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Why I no longer love Spain’s tiki-taka

The Spanish soccer team has achieved amazing things in recent years, but face it, their brilliance can be boring.


“Since the Brazil team of 1970, I can’t remember a side that thrashed and thrilled in virtually all its games – the closest thing to that I have seen is this Spanish team.” (José Sámano, El País)

When world and European champions Spain play Portugal for a place in the 2012 European Championship final on Wednesday night, part of me will be rooting for Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese. And if I don’t punch the air when Andrés Iniesta (or one of the other seemingly countless pixie-like midfielders) scores Spain’s first goal, it’s because I’m bored of tiki-taka.

First of all, I should explain that I deeply admire what Spain have achieved over the last four years. Having struggled for decades to forge a clear footballing identity and the results that reflected the country’s pool of talent, coach Luis Aragonés and then Vicente del Bosque found the answer by taking Spain’s strength – short-passing, high-possession football based on technique – to an extreme. The never-ending series of triangular passes orchestrated by señores Iniesta, Hernández, Silva, Alonso and company leaves opponents mesmerised and exhausted, until the knockout punch comes. It’s death by a thousand passes.

In the 2008 European tournament this was a relative novelty, meaning many of Spain’s opponents were surprised by its execution. In the 2010 World Cup it was less so and sides were more savvy to it. It was left to the often distinctly un-tiki-taka exploits of striker David Villa to get the team out of jail several times. But the absence of the superb Villa due to injury for this tournament has stripped Spain’s tiki-taka down to its absolute bare bones; and interestingly, it’s not the pretty sight that the likes of José Sámano, El País’s deeply patriotic sportswriter, would have us believe.

Real Madrid fans may not like it, but the core of this Spanish side was built upon the all-conquering Barcelona of Pep Guardiola. Carles Puyol (currently absent due to injury), Gerard Piqué, Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Villa were all mainstays of the World Cup-winning team. And to a certain extent they play like that Barça side, hoarding possession with non-stop passing and movement.

But they lack a key ingredient: Lionel Messi. Messi not only scores huge numbers of goals for Barcelona, he also offers them direct, incisive runs with the ball, something which prevents them from being simply a team that passes ad nauseum (Villa also lends Barça this quality, but to a lesser extent, given how Guardiola has deployed him relatively sparingly and in a wide position).

Obviously, Spain will never have Messi at their disposal and without the verticalidad of Villa in Poland and Ukraine, they lack a first-choice player to break the tiki-taka tedium.

Fernando Torres is arguably just such a player. But Del Bosque has preferred to keep him on the bench for much of this tournament, using his army of undersized midfielders to take care of the attacking. Where will this tactical reliance on midfield possession end? With no strikers, no defenders…no goalkeeper, perhaps, just 11 technically blessed midfielders merrily passing the ball around until someone walks it into the net.

The game against France was a case in point. Once Alonso had scored early on, the prospect of another 70 minutes of Spanish possession against the unambitious French hardly got the pulse racing.

Spain may well reach the final and win this tournament. If they do so, they could easily call themselves the finest international side Europe has seen. But whatever their cheerleaders say, they’re not the most entertaining.

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Published: Jun 26 2012
Category: Iberoblog, Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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5 Comments for “Why I no longer love Spain’s tiki-taka”

  1. I think part of the problem is that Spain are not playing particularly well in this tournament, compared to the way they played in 2008 and 2010. Tiki-taka when it works is absorbing, when it doesn’t quite gel is when it can become boring. It’s partly an issue of having a Messi but there are also periods when Barcelona lose the precision that you need to play this kind of football, and then they can have 80% of the possession and never find the net.

    Maybe there is something else. Perhaps this is a generation of players that has peaked? The players coming up don’t seem to me to be as good as the ones they will be replacing and I don’t see Spain as automatic favourites for winning the next World Cup. Those ‘undersized midfielders’ are a difficult act to follow but Spain is not that far from the point where the decision on who replaces them has to be taken.

    • I agree they haven’t been on top form this tournament, although they seem to have that factor X that gets the really good teams through. As for the generational issue, I’m not sure how much of a worry that is – perhaps replacing Xavi/Xabi, but the current team are still pretty young. I’d expect Cesc to be given a starting place in the Spanish XI soon – he’d walk into any other team – and be the heart of the Spanish side for a few years to come.

  2. I beg your pardon?

  3. ” Where will this tactical reliance on midfield possession end? ”
    It ended with the largest win in a euro final !

    Are you a madrista, trying to hit blindly Barcelona’s way of playing ?

    As you said, want it or not, the soul of the spanish team is mighty Barcelona !

    • No, I’m not a madridista (Atleti, actually)! Yes, a fantastic performance in the final – but a different Spain to the one we’d seen for most of the tournament, I thought, in terms of attacking intent.

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