Luis Enrique gives Spain an identity again, and hope of a brighter future

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Laurens: France back to their vintage best (1:09)

Julien Laurens recaps France's Nations League win over Spain. (1:09)

Luis Enrique won't be reading this, which is an open invitation to say the most outrageous things about him. Terrible, unheard things that few want to admit. Things like: he knows what he's doing. And: he's pretty good at this. Even this week, when that was clearer than ever, when his Spain team -- and it is very much his Spain team -- became the first side to defeat European champions Italy in 37 matches and came within a stud's width of defeating world champions France too, close to a first trophy in nine years, recognition came a little reluctantly.

Still, at least it came. Even if it came with a caveat, sometimes through gritted teeth. A "yeah, but." Mostly it took the form of: good manager, bad man, yet the man is the manager too.

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On Sunday night, Spain lost 2-1 to France in the final of the UEFA Nations League. A Kylian Mbappe goal defeated them; he had been clearly offside when the pass was played to him, lurking behind the Spanish line, but as the ball went through, Eric Garcia stretched to stop it, the slightest of touches on his studs enough to play Mbappe onside again. "I can't understand it," Garcia said after. "I don't understand it," Cesar Azpilicueta added. "I can't understand it," just about everyone said, which at least gave them someone else to focus on.

- Why Mbappe's "offside" goal was allowed to stand

"Anthony Taylor always gets it wrong against Spain" ran one headline, on the same page as an article by the paper's refereeing expert saying that Anthony Taylor had got it right. Still, it was hard to take, for Garcia especially -- "The referee told me I should have got out of the way," he said, and imagine for a moment what it's like to be told that. Most of all, it was hard to take because Spain had been so close, a cruel and almost bureaucratic way to lose a final that they felt they deserved to win. "We were superior to a team like France," Aymeric Laporte said.

And beyond the defeat, that mattered. Spain, semifinalists at the Euros, the team that took Italy to a penalty shoot out, had beaten Italy to exact a little revenge and had now taken France to the wire. "We played de tu a tu," Luis Enrique said. "As equals."

It was only the UEFA Nations League, sure, but they had faced Germany (in the group stage), Italy and France. They had come into the final four without Alvaro Morata, Marcos Llorente, Pedri, Gerard Moreno and Jordi Alba, but Spain had gone close, and had perhaps deserved more. A bit like at Wembley in July in the Euros. The Spain who weren't supposed to be any good. The Spain no one cared about, or so they said.

They have hope with a 17-year-old (Gavi), an 18-year-old (Yeremi Pino) and two more 18-year-olds (Pedri and Ansu Fati) waiting to come back. "No trophy, but a future," one front page said.

That immediate future is still in doubt, though: Spain still might not even reach the World Cup. They will have to beat Sweden in the November international break, having lost in Stockholm and been held to a draw by Greece. The summer was not ideal by any means, even if the lasting memory was of an impressive display against Italy in London. By the end of the Euros, they'd actually only won one game in 90 minutes. And ultimately of course, they had been beaten, in London and in Milan. It is true that some of the selections have surprised -- the lack of stability does too -- and that can be disconcerting at times, so much change.

It is not perfect at all, and put bluntly, name by name, when you see the list of players getting a Spain call up, you don't immediately think: they're contenders. At centre-back in particular, it's not always convincing, yet there's something here now, something building, taking shape.

That something is very much Luis Enrique's team: pressing high and demanding possession, the identity clear even if the personnel isn't. A team that wants the ball, wants to attack, with players he wants to play, not look backwards, one that is bringing through footballers who are young and making others look it. Sergio Busquets appears a different player to the one at Barcelona. A team that still attacks when it's leading, not one that just throws on a load of defenders to defend what it has. All of which seems to be something that many seem to find hard to accept. Not so much because of them, the players, but because of him.

Most of the really big decisions Luis Enrique has made -- the ones that were most questioned, furiously so at times -- have come off. Unai Simon in goal. Picking Dani Olmo. Pedri. Ferran Torres. Now, Gavi. Even those who attacked him for leaving out Sergio Ramos -- even those that still do -- are confronted by the reality even as they cling to some slightly bonkers "anti-Madrid" conspiracy: Ramos has not played since he was left out, and had only played six times in the five months before he was. All of which makes you think twice when you still just can't get some selection decisions into your head -- or it should.

Spain weren't supposed to be any good -- and no, they're not always, with their World Cup future still hanging in the balance -- but their fate remains in their own hands and here they are, semifinalists of the Euros, finalists of the Nations League. Only an offside goal from a title. "I'm dying to say something," Luis Enrique admitted, "but I have gone 10 years without talking about the refereeing and I am not going to break my rule now. I want my team to accept defeat and victory."

Hearing Luis Enrique admit that he's dying to say something, but won't, may raise a smile. He isn't normally one to hold back, and that's part of this. There's something provocative about him, a man who likes to wind people up a little, chest and chin jutted out. A man who seems to enjoy the unpredictability and the chaos, and who may just see some value in creating an outside enemy for his players. Not least because it's so easy to do so. Almost embarrassingly so.

On the first day of Spain's get-together for these games, Luis Enrique was asked about the pressure that surrounds his role and all the criticism, some of which is ferocious. All the noise, the accusations, the furious mass debates. The moral outrage and the noise. "I don't read you," he said. No papers, no TV, no radio. Why would he? After all, he explained, he knows more than the media do about football, has all the information he needs and when it comes to opinion pieces, there's no one whose opinion he feels any desire to know.

On one level, it was hard to believe entirely -- no-one lives in total isolation and at times, it can seem like Luis Enrique actually enjoys being contrary, a position that requires knowledge of what you're up against -- but the point he was making was difficult to question. Of course he knows more than them (than us) about football after decades playing, coaching and studying the game. Of course, if he is doing the job right, he has all the information he needs on players and opponents. Of course, it's of only very limited value to him to read opinions from the outside.

No big deal ... except that it's always a big deal. Lots of people in the media got very upset. Many more made it about them, which is ... well, the way it so often is. And yes, some did suggest that actually he doesn't know more than them about football. Every paper, every radio show, every TV led on his words -- these words, that is, not the ones about the match, his players or his plan. (And yes, this column is very well aware of the irony here, of the fact that it is being dawn into the very same subject, for which: sorry.) They did so, all hurt and upset. Why does he have to be like this, they asked. Again and again and again.

When Spain won against Italy last week, almost all the analysis was framed around Luis Enrique being like this. He might be a good manager, but ... it was all very (melo)dramatic. It was also easy to imagine him laughing at the absurdity of it all, at how easy it is, unable to believe that everyone seems to leap in so fast, that the game is so simple to play. The talk is of unpleasantness, of it all being unnecessary. And, yeah, it can feel a little gratuitous sometimes. It can feel like he is a wind-up merchant, which he certainly is. It's taken as a huge insult, an appalling affront, all so very, very important.

So often, Luis Enrique is accused of making decisions motivated by something other than the one thing that always drive him: winning. He is accused of there being something else, something other than the team, something other than Spain that guides him. By them. As the Spanish phrase has it: "the thief believes everyone is like him."

Step back a moment and it's mostly mischievous, provocative for a laugh or just the sake of it. Mostly, it's just silly, the reaction making it even more so, even funnier. To him at least. It's all taken so very seriously when it's really not. And if it is, maybe it has a function. It's all in the game.

In fact, it's all a game, one it seems Luis Enrique is pretty good at.