The Inevitable Passing of Spain's Dominant Era

With their early exit from the World Cup, we look at the passing of Spain's dominant tiki taka era. What does the future hold and what is the Spanish legacy in the world of football?


By Jamie Currie | 30 June 2014



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Tiki taka: it’s a footballing style that has defined a generation and arguably took its last hurrah in Rio’s world-famous Maracanã stadium. Spain’s golden generation had gone to the well once too often. Heads were bowed and the superstars of Iberia depicted the body language of a team that knew it had finished its period at the top of the international game.


The system synonymous with Barcelona’s La Masia academy had become the go-to tactic for footballing perfection over the past decade. Many clubs and national sides deployed the possession-based tactical approach, aligned with the short passing and intelligent movement, yet only two sides could implement the system to the finer detail and subsequently find true tiki taka perfection.


Though Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona side were indeed outstanding, it wasn’t until Pep Guardiola stepped up to evolve and improve the original Johan Cruyff methodology that the eye-catching football that allowed him to bring much success to the Camp Nou started.


The Barcelona side of 2008 through to 2012 is widely regarded as one of the best club teams of all time. The front six are the guys who were responsible for making the system a success; their brilliance in possession negated the opposition’s offensive threat and at their peak, chances were created at will. Though La Furia Roja and Barça had the perfect balance in midfield, their key weapon was that they could all make the ball do the work. It’s an old adage but if you keep the ball moving and pass accurately, you’re more likely to trouble the opposition.


Pep evolved Cruyff’s original system by adding the false nine position to bring the best out of Lionel Messi. It ultimately allowed even more control and possession of the game by largely cutting out crosses into the box and encouraging passing, passing and more passing until they found a weakness in the opposition defences that could be exploited. It’s perhaps why towards the end, the system was labelled boring. They’d passed enough.


Without question, the most important part of the system was how the team, when out of possession, would quickly press and win the ball back usually within a seven second window, allowing them to spring attacks as far into the oppositions half as possible. An attack launched from 30 yards away from the opposition goal is more likely to yield success than one started 80 yards away.


The much-heralded style of play went international as Spain under the late, great Luis Aragonés deployed it during their Euro 2008 qualification campaign. Again, it was made to tick by an imperious Xavi, along with the underrated Marcos Senna holding and Xabi Alonso beside him. They won the tournament of course, defeating Germany courtesy of a Fernando Torres goal; it was the kick-start needed for a system that would dominate for the next four years at club and international level.


Though Aragonés – ageing and his health declining – resigned, Vincente del Bosque took the reins and led La Furia Roja to their maiden World Cup win in South Africa. It was to be the pinnacle of the system and the careers or Xavi, Iker Casillas and David Villa.


With their dominance, like many teams before them, fans grew tired of their style and the term boring was incredulously used to describe the system. It started at Euro 2012, a tournament in which they scored twelve goals and only conceded one. Hardly boring form, but the criticism continued, right up to the final where they thrashed a sorry Italy 4-0.


Following the system to the letter, they passed the Italians to death, pouncing on the smallest of Azzurri mistakes. Perhaps the fans had enough of one team dominating – we’ve seen it in other sports with Michael Schumacher and Tiger Woods. Maybe it wasn’t blood-and-thunder, end-to-end football that excites us. It was the Spanish way; simple and effective.


Over the last few seasons the system has been questioned as the main proponents of tiki taka in the club game, Barcelona, have not got their hands on the Champions League. Their demise has led to many questioning whether the system has had its day. Indeed Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino altered it to accommodate a more direct style at times.


This season, Guardiola has tried to implement they style at Bayern with mixed results. Yet again it was in the Champions League where it was found wanting. Real Madrid’s demolition of the Bavarians confirmed to many that an era of counter-pressing, low blocks and narrow defending could combat tiki taka.  


That notion is further compounded as Real and Atlético Madrid – the dominant teams of Europe this season – both play on the counter with high tempo, sweeping football. The ‘in’ tactic at the moment is most certainly a reversion to counter-attacking.


This is football; systems frequently swing in roundabouts and this year’s flavour can be traced right back to the great Hungary sides of the 50s. This consistent shift in the successful tactics of the time ensures great footballing dynasties cannot last until the end of time – even if we wanted them to do so.


For tiki taka it’s no surprise that it’s been questioned over the past few years. The one man who was the fulcrum of the entire style and controlled everything about it is getting on with age. Xavi Hernández may only have been one cog in the machine to many however, that does his brilliance little justice; he was the footballing brain that made the style so effective for so many years. As he prepares to retire from international football and possibly leaving Barcelona this summer, the pocket-sized playmaker will take the original version of the footballing art with him wherever he ends up.


As one memorable generation depart, so the youngsters in the Spanish system will come through and attempt to recreate their own brand of success. Whether it’s tiki taka or something else, a new cycle has started.


You know what they say; it’s like when the lead character of a TV show moves on and is replaced with someone else. The TV show may still be very good to watch and may still pull in the top ratings, but as it evolves, most almost always prefer the original.


This is certainly the case with tiki taka. The conductor has left the orchestra. The Spanish system has been outstanding and exciting to watch over the past seven or eight years. It will always be the benchmark of beautiful football for many and though other will attempt to replicate it, Spain will always be the pioneers in the modern era.   


Out with the old and in with the new will no doubt be Spain’s thoughts heading into Euro 2016. But what an era of football they’ve delivered for us fans.


By Jamie Currie.

Follow Jamie on Twitter @jamiecurrie89




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