Just four months from now, once La Liga is over and with the Champions League final looming large, thoughts will already be turning to June and the UEFA European Championships, held in France and in which Spain will be hoping to re-establish the dominance on the international stage that deserted them at the last World Cup.
Spain are, of course, the reigning holders of the Euros, and manager Vicente del Bosque is leaving his post after the tournament. It all points to one big final flourish from this iteration of the team before a new era begins for Spain; there are many big decisions to be taken, therefore, with regards to who makes the squad, not least of all who will lead the attacking line.
There are three main candidates, but the biggest question has to be over Diego Costa. The Chelsea striker and nationalised Brazilian has failed to impact on the Spanish national team so far and must be considered a potential big name to leave out of the squad unless things change drastically in the next few months.
Having left Atletico Madrid after winning the title in Spain and reaching the Champions League final, there was no doubt that Costa was one of the most dangerous and reliable forwards around. His playing style—full-throttle, aggressive, direct—was a perfect tactical fit for his new team, Chelsea, and he led the line there with aplomb.
Not only did he contribute enormously to the overall team initiative, his end product was stunning; Costa hit the ground running and netted nine in his first seven league games, but injury ended that start. In his 10 league matches in 2015, Costa scored seven times, as well as in the League Cup final and the Champions League round of 16.
His form was undeniably impressive, and the majority of his Spanish caps came during and leading up to this period.
The second half of 2015—the first of the current campaign—was less impressive. Just five league goals in over 1,200 minutes of action was a poor enough return, but there was an overall malaise and frustration in his game not previously seen. A below-par Chelsea team and perceived issues between management and players also contributed, but there is no doubt that Costa's individual form was, in general, way below the expected level.
It's worth pointing out that he has played better in the past few weeks since the turn of the year (and the change of management)—scoring twice in the past three league games—but issues remain, and he is still far from his best.
Issues with Costa, Issues for Spain
The big problem with fitting Costa into the national team until now has been how to get the most out of his skill set, given the type of build-up and service coming from the deeper lines in the side.
With 10 caps and one goal to date—that against Luxembourg—it has been far from an easy integration.
Costa's strengths are as notorious as they are difficult to stop: He is an excellent channel runner, especially the left side of the pitch, giving the team the ability to stretch defences and play on the counter. He can hold the ball up, dribble at pace, attack crosses well and challenge extremely high upfield.
The latter is of benefit to Spain as he leads a high press, but that aspect of their game has largely disappeared over the past couple of years. A more patient, probing, possession-oriented approach to build-up play doesn't make the best use of Costa's physical traits, and even his link up with Cesc Fabregas in the national team hasn't been hugely impressive.
Add in some missed opportunities in front of goal, an apathy toward him from sections of the national team fanbase and some badly timed absences—he didn't make any of the next six squads after scoring against Luxembourg, partly injured, partly left out—and it's plain to see that Costa is far from an assured starter, let alone a favourite.
Spain's big issue is not whether or not Costa is good enough, but who else can take his place. The other two main considerations are Paco Alcacer and Alvaro Morata, at Valencia and Juventus respectively, but neither make an absolute cast-iron case for inclusion themselves.
The Valencia man has performed well with the national team, for sure, netting six in 11 caps so far and looking a better tactical fit—though his natural level of ability is arguably not as high as Costa's. Alcacer has a good reputation, but he isn't an elite forward and certainly not a top-class goalscorer.
As for Morata, there are times when he looks the real deal, but he cannot hold down a spot at club level this year and Real Madrid aren't exactly fighting tooth and nail to execute their buy-back clause on him.
Morata has only scored once in Serie A this season—the same number he has for Spain, in six caps to date.
Nolito is a wide forward, as is Pedro. Neither are ideal for a single centre-forward spot, certainly not while expecting to get the same output from them as they can and have previously provided for their clubs.
The more experienced option is Roberto Soldado. He has been out of the picture at international level since 2013 but has performed extremely well for Villarreal this term, mainly as a linking-play second striker rather than the goalscorer many might remember.
Aritz Aduriz has been championed by many and ignored by Del Bosque, while the likes of Iago Aspas, Lucas Perez and Borja Baston have had great seasons but zero international exposure or pedigree.
It is extremely unlikely the manager will hand any of them a chance at this point, which is a disappointment in itself; playing one of these, or even a youngster without the technical level but with the pace, end product or point to prove to make up for it (see: Williams, Borja or Bojan Krkic) could bring a surprise impact ability to the team.
The Case for 4-4-2
In truth, this might be a question more suited to after Euro 2016 than leading up to it, and even then, only if Andres Iniesta decides this is the time to call it a day on the international scene. If Iniesta plays, Spain must have him in the team, as well as Sergio Busquets, and that means a three-man midfield.
Without Iniesta, it's more open to interpretation.
Spain could pair Thiago, Koke, Fabregas or even Santi Cazorla with Busquets, with another of them in a wider (though not "wing") role and any of David Silva, Juan Mata, Pedro, Isco or Nolito in the other. Add in the next group coming through, including Saul and Inaki Williams, and there is plenty of versatility, as well as an acceptance of playing in a 4-4-2 system.
In fact, the formation has become widely used in La Liga once again. Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, two of the top teams, play it on a weekly basis. Real Betis, Athletic Club and Malaga all use it, or with slight variations in attack, while even Real Madrid have featured intermittently in a 4-4-2 over the past two campaigns.
Del Bosque, though, is a creature of habit. He'll stick with his personnel and his systems and expect positive outcomes. Once he departs after the Euros, though, Spain have a decision to make over the way of playing as much as the new head coach, and there will be a case to be made that the players available fit this system.
How Many Go?
As mentioned, Del Bosque sticks to his guns and his selections. Spain's eventual collection of forwards is likely to be limited to two central strikers, three at the absolute most, as he packs his squad instead with midfield and creative options.
Alcacer is almost certain to be picked. He's domestic-based, has a good strike record for the team and stylistically is probably the best fit.
After that, it's a straight race between Morata and Costa, but if neither prove they should be on the plane, it's incumbent on Del Bosque to look elsewhere.
Spain are a fantastic side and have the players who can win more silverware, but their manner of playing is predictable and without much variation, save perhaps for sticking Jesus Navas extremely wide. A different option, a game-changer, a break from the norm is required to give them back an extra boost in matches where the small details make the biggest differences.
Diego Costa could be that, arguably should be, but until injuries, inconsistencies and even attitude problems become either a thing of the past or a minor setback compared to phenomenal and regular output, the manager needs to start considering alternatives.