The Curious Case of Spain’s No. 9s

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The first to praise and the first to blame. The life of a frontman is scrutinized based on the amount of goals they can score or their ability to involve themselves when not scoring. If they’re prolific, they steal the show over some of the better players on the field. If they look less than convincing, the story becomes about the one miskick that costs their side three points.

It will be Julen Lopetegui to decide on which of his three No. 9s will be under the magnifying glass in Russia. The former Porto manager has elected to bring Atletico’s Diego Costa, Valencia’s Rodrigo Moreno and Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas. The biggest names left out here are of course World Cup 2010 David Villa, who is currently playing in the MLS in America which seems to leave a sour taste on European managers’ tongues, and Alavaro Morata who has had a tough year under Antonio Conte at Chelsea.

Diego Costa looks the obvious choice on paper. He’s power, pace, an intelligent runner, a work horse and rarely misses a chance as he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. The Brazilian-born Spanish international is a natural competitor, conquering Spain and England as a top scorer every year he was around and being a vital part of Atletico Madrid winning La Liga in 2013-14 and Chelsea winning the Premier League in 2016-17.

The problem is, the No. 9 has shown to be nowhere near as effective for his country. He’s scored 7 goals in 18 appearances for España which isn’t a bad return for most, but for Costa is quite low.

His lack of goals isn’t his fault though. Costa doesn’t fit the style that Spain has played in the past. Spain are and have been extremely fluid, often making Costa the axis that his teammates choose not to turn on. The Atletico man doesn’t get the service from his direct runs because he is caught in the midfield trying to create and the ball already moves past him into the box.

Spain still play with the same fluidity, but Lopetegui has since recognized a way to make use of Costa’s powerful forward runs, possibly unlocking a monster just in time for Russia 2018. But, there are two new kids on the block, both of which might be even better fits than Costa for España.

aspas
Rodrigo (left) giving a thumbs up while Iago Aspas (right) looks on.

Iago Aspas has lit up La Liga scoring 23 goals and assisting 5 playing both as both a right winger and center forward. His positional versatility has shown for country as the Celta Vigo man recently scored a hat-trick for Spain in their 6-1 skinning of Argentina a couple months ago. Now, it is a very small sample size to take from, but Aspas is able to match the quality link up play around him, while also making blazing runs with his blistering acceleration. The former Liverpool man can do it all as far as scoring goes as well being seemingly two-footed and not being afraid to throw his head into traffic.

Rodrigo is much of the same as Aspas, finding passes with his holding up play and quickly running in behind defenses. He scored 19 goals for Valencia this season and has just as much stake to claim David Villa’s 2010 spot as the other two. He showed his quality in Spain’s friendly against Germany in March, where he scored off a Andres Inesta defense-slicing through ball and looked threatening all most of the night. After Aspas’ display against a Messi-less Argentina though, his value could’ve dropped a bit.

Spain are favorites to get out of Group B (Iran, Morocco, Portugal) and Diego Costa is still likely to lead the line for España this summer. But, Costa getting the nod doesn’t mean Aspas and Rodrigo won’t play a big role off the bench. Lopetegui having three quality, flexible forwards off the bench can only help his and Spain’s cause as the Spanish look to cut ties with who they were the past four years, and begin to regain dominance on the world stage.

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