Step aside, Diego: why Paco Alcacer should lead the line for struggling Spain
When Vicente del Bosque announced his squad for last month's friendly with France and the subsequent European Championship qualifier against Macedonia, the inclusion of Paco Alcacer took a few by surprise.
There was always likely to be a number of new faces after Spain's poor protection of their World Cup, but the Valencia forward has been barely mentioned when discussing the team's striking alternatives.
La Roja have an abundance of attacking talent, although it's arguable they perform better without an out-and-out striker. They may have lost record goalscorer David Villa to retirement, but they can still call upon the likes of Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo, Roberto Soldado and Fernando Torres.
Right man, wrong time
Chelsea's Diego Costa is the obvious candidate to lead the line, however, and his record of nine goals in seven league matches this season illustrates his top form. There are few examples of a striker adjusting so quickly to the Premier League. The Brazilian-born marksman is naturally strong, quick and powerful – all useful attributes in England.
Diego Simeone's philosophy at Atletico Madrid enabled a seamless transition to Jose Mourinho's own ideology. The two coaches share a number of characteristics stylistically, which made him the perfect fit for the Portuguese manager's fast-paced counter-attack.
But as demonstrated in Brazil, Costa isn't completely suited to the patient, possession-based build-up. "Diego has in front of him the challenge to show everyone that we have taken the right decision," Del Bosque told Spanish paper Marca. "Maybe we are wrong, and it does happen in football, but I have a lot of confidence in him that he is going to do very well."
Del Bosque is no longer as rigid in his beliefs and is prepared to be a little more pragmatic to achieve results.
However, in Alcacer they have a player who can effectively act as a false nine while combining the threat of getting in behind opposition defences. Since scoring on his debut against Macedonia, the 21-year-old has gone from strength to strength, and netted the equaliser in Thursday night's shock defeat to Slovenia. He wasn't even first choice last season for Valencia, after making only 17 league starts and scoring six goals.
He already has four in seven matches this season, though, and is part of a new attacking line-up put together by Nuno at Mestalla. When Negredo returns from injury it may be that Alcacer moves slightly deeper to function as a No.10 or moves wide to facilitate the on-loan Manchester City hitman.
If successful, this could benefit the national team further and provide Del Bosque with yet another alternative. For now, though, it's Alcacer who should be occupying the lone striker role for Spain. Few players have improved so dramatically in such a short period, while his finishing, positioning and control are all reminiscent of Spanish legend Raul. If he's able to score half as many goals as the former Real Madrid poacher, Del Bosque will be happy.
Winning from the womb
Alcacer's adaptation to international football has been assisted by the fact that he has played for all of Spain's youth teams; indeed, he top scored at the 2010 U17 European Championship with six goals, and remains the leading marksman in the tournament's history with 14 (including qualifying). He then went on to win the U19 version of the competition in 2011 and 2012. Having operated within the system for years, he's tactically suited to the needs of his manager, and at 21 there's opportunity for additional development.
"Coming from youth football and going into a top-flight dressing room helped me, both professionally and personally. For me the most important thing is to play and play, I think about nothing else," he explained.
When he ran off to celebrate his debut strike for his country at Levante's Ciutat de Valencia stadium, he pointed his hands into the air in memory of his father, who sadly passed away three years ago. "I remember my father every day and he will always be with me, so I dedicated this goal, which is so important to my career, to him," revealed the strong-minded youngster.
Alcacer received an offer from Bundesliga side Wolfsburg in the summer, but decided to stay with only 18 months left of his contract and a buy-out clause of £14 million. Valencia are about to offer him a new five-year deal to retain his services, with the release trigger raised to £40m.
The youngster's physical build is different to that of Costa, but Del Bosque can see similarities in the movement of the two strikers. "Costa is different to [Fernando] Llorente but he and [Paco] Alcacer are quite similar; they look for space and make runs to open the defence," remarked the Spain boss.
Del Bosque has identified a trait that he desires from his strikers without the ball: the ability to provide an area for his technical players to benefit. The two forwards are stylistically differing, but they both have an excellent work-rate and team ethic.
Costa's admirable start to the season and the time already used to integrate him into the line-up means that Alcacer isn't a guaranteed starter at present. That said, the former is without a goal in six international matches, and with his persistent injury problems the situation may change in the near future. It would be nothing new for an expensive Chelsea striker to be left out by Spain - ask Fernando Torres - but it would be interesting if a player terrorising the Premier League can't cut it for la Roja.