From escape rooms to new rules, Luis Enrique kicks off a new era for Spain
MADRID -- Luis Enrique bundled his players into three black vans with tinted windows and without a word, he drove them to a secret location where he locked them in a room with a serial killer.
Spain's new manager has a reputation for extreme discipline and this was the week when everyone seemed preoccupied with punishment, but this was different. This was role play: an Escape Room game on Gran Vía in central Madrid, where the national team players had exactly 60 minutes to get away from San Francisco's notorious Zodiac Killer. Go it alone and they were dead; work together and they might just survive.
Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish Football Federation, insists that he has turned the page. There is no point in looking back on Julen Lopetegui's time in charge, brought to a close three days before the World Cup; instead, everyone should look forward, he says. The Luis Enrique era had begun and things are not going to be the same round here any more. It was time for them to escape their past. Or was it?
On Monday morning, Spain's players arrived at Las Rozas where the new coach was waiting for them, ready to prepare for the first two games of a new era that begins against England on Saturday and Croatia on Tuesday. Many of them there, and who boarded a plane for London four days later, are new too. Raul Albiol had been handed a surprise return after three years but even with him present, there are only three members of the squad that have ever won anything with Spain: Albiol, Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets. There were 11 changes from the World Cup squad alone, and that was just three months ago.
A lot has happened in a short space of time but Luis Enrique says this is no revolution. The guillotine fell most notably on Jordi Alba but that appeared to say more about his relationship with the manager from their Barcelona days than it did about some significant footballing shift. Yet this did feel different.
For many of the players that arrived on Monday, this was the first time they had even spoken to Luis Enrique. The manager admitted that he had not called any of them before this get-together: The only player he talked to was Gerard Pique and he did that to confirm the defender's intention to walk away. He hadn't picked up the phone to anyone else -- not even Sergio Ramos. Their meeting on Monday morning, coach and captain filmed by the Federation, felt a little stilted. Their greeting by the pitch a little later seemed a little more spontaneous, although not by much, and internally some have suggested that Luis Enrique's appointment is designed, at least in part, to deliver leadership back into the hands of the manager.
Not talking to players is just kind of what Luis Enrique does. Asked why he had not spoken to anyone, his response was essentially to throw the question back. Why would I? He talks, they listen. He leads, they follow. It's simplistic, but there's something to it.
In the introductory meeting with the team, which lasted 15 minutes, Luis Enrique introduced his new rules: fines for being late, no days off, no family access, flights direct from one game to the next and the earliest training times anyone could remember at Las Rozas. Oh, and mobile phones -- that object that brings you closer to those who are not with you and distances you from those who are -- were banned from the dinner table.
Then there was the importance Luis Enrique laid on physical condition, the blood tests, the shift in diet. All that stuff you always hear. Frankly, you doubt that there's really much margin to change that any more but with Luis Enrique's intensity, you can believe it.
"It's important to have discipline," said Isco, adding: "And it's good to leave the phone behind. Communicating with someone you have to die for on the field is a good thing."
The players had to come closer; the manager didn't, necessarily. And even if Luis Enrique's status as some kind of growling ogre is massively overplayed, he wasn't going to be so permissive as his predecessors. Not with the players and definitely not -- and this is at the heart of some criticisms around his appointment -- with the media.
On the first days of the "new Spain," life at Las Rozas felt different, that's for sure. In part because it was new and everything gets hammed up -- go back through the papers from the first days of any manager at any team and these kind of stories get repeated over and over again, almost always focused on the peripherals rather than the play -- and whether or not they would play differently remains another question. At least until they take the pitch in London.
Luis Enrique was heralded as the man who would change everything but he has talked repeatedly of evolution, not revolution, after taking over. The idea, explicitly expressed since, was that he should do what he did at Barcelona: not throw out what they were but take tiki-taka and tighten it up instead.
Matices is the word that keeps getting repeated: nuance, small detail, variations on a theme. At the World Cup, Spain had become almost a caricature of themselves. He is there to rescue them from that.
"[Luis Enrique] wants us to be more aggressive with the ball," said Alvaro Morata. In Moscow, they could hardly have been more inoffensive: thousands of passes proved to be a road to nowhere. Sometimes you needed a more direct route, or just to travel the same road quicker.
In the end, though, Spain's style must still be recognizably Spain. Not least because there's still a belief that if it's fixed up, accelerated, given a purpose and is no longer treated as purely rhetorical, it remains the best way to succeed.
"Luis Enrique has wanted to leave his mark, on and off the pitch; he has a strong personality," Saul said. "We don't just like our style because we like it, but because it made us win. At Atletico, I play completely differently but this is the best style for the seleccion." It is if it can be adapted, anyway. "We don't need to change too much," Isco said. "The football idea is practically the same -- with matices."
If they sometimes need a more swift route, Spain also need some realism. It is no good being prisoners of their past, just as it is no good to reject it entirely. Asked what Spain's true level was, whether they were genuinely as bad as they had seemed in Russia or whether ninth really is their place in the world, Luis Enrique replied: "Our ranking is ninth? Ninth, then."
He also insisted that it did not help to compare this team to one that won three tournaments in a row. Since then, they have failed at three in a row, after all, all those glory days slipping into the distance, ripe for Springsteen to walk into them in a roadside bar.
"There are some things we are not as good at," Luis Enrique said. "I would love us to have another star on our shirt," he added, tapping his chest, "but I fear that's just not the case." Maybe it is time that people realised that, players included. You don't win just because you're Spain or because you're talented. You don't compete without competing. And if there is one thing that defines Luis Enrique, it's that he always competes, whether as a footballer, cyclist, marathon man or iron man. He's driven, focused, single-minded and utterly convinced. The question is if he can convince the players -- or impose upon them -- to have the same mindset.
Finally, can he convince the fans? Maybe they already realise this Spain is not that Spain any more. Maybe he has to convince them to care first.
On Monday night, the first session of a new era, looking to recover the past but escape it too, it was relatively quiet at Las Rozas. Training was open and maybe 300 supporters sat in the stands. Over the other side, a huge scaffolding platform had been built. Standing upon it, towering over them all, the players especially, was the coach. That was new too.