Barcelona’s tika-taka system has taken some hammer blows over the last few weeks, with the Catalan side themselves not being involved in the party. Pep Guardiola (admittedly not using an entirely tiki-taka style, but rather an adapted version thereof; possession is key) has seen his team systematically demolished by a Real Madrid side who allowed them as much of the ball as they wanted on the understanding that, when they won it themselves, they would sear forward and score almost at will. To add to that, they also out-thought the Spaniard at set pieces and blew his previously invincible Bayern team to pieces.
Having seen Bayern themselves do something similar to Barcelona themselves last season, there is a pattern emerging, and it is one of progress above all things.
Cycle back four or five years, to the tiki-taka pomp that saw Barcelona the dominant side in Europe and Spain the World Cup’s darlings. It feels a lifetime ago and, in football terms it is. The Blaugrana side that swept all before them; with Messi at its heart, but ably assisted by midfield creativity from Iniesta, from
mesmerically metronomic ball-retention from Xavi, even the pace and rapier-like finishing of Pedro – there’s more, but they don’t sound as poetic. It looked untouchable and, for a while at least, it was.
All the while upon the field of play, there was something bubbling under. It was bubbling in Spain (with Real Madrid) and it was bubbling in Germany (with Bayern, with Dortmund and with the national team). There were coaches and managers plotting the downfall of tiki-taka. Importantly, one of these was Jose Mourinho.
We have seen his ‘shell’ incorporated often; Chelsea used it themselves while he wasn’t there, ironically enough, to claim their Champions League title. Based on the idea that so long as you don’t allow your opponents anything except the ball, it creates tedious football matches but success – almost exactly what we saw at Liverpool at the weekend.
The other method of doing this was the Dortmund method. With the Schwarzgelben, they were happy to concede possession as they would harry, hustle and wear teams down while their opponents were in possession ball in order to zip forward themselves when they won it themselves. It was successful in the Bundesliga, and it has proved successful (to a point) against Real Madrid, too. That Dortmund finished second-best in this season’s meetings between the two is understandable, but when balanced against last years’, there was a quartet of eminently watchable football matches, each completely one-sided. Peculiar.
The problem with making any sweeping statements about tika-taka’s effectiveness, or its demise, is that there is such limited evidence to work with. Either Barcelona’s pro-active style or Real Madrid’s reactive style are only seriously tested occasionally. To ring the death knell for anything on the strength of one result, one match, is utterly preposterous.
As such, even though Barcelona have been ‘off the boil’ for the last couple of seasons, there’s been little evidence to suggest they’re no longer ready to win the Champions League. Likewise Bayern – who could say they won’t return next season, bigger and better than ever – their style has developed, but has a lot further to go. All we know now is that, is the eyes of Real Madrid (and indeed, in the eyes of a fully functioning Dortmund) that there is a way to play against Pep Guardiola teams that, provided the players in the system are good enough, is – more than – enough to beat them.
Tiki-taka is not dead. Tiki-taka’s place as the answer to the question of football is dead. It should not be mourned. It was, as all tactics and technical systems are, an answer to a particular question in the positing of a new question in and of itself. Now that question has been answered, at the very top level at least, we have a new question to answer.
Who is best placed to answer it? Pep Guardiola? Jurgen Klopp? Diego Simeone? We won’t know for at least 12 months. Such is the nature of football now, the very best teams only face each other a maximum of four times a season in games they’re expected to show the best of themselves. As such, any reading of progression is particularly difficult to do – standing back from what you’ve just seen in 90 minutes to declare in bunk because the previous 90 minutes suggested something different is a nonsense.
All we know is that there’s a new question – not how, or by whom, we will get an answer. It is, in short, an exciting time for football.
Rex mortuus, vivat rex!
I write this from the mindset that the important thing in football is to win games. Barcelona’s framework (and the reason they were so well-loved) was such that they won games and were entertaining to watch though, from a personal point of view, it was not their possession that was entertaining. That was a means to an end, that of tiring their opponents mentally and physically. The exciting things about that side were the intricate and inventive attacks that they built having created the opportunity and the space with their relentless possession.