Tiki-taka is dead: Spain's early exit puts a nail in the possession coffin
A humbling 0-2 loss to an energetic and tricky Chile side means Spain are out of the 2014 World Cup after only two games played. What once was a team full of superstars in their prime playing tiki-taka is now a team full of good players on the decline playing, well…tiki-taka.
Here’s the thing. In 2010, Spain were the most boring side of the tournament and weren’t really that close to winning the final until Chelsea legend Cesc Fabregas came on to change the game. They strung a bunch of lucky and frustrating one-goal victories together throughout the tournament (0-1, 2-0, 2-1, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0) – blaming the opposition for playing boring football, of course – and were overawed by Holland’s physicality in the final. That is, until Stamford Bridge lovechild Fabregas turned everything around, a world-beater at the time.
Fast-forward four years and teams have figured out how to handle possession-based football. Barca keeps doing it, Spain keeps doing it, both failing to realise that the reason for both teams’ success in the late noughties actually didn’t have that much to do with the actual strategy, but rather with the stars aligning just in the right position to bring together a group of players who peaked both in skill and confidence at the same time.
In 2010, Fabregas could easily get away with his undisciplined positioning, as Spain usually had the ball anyway. They defended by possession, not by position. Today, even Koke and Cazorla were preferred over Mourinho’s midfield dynamo Cesc in Spain’s exit game, Del Bosque having no faith at all in the west Londoner being able to turn the game around.
Like with all new successful trends in football, it took some time for opponents to figure out how to handle tiki-taka. But once they did, dealing with Barca (or Spain) became less frightening. And when you play without fear, you play with confidence.
At the same time, when you realise your opponent has figured you out, you lose confidence, and every decision you make takes a tiny bit longer.
At Arsenal we have felt this shift in opposition strategy for a while now. Wenger has preferred possession football for many years, and still seems stubbornly convinced it’s the right approach. But we only have to analyse the ups and downs of club football to see that possession football is an inferior approach.
Just look at the last three Champions League finals, played after Spain’s 2010 World Cup win. Neither of the six teams involved played possession football, most of them actually playing direct counter-attacking football: Chelsea, Bayern Munich (twice), Dortmund, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid. Despite this, some clubs still insist possession is the way to go.
So how do you combat possession/tiki-taka football? It’s easier than you might think.
1. Don’t be afraid to let them keep the ball.
Since possession is the opposite of direct, the probing sideways nature of the strategy is actually more of a weakness than a strength. It’s a lot of work, but staying in your position and not chasing the ball too much means it’s hard for them to get through.
2. Identify the outliers!
Most possession-based tactics have one or two players that are exempt from the system, providing a direct channel. In Barcelona’s case it was (and still is) Lionel Messi, in Spain’s case it was David Villa in 2010. In Arsenal’s case it’s players like Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere offering the direct route. These players need to be marked differently, as they’re usually the outlet: the release of possession.
3. Be ready to counter-attack.
The most successful strategy against possession football is, and forever will be, a good counter-attacking approach. To play possession football it’s important to use a high defensive line to make the team compact on the length of the pitch. Pushing the defenders up is the most logical way of doing so, and if you have pacey players ready to pounce, you’ll get chances.
Seems simple enough, but it took a long time for clubs and national sides to implement this strategy correctly. Some managers were, and still are, convinced they shouldn’t have to change their tactics for anyone (cough Wenger cough), others didn’t have disciplined enough players to apply the antidote.
Whatever happens, Spain’s early exit should be a final wake-up call for anyone still under the impression that possession is a sound approach. It has its advantages against much weaker and less disciplined opponents, but when Wenger comes up against Chelsea, Liverpool or Man City playing possession football next season, he will get slaughtered again if he refuses to adapt.