Spain still pass masters as Luis Enrique starts in style
The sight of Luis Enrique observing Spain training from a scaffolding platform ahead of Saturday's 2-1 win over England felt somewhat apt for a coach put in place to oversee international football's most intriguing rebuilding job.
It really did not have to be this way. Spain's house was impeccably in order heading into the 2018 World Cup. A 3-0 qualification win over Italy and 6-1 friendly shellacking of Argentina suggested La Roja were ready to emulate their class of 2010.
Unfortunately, Julen Lopetegui chucked in a stick of dynamite by agreeing to take charge of Real Madrid. Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) president Luis Rubiales lit the fuse on a misguided matter of principle and sacked his head coach.
The collapse was not instant, as shown in the show-stopping 3-3 draw against Portugal, but dilapidated walls were collapsing around the hastily installed Fernando Hierro as hosts Russia sent Spain packing in the last 16.
So where next for the international team who defined a generation by winning Euro 2008 and Euro 2012 either side of their finest hour?
Luis Enrique spoke of evolution rather than revolution in the build-up to the match and a wonderfully entertaining first half at an expectant Wembley demonstrated why.
The renovation will not be straightforward – Spanish football's factional tumult of rivalries and ideologies will see to that – but Luis Enrique can go about it with Isco, Thiago Alcantara and Saul Niguez at his disposal. This is a rebuild using the highest-quality fixtures and fittings imaginable.
Muy contento por la victoria y mi primer gol con la @SeFutbol.
Un momento que jamas olvidaré y en un estadio histórico como Wembley. pic.twitter.com/Tg1N1WgFFp
— Saúl Ñiguez Esclapez (@saulniguez) September 8, 2018
Saul's well-timed advance into the England area and clinical finish in the 13th minute swiftly cancelled out Marcus Rashford's opener and stood as an incisive contrast to a flaccid World Cup exit the Atletico Madrid man watched from the bench.
Marcos Alonso repaid his coach's faith with an immaculate display at left-back – Jordi Alba's price for deteriorating relations with Luis Enrique at Barcelona is apparently a spell in the international wilderness – and Isco was a dazzling delight.
Spain found regular joy down the England right, with Kieran Trippier persuaded into the heavy challenge on Alonso that led to Rodrigo Moreno's winner.
The Barca-schooled Thiago supplied the ammunition, but Sergio Busquets was the only man from the current Spanish champions on display in London until Sergi Roberto's 80th-minute entry.
With a former Camp Nou boss at the helm, albeit a fierce Asturian pragmatist, how much a style perfected in Catalonia will continue to influence Spain's national team is a matter of intrigue.
Without the peerless Andres Iniesta and Xavi, Spain – like Barca themselves – will look different. Luis Enrique's obvious advantage is he managed this transition before, one that moved thrillingly from "tiki-taka" to MSN.
Perceptions over the extent to which he ripped up a hallowed playbook have been shaped by some shapeless defeats in his final season with Barca. Of course, Luis Enrique made the team more direct – it would be madness not to with that forward line – but Barcelona did not become unrecognisable.
Rodrigo, Isco and Iago Aspas are not Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, but Spain's front three regularly had too much guile and craft for England's backline. They pressed intelligently and as one, unperturbed by the World Cup semi-finalists' finely crafted early goal.
100% - Isco Alarcon completed all of his 38 passes in the first half, more than any England player so far (Joseph Gomez, 37/41). Lighthouse. pic.twitter.com/dKQrd2z4s5
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 8, 2018
Still, midfield mastery lay at the heart of this triumph, while Spain's defenders seemed to go through long stretches without ever giving the ball away. Before half-time, the travelling supporters broke into "Oles" like it was 2010 all over again. They completed 113 more passes than England at a greater rate of accuracy.
A worrying head injury for Luke Shaw saw the atmosphere fall flat, arguably aiding Spain's exercise in pinning England into their own half before a late rally from the Three Lions.
Luis Enrique's men wobbled as substitute Danny Welbeck was very unfortunate to have a stoppage-time goal ruled out, showing life after Gerard Pique might be trickier than going to work without the midfield maestros of old.
Whether observed from the touchline, the stands or temporary scaffolding, Spain's current pass masters look pretty good in this mood.