The beauty of football is in its flexibility. One man’s excitement can create another man’s nightmare. An outlook can be dominant one moment, whilst seeming submissive the next. Tactics are a prime example of this. In the world of football, every fan is a coach. Whether you’re an armchair fan or a match go-er, a part-time coach or a full-time learner there is always something to find. New and old. For one tactic can seem brilliant with one group of players, implementation of the same philosophy can seem like a hopeless cause to the next. One man’s excitement can create another man’s nightmare.
The most popular tactics in football fandom will always be the ones with the quickest, most eloquent route to goal. 4-4-2 and the long-ball never get credit because of how they often promote direct, ‘ugly’ ways of getting the ball closest to the net. The idea of football itself is to win, whilst winning only comes about because a team can score more goals than the opposition. It is sense and it is simple. The reason many fans see it as the anti-football is simple too: entertainment.
From time to time managers see the game purely as a job. Sure, it is their job. They’re in the results business and everyone close to football knows how quickly things can turn sour if results aren’t going well. But managers are only around because sport is entertainment. They’re only around to offer up the sport to the fans in the stadium and around the world. It’s a fine line, but a line all the same.
For every beige Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis, we have a rainbow of emotion, feeling and appreciation for football. For every beige Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis we have sexy football and scoring more goals. For every Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis we have Pep Guardiola. And for every long ball play we have numerous quick, incisive passes. For every long ball play we have the memory of tiki-taka.
The phrase tiki-taka was popularised by late TV pundit Andreas Montes from a Spanish colloquial term used when describing the Spanish way of playing. Montes, it is thought, used the term in relation to the quick, sharp and precise passing and movement technique that was employed by the management and players during that time. The footballing bods of Spain had taken note that their then-current crop of players didn’t hold the physique of other nations, so instead of trying to fight fire with fire they decided to adopt a different approach.
Utilising their smaller technical players, Spain found a way around the giants of the game. Instead of going toe-to-toe or through their opponents, they would go around them with lightning speed.
The Spanish national team and Barcelona of La Liga have been two of the biggest success stories of the tiki-taka revolution. Barcelona, a team stooped in history of beautiful football, allowed their tactics and thinking to evolve naturally and organically over time. From the days of Johan Cruyff in the late 80s/early 90s, there has been a conscious effort to blood young players and play exciting, effective football. But whereas Cruyff’s education came from the Total Football era he promoted, the style we know today grew further from this, taking shape because of the perfect storm of Pep Guardiola’s appointment and their famed youth system, La Masia, churning out young, technically gifted and tiki-taka primed players. They just didn’t know it at the time.
Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Messi are to name but a few players who were perfect fit to promote a style of play that encouraged the club to think technically, not physically.
It is Xavi and Iniesta that have probably become the poster boys for Guardiola’s pass-and-move-and-press generation. Quick over a short space and with intelligence and grace, both players could handle the instructions from the manager to play quickly, to play with energy and to pass, pass, pass.
During the first season under Guardiola, Barcelona began to play the way he wanted, with the introduction of a super high defensive line, coupled with Victor Valdes operating as a sweeper-keeper-come-last line of outfield defence.
The high line of Abidal, Pique, Puyol and Alves helped create one of the most important defensive traits under Guardiola and tiki-taka. The compact press.
To effectively beat a team, Pep believed that his side would need to win the ball back much higher up the pitch than previously seen in football. The benefit of this is two-fold.
Firstly, winning the ball back closer to the goal means that you’re closer to your overall target – scoring. With Henry, Eto’o and Messi, they had a forward line that was quick, technically superb and could finish. Helping them retrieve the ball back in midfield was Xavi, Iniesta and slightly further back, Busquets.
The second reason winning the ball back early is a benefit is that you don’t spend a lot of your time chasing after the other team when they have possession. The quicker you win the ball back, tiki-taka suggests, the quicker you can rest. But what happens when you win the ball back?
It’s common in tiki-taka theory to hear about the ‘6 second’ rule. This idea is that the ball should be regained within 6 second of losing it to your opposition. The reason for this is as follows – during the initial 6 seconds, the opposition, upon winning the ball back, will not have readily switched from defensive mode to possession mode, meaning that they will need a few seconds to adjust and to prepare. Winning the ball back in this time of adjusted concentration is key. But what happens when you win it back? The rule still applies.
When Barcelona won the ball back, you would often see them push it towards the centre of the field. This is for a similar reason to the one above – do not allow yourself to lose the ball within 6 seconds of winning it back. Another reason for pushing the play towards the centre of the field, was that, after Guardiola’s first season at least, their best players all played centrally. This means not only Xavi, Iniesta and Pique, but Lionel Messi, too.
“For me, the best players have to play in the centre” spoke Pep, shortly after allowing Samuel Eto’o to leave the club. Here, he was referring to positioning Messi more central, giving him more licence to effect the game than he was getting coming in from wide. The best player on the planet, Messi took a lot of the attention away from his teammates because defenders would try and shackle him, as opposed to stifle the creative genius that were the midfield trio behind him. This created room for other players to shine, too. Dani Alves was an attacker in all but name, being allowed to push forward and create an extra midfielder, supporting Messi out wide, whilst knowing that if the ball was lost, he was one of the first lines of defence. A defender, but not as we knew it.
Tiki-taka is a tactic that has creating space as one of its core philosophical heartbeats. Movement off the ball allowed penetration and success on it. Always playing in a triangle, Barca’s players would move around their opposition, creating an amount of space that would help the player on the ball make the correct decision. Staying static, Pep knew, would allow predictability in his play and hurt a team hell-bent of possession and ‘death by football’. Whilst having your own players moving around the man in possession, you leave the opposition with no choice but to move with you, hence creating not only space, but time to help out the teammate with that ball. A simple rule of thumb, but an important one all the same. You can be the best player in the country, but with the help of the players around you, you can dominate the Europe. You can dominate the world.
The Spanish national team and Barcelona under Guardiola became the greatest in the world. Winning trophy after trophy, each of the above were the markers when it came to beautiful, successful football. But like anything, tiki-taka had its critics. Tiki-taka would be short lived.
Being critical, observers began to notice that the football of the Spanish team began to be about keeping the ball, not scoring, and ‘death by football’ took over from quick passing and pressure to score. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger said about the Spanish national team that they had forgotten that scoring was the aim, whilst bystanders agreed, claiming tiki-taka had gone too far. And become a devolution of play, not an evolution.
Upon moving to Bayern Munich, even the great man distanced himself with the notion of tiki-taka. Guardiola would say “I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It's so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition's goal. It's not about passing for the sake of it.”
It seems that the perfect storm created by years of work at La Masia from both Pep and the players he would manage would end up being the very thing that it didn’t want to become. Passing had become its enemy, where as it was supposed to bring it success. Success in the trophy room and success in entertainment. Entertain it no longer did. But whilst we will always remember the sideways passing of what Spanish football became, we should never forget the quick energy, the incisive passing and the willingness to work harder, play harder and entertain more. It may have been short-lived, but tiki-taka defined a generation in the space of a few years. It will make its comeback, eventually, but only when the perfect storm rattles through town once more.