Spain’s shocking exit from the World Cup has been discussed ad nauseam over the last twenty-four hours, but the idea that tiki-taka has died is completely and utterly wrong. Spanish soccer, encompassing both the national team and Barcelona, has revolutionized the way football is thought about and played over the last half decade. Although Spain’s unprecedented run ended in unspectacular fashion, their record-setting performances at Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, and Euro 2012 are unlikely to be replicated ever again.
First, let’s examine the last week of football. Spain was defeated handily by the Netherlands and Chile, two of the best teams in the tournament, in back-to-back games. Both sides successfully implemented a system, predicated upon crowding the midfield and exerting high pressure, designed to thwart Spain’s tiki-taka fluidity. It is a testament to Spain’s dynastic run that teams like the Netherlands and Chile (as well as Atletico Madrid in club football) have overhauled their tactics in an effort to disrupt Spain’s rhythm.
Throughout these two matches, Spain displayed signs of exhaustion, lacking both the stamina and focus to counteract the energy and hunger of the Dutch and Chilean pressing. The majority of the Spanish players have played eleven month campaigns for the past six seasons, which have consisted of deep runs into the Champions League and major international tournaments. At some point, their legs were bound to give out. It’s unfortunate they were drawn into such a challenging group and did not have the opportunity to work themselves into form during the group stage of the tournament.
All that being said, let’s take an honest look at the state of soccer. On the club side, the most dominant teams of the decade have been Barcelona and Bayern Munich, both of whom play a possession-oriented style coupled with a high-pressing line aimed at suffocating opponents and forcing them into turnovers in their defensive third of the field. Consistent with Newton’s 3rd Law of Physics, the dominance of Barcelona and Bayern spawned an equal and opposite reaction, as evidenced by teams like Inter Milan, Chelsea, and Atletico Madrid, whose styles were created to impede the rhythm of tiki-taka. These teams crowded the midfield, picked and choosed their moments to apply pressure, and attacked the spread out, vulnerable defenses of tiki-taka sides with ruthless counterattacks.
Tiki-taka is simply a football philosophy. Spain proved that, when deployed effectively, it can be one of the most effective and beautiful ways to approach the game. However, what makes soccer great is that there is no singular method required to win. There are multitudes of systems that can be utilized, each with their pros and cons. In response to Spain’s supremacy, teams have adopted schemes aimed at impeding their dominance. Like any good invention, tiki-taka will undergo innovations and adaptations which will lead to the next breakthrough in style or philosophy.
It is a wonderful time to be a soccer fan and witness how the innovation of playing styles will progress. The Netherlands and Chile illustrated that three man defensive lines, which had gone out of favor for some time, can be used to disrupt the midfield prowess of a tiki-taka team and provide an extra player forward to deploy on the counterattack. However, teams like Germany, France, and Italy have embraced tiki-taka football and combined it with their own football philosophies to great effect. These teams prove that tiki-taka is alive and well. The World Cup will almost certainly be won by a possession-based team who presses highly up the field. They simply won’t be wearing La Furia Roja jerseys this time around.
Despite their shocking exit, Spain is not dead. Far from it, actually. Spain is home to the most recent Champions League, UEFA League, U-21, Euro and World Cup champions. They have a plethora of talented youngsters ready to showcase their talents on the world’s stage. But these players will have to adapt. Tiki-taka in its current incarnation has found a kryptonite, but, as Spain proved previously, it is capable of inventing a style of play that will force the rest of the world to search for solutions. The last two years have demonstrated the tiki-taka is mortal, but its track record has proven its efficacy in playing winning, attractive football. Clever opposing teams will continue to explore ways to defeat tiki-taka, as teams like the Netherlands, Chile, and Atletico Madrid, have done, but Spanish soccer is still on the forefront of innovation in soccer and will have to return to their well of talent, coaching ideas, and playing philosophies to find the next great wrinkle in playing style.