Courtesy of the Guardian.
The Question: is this the end for tiki-taka?
The success of defensive rigidity and rapid counter-attacks against possession football hints at another tactical evolution.
Pep Guardiola has tried to implement tiki-taka at Bayern this season but found his system ineffective againt Real's counter-attacking.
People are unhappy. They're unhappy at teams like Bayern Munich who keep the ball, preserving possession and looking to pass opponents into submission, and they're unhappy at teams like Chelsea who defend deep, allow opponents to have the ball and try to pick them off on the break. People, over the past fortnight, have declared themselves bored by – and opposed to – both proactive and reactive football.
That's not actually as contradictory as it sounds. We live in an age of extremes. When Barcelona first started to play tiki-taka under Pep Guardiola, they began to achieve unprecedented levels of possession. For the first time probably since Arrigo Sacchi's Milan almost two decades previously, there was a new philosophy about. This wasn't just a minor tweak of positioning, a tendency for one centre-forward to drop slightly deeper, or for the full-backs to push a bit higher. It wasn't a slight change of shape: it was a whole new style.
It took the basic tenets of total football to previously unimagined extremes – in part because of an exceptional generation of players many of whom had been schooled in a particularly idiosyncratic style at La Masia, in part because of a visionary coach in Guardiola, and in part because of the changes in the offside law that increased the size of the effective playing area and so permitted smaller, more technical players to flourish.
When totaalvoetbal emerged as a term in the Netherlands in the early 70s, the totaal aspect of it was part of a wider movement in Dutch culture, particularly architecture. JB Bakema, one of the theory's prime exponents, argued that all buildings should have individual characteristics but should be designed with their place in the overall environment in mind. The application of the term to football made sense in terms of Bakema – the whole point of it was that players were aware of their positions within the system and were constantly renegotiating it for themselves; but there was also, at least outside of the Netherlands, a more popular resonance. This was total football because everybody, it seems, could do everything: defenders could attack and attackers could defend.
Although tiki-taka shared with total football the high defensive line, the interchanging of positions and the sense that the game could be controlled through possession, its characteristics were far from total: everything became sublimated to the pass. The centre-forward became a false nine because that enhanced fluidity of movement and created additional angles to keep the ball moving; the full-backs played higher up the pitch than ever before; midfielders were selected in defence for their passing ability from deep; even the goalkeeper had to be able to play the ball out from the back.
For a time, football seemed not to know how to react. When Chelsea came so close to eliminating Barça in the Champions League semi-final in 2009, the assumption was that the great physicality of Premier League teams could brush them aside, yet Manchester United never got anywhere near them in the final. The semi-final the following year, and the defeat to José Mourinho's Internazionale, came as a watershed. Yes, Inter were fortunate in some respects, but at the same time there were spells in the second leg of that tie – spells the significance of which perhaps wasn't fully recognised at the time – in which Barça were reduced to endless sideways passing, bereft of imagination and verticality. Yes, Barça missed chances they would usually have taken and, yes, Bojan Krkic's late strike should have counted, but the lesson was there: radical possession football could be defeated by radical non-possession football.
In his controversial biography, Diego Torres explained the code Mourinho came up with at Real Madrid for handling games against high-class teams, particularly away from home:
"1) The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors. 2) Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition. 3) Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it's better to encourage their mistakes. 4) Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake. 5) Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake. 6) Whoever has the ball has fear. 7) Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger."
That's the theory Mourinho used in the first leg against Atlético and last Sunday against Liverpool. Others, in a more diluted form, have followed: Real Madrid were quite happy to sit deep and absorb pressure against Bayern, both at home and away, capitalising on Bayern's inability to counter the counter (Uefa's technical reports show the number of goals scored from counter-attacks has fallen from 40% in 2005-06 to 27% last season; the increased efficiency of the attack-to-defence transition is one of the great developments of the last decade, something discussed in detail in the quarter-finals issue of Champions magazine) and their haplessness at set-pieces (a persistent flaw in Guardiola sides, perhaps rooted in his insistence on picking defenders who can pass rather than those who can mark and win headers).
Mourinho was quite open about his switch to a defensive approach in this spell at Chelsea. "We may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back," he said in December after his side's Capital One Cup quarter-final exit to Sunderland. "It's something I don't want to do, to play more counter-attacking, but I'm giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0, I think I can, as I think it's one of the easiest things in football. It's not so difficult, as you don't give players the chance to express themselves."
Their next game, nine days later, was the 0-0 draw at Arsenal and a new tone had been set. Against teams prepared to attack Chelsea, the change of approach was hugely effective, but against other counter-attacking sides or teams who prefer to sit deep, it left Chelsea vulnerable to mistakes, misfortune and moments of brilliance from the opposition. As Mourinho himself noted on Sunday after the win at Liverpool, it's one thing to set out defensively, quite another to have the discipline to complete the job. "I am a bit confused what the media thinks about defensive displays," he said. "When a team defends well you call it a defensive display. When a team defends badly and concedes two or three goals you don't consider it a defensive display."
