On Spain, Barcelona and the “death” of Tiki-Taka

Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, old Time is still a-flying: And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.

Robert Harrick, “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time”

For the better part of the last five years, at least since Euro 2008 signaled the dawn of a Spanish renaissance in the sport, the Spanish men’s national football team has ridden a possession-heavy, triangular passing-based game to great success and historic heights, and not only by Spanish standards. The style they have made their own, affectionately dubbed tiki-taka for its quick passing, had its roots in the Ajax/Netherlands “total football” system of the 1970s. When the greatest Dutch player ever, Johann Cruyff, became FC Barcelona’s manager in 1988, he brought the total football mentality with him and placed the greatest burden in the field on his most talented midfielder, Josep Guardiola. Guardiola ascended to the throne at Barcelona in June 2008 and left it four years later having put together perhaps the greatest list of accomplishments in any four-year span in the history of club soccer.

Barcelona would do things like this on the regular:

Mirroring the success of its best club team, Spain’s national squad, with Vincente del Bosque at the helm to mold tiki-taka, began winning the kinds of competitions in which it had always fallen just short, a là England. Beginning with Euro 2008 and continuing through the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, the team won three major international competitions in a four-year span. In Euro 2008, the Spaniards dominated possession, even if not necessarily always dominating its opponents in the scoreline. Every goal was a carefully constructed masterpiece, typically put together at least in part by the genius of Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona’s and Spain’s mastermind in the center of the greatest midfields ever assembled at the club and national levels. As in Barcelona, plays could stretch for minutes without any real signs of pushing forward.

Yet the key to this style isn’t a lack of attacking but rather a lack of having to defend. Keeping the ball in the midfield and gradually, however slowly, pushing the ball forward fueled the sublime moments of excellence which Spain and Barcelona experienced for a prolonged period of time. Maintaining the ball in and beyond the midfield, applying constant pressure wherever opportunities present themselves and recovering the ball as quickly as possible when it is lost are central to the philosophy, the idea being that the opposition cannot score if it does not have the ball. And for a while, the opposition was left scratching its head at the question of how to get the ball and, if it was lucky enough to get that far, what to do with it.

Just over a week after Brazil’s 3-0 drubbing of Spain in the 2013 Confederations Cup Final, and just over two months after Bayern Munich’s 3-0 conquering of Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the Champions League semifinal, the general consensus is that the soccer world has shifted in a tremendous way. Possession alone is no longer the answer: over two legs against Bayern in the Champions League this year, Barcelona averaged 60% possession, a number it routinely amasses when easily disposing of La Liga opponents. In its two-leg loss to Chelsea in last year’s Champions League semifinal, Barcelona averaged a remarkable 72% possession but still managed to lose 3-2 on aggregate, thanks mostly to Chelsea’s parking of the bus.

In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Spain averaged around 65% possession, and in Euro 2012, it held the ball about 68% of the time. Against Brazil, Spain maintained 53% of the possession, a number significantly down from its winning average a year ago. While not being particularly dominant, it is still somewhat comparable to the 56.6% held at Euro 2008. It is not an unsatisfied craving of the ball that Spain let Brazil dismantle its influential style of play.

Granted, the Spanish have recently lacked a truly inspired, in-form striker who is as consistent as the midfield who would feed him the ball. David Villa has not been the same since a career-threatening leg injury kept him out of Euro 2012. Fernando Torres, for all of his struggle to remain at the top of his trade, has not delivered the way del Bosque expected in recent competitions. Fernando Llorente is not afforded the same opportunities to succeed as his compatriots. In Euro 2012, the midfielder Cesc Fabregas was essentially used as a striker, yet the Spanish managed just fine like that because their midfield was so fortified.

And granted, Barcelona has the advantage of fourth-dimension scoring wizard Lionel Messi, whose hamstring injury preceding the semifinal tie with Bayern limited his effectiveness and, therefore, Barcelona’s effectiveness. It is tough to say what influence, physically and psychologically, a healthy Messi would have had on the Champions League, but given soccer’s unpredictability and the circumstances of the past season, Bayern proved itself the best club in Europe.

Bayern exploited a key feature of tiki-taka: that of the attacking wing back, an outside defender bringing up the ball and becoming part of the offensive possession. Because of the fluidity of the system, any outfield player (that is, anyone who is not a goalkeeper) can end up somewhere near the opposing goalie box, sending arching crosses in or centering the ball before withdrawing. While many clubs use this tactic, no team in recent memory has used it as effectively as Barcelona, with the collective acumen of Dani Alves, Éric Abidal and Jordi Alba spearheading charges along the sidelines.

Bayern sniffed out the weakness in this system. Although sending Alves or Alba up with the ball gave Barcelona a distinct advantage in attack from the wings, its preferred goals came from slow build-up through the midfield, devaluing the high crosses that lead to quick headers or rebounding opportunities. When a defender charged up the sideline with the ball, he left a space behind him for quick counterattacks from the wings, the most effective kind of play for a team that only manages 30% of the ball. Indeed, Bayern made the absolute most of its opportunities.

In this year’s Champions League semifinal, Bayern used a counterattacking, physical style of play to make the most of its time on the ball. Its players were better-rested and better-prepared for Barcelona, recognizing that challenging the barrage of passes at their points of exchange was a better course of action than waiting for a mistake that would never come from the likes of Xavi, Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta.

The story was not necessarily the same in Brazil, though there were some shades of that semifinal visible. For much of the match, Spain looked confused and out-of-rhythm, its clockwork undone by the more natural joga bonito of Neymar, Fred and the rest of the Brazilian national team. Despite Nike advertising campaignsjoga bonito has been largely out of favor for three decades, displaced amid changing tides in soccer that eventually gave way to Spain’s rise. Above all, the Brazilian team, one entrenched in the most celebrated history in soccer, played like it was having fun, reintroducing a vigor to the international game which has been lacking. Fred scored from the ground, for crying out loud.

Within days of both Barcelona’s and Spain’s defeats, a simple Google search will reveal page after page of articles detailing “the death of tiki-taka.” While many of these articles are well-intentioned, few of them will reveal a constant truth about soccer: styles take the world by storm and then mesh with other styles, creating new ways of playing the same game. Were it not for Ajax and the Dutch national team’s total football, Barcelona would not abide by the pass-first mentality which had led to its golden era. Had it not been for Hungary’s aggressive formations of the Golden Team and Ferenc Puskás before that, the Dutch may have not happened upon total football as a viable strategy.

The 2013 Confederations Cup will not leave the footnote in history where tiki-taka will be said to have ended. The 2013 UEFA Champions League may already have that, albeit misguided, distinction by virtue of being a more important, albeit club rather than international, tournament. Time, that final judge of historical importance, will speak to the precise end of pure tiki-taka, most likely at the conclusion of next year’s World Cup in Brazil, but the style will continue in some capacity or as the foundation of the next great tactical revolution in soccer. Tiki-taka is not dead, nor will it die the slow, painful death of pundits’ dreams in the wake of a Spanish decline. The tactical approach and all it encompasses will live on in some form or another, surviving long after this golden generation of Spanish football players has left the pitch for the last time.

Xavi, the most celebrated ambassador of the Spanish and Catalan styles of play, will be 34 years old by then, and his all-seeing eyes will surely be able to more clearly assess the accomplishments of his club and national teams than anyone speaking on tiki-taka now, and perhaps he will enter the territory of Cruyff as the catalyst of a new movement. For now, however, and until further notice, he will simply look for the open man.

Editor’s Note (TL;DR): Tiki-taka is not dead.

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