TOULOUSE — The toughest discipline in football management is delivering success while rebuilding. A glance at the club game’s biggest current names reflects that. Jose Mourinho has never lasted more than three full seasons at any of his clubs; Pep Guardiola left both Barcelona and Bayern Munich before he had to evolve his teams.
In modern football, perhaps only Sir Alex Ferguson achieved it with Manchester United, as Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal faltered after the break-up of his 2003-04 “Invincibles” team.
In international management, the task is harder still. A national team manager cannot lavish vast sums to buy a player to fill a problem position. And when a set of players have enjoyed success, the temptation for a coach is to maintain the status quo.
At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Marcello Lippi tried to field pretty much the same Italy side who had triumphed at Germany 2006. However, that team subsequently made unwelcome history in becoming the first holders to perish at the first round stage. “I take all responsibility,” he said after Slovakia had sent the Azzurri home with a 3-2 victory in Johannesburg. “The choices, the way I presented this team in the last three matches.”
When that same fate befell Spain at the 2014 World Cup, Vicente del Bosque was rather more philosophical. “To win the title cannot be an obligation,” he said. “There is always a far more important lesson to be learned when you lose.”
The accusation was that after becoming world champions in 2010, and repeating their Euro 2008 triumph under predecessor Luis Aragones by winning Euro 2012 at a canter, Spain had become complacent; Del Bosque’s players had too many miles on the clock. As Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands team romped to a 5-1 opening match victory in Salvador, midfielders Xavi and Xabi Alonso creaked with age — both retired from international football not long after the flight home.
In the second group match — a 2-0 defeat to Chile in Rio de Janeiro — Del Bosque dropped Xavi entirely and removed Alonso at half-time, but the lesson he learned from Brazil was that he had been too hasty in ringing the changes.
For Euro 2016, the retirees’ replacements in Spain’s midfield trio engine room alongside Sergio Busquets when Spain take on the Czech Republic in Toulouse on Monday are expected to be Andres Iniesta, now 32, and Cesc Fabregas, a 29-year-old coming off a poor season with Chelsea — two veterans Del Bosque inherited from that 2008 team. A certainty to start on one of the flanks will be David Silva, 30, coming off an under-par injury-hit campaign at Manchester City.
These are hugely familiar faces, hard-ridden over the years, and not exactly in the flush of youth. Another midfield option Del Bosque has admitted is in his thoughts is Villarreal’s Bruno, a 32-year-old only given his national debut in 2010.
For a coach who has given 60 Spain debuts during his eight years in charge, Del Bosque remains keen to stick with what he knows and would probably play his trusted lieutenants until they drop. As a manager who has won two international championships and two Champions League titles, he knows his formula. At 65, and set to retire soon, he won’t change it now.
Only in Brazil did it fail him. And that’s despite having a fresh generation of talent at his disposal. Spain were outstanding winners of both the 2011 and 2013 under-21 European Championships but it appears that Del Bosque is still to be convinced of that crop.
Five players from that second triumph in Israel are in the 23-man squad that Del Bosque took to La Roja’s training base on the Ile de Re, but only Alvaro Morata will be a certain starter at centre-forward in Toulouse, and that’s largely because the likes of Fernando Torres and David Villa are now no longer fit for purpose.
Marc Batra, who recently joined Borussia Dortmund from Barcelona, is first reserve behind Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique at centre-back; Atletico Madrid’s Koke is competing with Fabregas to be part of that midfield trio; while so must Thiago Alcantara, star and captain of that 2013 triumph in Tel Aviv when scoring a hat trick in a 4-2 defeat of Italy.
Regardless of what is happening off the pitch, David De Gea is still not certain of supplanting Iker Casillas in goal, despite the captain having suffered a torrid first season at FC Porto as the Manchester United keeper put forward his challenge to Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer to be named the continent’s best.
“We’re in a period of reflection and we have to think it over,” Del Bosque said on Friday when asked if he had made his choice between his goalkeepers. “You have to think things over in life.”
Behind that reluctance to publicly commit, those current thoughts appear to be that the newer generation, despite being a group of a quality coveted across Europe, must wait while he resists breaking up the band that conquered international football like no team had ever done before.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.