Wednesday demonstrated the problem. Eden Hazard's lapse in allowing Juanfran to run beyond him led to Atlético's equaliser and Chelsea were chasing the game. Mourinho brought on a second striker in Samuel Eto'o and, even leaving aside the fact it was his foul that conceded the penalty, the addition of a second striker surrendered midfield. "That made it possible to bring in five midfielders," said Diego Simeone, who brought on Raúl García for Adrián López 12 minutes after Eto'o's arrival. "We benefited from that: it left a lot more space for us to control the game."
In itself, the notion that possession is dangerous is nothing new. Egil Olsen discovered in the 80s that in the Norwegian league a side was more likely to score before the ball went out of play if the opposing goalkeeper had the ball than its own. What is different is the degree, while the dynamic when, for want of better terms, a Guardiola-ist team meets a Mourinho-ist team, is wholly new. One team is voracious in its appetite for the ball, the other has no interest in it, and the result is that one side can have 75-80% of possession – and this is the crucial part – without ever really being in control of the game.
That's a natural part of evolution. A thesis (radical possession) arises, an antithesis (radical non-possession) arises to combat it and at some point a synthesis is achieved that will govern the consensus of how the vast majority of clubs will play for the next few years. That the two extremes are so seemingly unpopular is revealing, less in the preference it suggests on the part of the majority of fans for football with a more traditional narrative of cut and thrust, than in the depth of the hostility. That suggests a potential new influence on the tactics of the future: while most fans quite logically prioritise winning, could it be that the growth in the global, less partisan, audience and the commercial need to appeal to it, leads teams to favour football with a more overt aesthetic appeal?
The other oddity in the reaction to Bayern's defeat has been the number of attacks on Guardiola and the assertion that tiki-taka is dead. In five seasons as a manager, Guardiola has won four league titles, two domestics cups (and is in another final), two Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups. Even given the dominance of the present era of superclubs, that is a phenomenal record. But the idea that tiki-taka is over, that Barcelona's defeat to Bayern last season and Bayern's defeat to Real Madrid somehow invalidate an entire philosophy, is to misunderstand the whole nature of tactics.
In tactics there are no absolute rights and there aren't many absolute wrongs: there is certainly no magic formula. Tactical theorists aren't like alchemists searching for the quintessence that will explain everything. There is evolution and development in tactical thinking, but everything is contingent on other factors; the same structuralist theory that underpinned Bakema teaches that nothing is not relative. Tiki-taka worked so well at Barcelona in part because of the technical ability of the players, in part because opponents were still adjusting to changes in the offside law and in part because of the intensity of their play. You can get away with a high line and passers rather than defenders in the back line only if there is ferocious pressure on the ball.
One of the reasons for Barcelona's slide from the very peak is that they have lost that intensity: stats from Whoscored.com show that Lionel Messi, for instance, has gone from retrieving possession through tackles or interceptions 2.1 times per league game in 2010-11 to 0.6 this season. Bayern were noticeably lacking in zip and zest in both legs against Real Madrid, perhaps because after such a glut of success over the past two seasons their hunger has been dulled, perhaps because they have won the league so easily this season that a certain edge has been lost and perhaps because Guardiola made tactical errors.
There are those who have argued that Bayern destroyed tiki-taka in the semi-final last season and that it was therefore an enormous error to try to implement it at Bayern this season. That, though, is to ignore the fact that Bayern last season were a highly proactive, possession-oriented side in pretty much every game other than those against Barcelona: domestically, only Barcelona had more possession in the top five leagues in Europe last season; only Barcelona had more possession in the Champions League group stages last season. In those semi-finals, Jupp Heynckes recognised that Barcelona were better at retaining possession and so set his side up to play reactively, with great success.
None of that means tiki-taka is finished as a system. None of that means teams will not continue to try to control games through possession. What does seem to be the case, though, is that the examples of Inter in 2010 and Chelsea, against both Barça and Bayern in 2012, has radicalised the approach of reactive teams when encountering tiki-taka, and that will probably prevent it ever again enjoying the pre-eminence it enjoyed at Barcelona between 2009 and 2011 – just as total football, or at least the version with an aggressively high defensive line, never quite dominated the club game again after the break-up of Ajax after the 1973 European Cup final. It was a specific way of playing for a specific set of players in a specific set of circumstances at a specific time. Its influence was profound, as that of Guardiola's Barcelona was and assuredly will continue to be. Whether that style will ever dominate in the same way again is another issue. Once the evolutionary wheel has turned, it rarely goes back.