Spain began the Luis de la Fuente era with three Real Madrid players involved in the 3-0 win over Norway, more than the two that Luis Enrique took to Qatar as part of his World Cup squad in the winter.
The changing of the guard was clear with only four of the starting line-up who were eliminated against Morocco in Qatar in December making De la Fuente’s selection in Málaga at La Rosaleda. Among the changes were Nacho, for his first call-up since 2018, and Dani Carvajal, with Dani Ceballos coming off the bench.
It was a different La Fábrica product who would steal the headlines though, as Dani Olmo opened the scoring in the first half but the real star was Joselu, of Espanyol, who scored twice on his debut as he came off the bench.
Spain struggled to break down Norway beyond Olmo’s conversion from an Alejandro Baldé cross, but the Real Madrid youth product showed a real poacher’s instinct for his two goals late on in the game to make it 3-0 on the night.
One of the major headlines from De la Fuente’s squad selection was to recall Nacho. If that was a brave call from the new national team coach, it was even more valiant to put the Real Madrid defender straight into his starting line-up alongside Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte in central defence.
The 33-year-old defender was assured throughout, completing more tackles than any other player with three. and only had one scare as an awkward deflection almost sent the ball into his own net, though it must be said that there was little fault to put on Nacho for that incident.
While Erling Haaland was missing, Real Sociedad forward Alexander Sørloth proved a tough test and tended to verge towards Nacho when seeking to open up space, but he handled the physical battle well. In fact, Nacho won all five of his duels.
His role in the build-up was also crucial, with an impressive 98% pass completion rate from 82 attempted passes, including 11 which went directly into the final third, in a very different role to what we usually see of him in the white of Real Madrid.
Alongside him was Dani Carvajal, who was left out by Luis Enrique for the last Spain game against Morocco in Qatar. He was preferred to Tottenham’s Pedro Porro at right-back and was one of the team’s few veterans, but produced the goods.
Defensively, Mohamed Elyounoussi would drift into a central position and Carvajal had a fairly quiet evening. He was only forced into one tackle throughout the 90 minutes, and was unsuccessful, but that did not blemish a strong display.
It was going forward where Carvajal made a real impact, creating a total of three chances, the joint-highest of any player, making life difficult for Birgier Meling by doubling up and supporting Dani Olmo effectively down the right flank.
Ceballos’ role in changing the game
One of the surprises in the starting line-up was that Dani Ceballos was not among the 11 men to start the tie. Given his number 10 shirt designation and a relatively important role in De la Fuente’s teams in the past, talk had been rife that he could be in line for a starting role in a wide position in favour of FC Barcelona’s Gavi.
In the end, that was not the case, and he was limited to just 32 minutes as he replaced Iago Aspas and played in the number 10 role behind Joselu. That change was one of the moments that turned the game completely.
Ceballos completely changed the game— Churros y Tácticas Podcast (@ChurrosTacticas) March 25, 2023
While he only played a third of the available minutes, Ceballos played like a man possessed. With three chances created and four dribbles completed, he topped both of those stats across any of the players to take to the field, matching only Carvajal for chances created.
It was no coincidence that Spain unlocked the game in the final stages with Ceballos in that role. Aspas had become somewhat invisible, neither acting as a number nine nor as a number 10, but Ceballos fitted into the system more naturally.
His distribution, either direct to Joselu or into wide areas, was essential for breaking down Norway in the closing stages of the game to boost the scoreline quite so triumphantly.