Real Madrid), Mariona Caldentey (Barcelona), Lucía García (Athletic Club), Marta Cardona (Real Madrid), Athenea del Castillo (Real Madrid), Clàudia Pina (Barcelona), Amaiur Sarriegi (Real Sociedad)


Player to watch:


FC Barcelona’s Aitana Bonmatí is already fairly well-known on the world stage, being a UWCL Final Player of the Match in 2021, and being part of Barcelona’s formidable midfield three of Alexia-Patri-Aitana, or APA.

Aitana Bonmatí celebrating a goal against the Faroe Islands / photo via @SEFutbolFem on Twitter

Bonmatí is easily one of the world’s most complete players. Her defensive workrate is next to none for a center midfielder, with speed and strength one wouldn’t usually expect from someone of her stature. On the other end, she is an excellent dribbler known to give poinpoint passes through the smallest of passing windows. Overall, her positioning is next to none and she has some of the best off-the-ball movement for any center midfielder in the game. She’s the full package of a center midfielder, just without the same goal scoring instincts as someone like Alexia Putellas.


With this in mind, she will have a big role to play in the absence of Putellas, who she starts with in nearly every game for club and country. Bonmatí is very comfortable being vocal and a leader, as she has had ample captaincy experience within Spain’s youth teams. Her and vice-captain Patri Guijarro will play a big part in keeping Spain organized, especially behind a front 3 that isn’t used to playing together.


Unexpected player:


With the absence of Alexia Putellas clouding the national team camp, Vilda will predictably look to someone with experience to replace her in center midfield. The 3* midfielders in Spain’s squad, Teresa Abelleira, Irene Guerrero, and Claudia Pina (*who is listed as a forward) each have less than 15 caps. Enter Barcelona player Mariona Caldentey, a natural left-winger with the versatility to cover almost all positions in attack and midfield.

Mariona Caldentey on the ball in a match with the SPain women's national football team / photo via @SEFutbolFem

Mariona has routinely been one of Barcelona’s most underrated players, often overshadowed at the club level by the star power and G+A output of recent departure Lieke Martens. Mariona plays a “quieter” game by comparison, tending to stay off the ball where she roams near the center of the pitch until she finds space and attacks at the most unexpected of moments. Thus, she is at her best when her role centers around creating overloads & numerical superiority in attack.


If Vilda chooses to play Mariona in Putellas’s role, it will be curious to see how she adapts to the game as a center midfielder. Mariona is much more accustomed nowadays to playing as a forward, and although she has the skillset necessary to be an adequate center midfielder, Spain may suffer from not having her presence on the wing. Regardless, she is likely to impress and even surprise audiences as one of Spain’s lesser known and lesser appreciated players.


Expected XI:


Formation: 4-3-3


Goalkeeper: Sandra Paños


Defenders: Ona Battle, Irene Paredes, Mapi León, Leila Ouahabi


Midfielders: Aitana Bonmatí, Patri Guijarro, Mariona Caldentey


Forwards: Lucía García, Esther González, Marta Cardona


Prediction:


Spain should be able to make it out of the group stages, but it will surely not be a cakewalk. Although Germany have been struggling lately, their squad is plentiful in talent and experience and will put up a fight as a contender for the title. Denmark may not have the strength they did in their runner-up finish in the last tournament, but they have had quality results lately, such as wins against Brazil and Austria. The likes of Pernille Harder and Signe Brunn will make it difficult for Spain to finish first in their group.


However, if Spain finish first in their group, their most likely opponents in the knockout stages will be Norway, then France, and in the final, Sweden. Spain will most likely go ahead in their group, but could be looking at an exit at any point in the knockout rounds. Regardless, they are expected to go farther than their quarterfinal finish last time, but barring an unexpected turn of events, they likely will not win the whole thing.

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