Ironically, the man who many believe began the dismantling of Spain’s ‘tiki-taka’ football, is also the man credited for advancing the same style of play in his first spell in charge of Spanish giants Barcelona – Louis Van Gaal. After three consecutive major tournament wins for the Spanish, they came into the World Cup full of confidence. Accompanied by squad of players that Vicente Del Bosque knows and trusts, the tournament favourites faced an opening game seen as demanding but perfectly manageable against the Dutch in Salvador. What unfolded that night was not foreseen by pundits, journalists, or ever the most patriotic of Dutch fans, and has in turn lead to the question whether ‘Tiki Taka’ is dead.
For a start, the use of quotation marks around ‘Tiki Taka’ is for a reason. The term was made famous in recent times by the late Spanish broadcaster Andrés Montes, who, when commentating on the match between Spain and Tunisia in the 2006 World Cup, used the phrase in an onomatopoeic sense to describe the sound of the quick passing nature of the Spanish team. Pep Guardiola, a man synonymous with Tika Taka’s development, who was seen to have elevated the style to new heights with Barcelona between 2008 and 2012 (and the Spanish national team as a result), has distanced himself from the phrase claiming it is just a media term. Maybe the style of play wasn’t so Spanish after all. Journalist Lee Roden cites the Dutch influence on Barcelona with Cruyff, and then Van Gaal, to put forward that maybe Tiki Taka is just a glorified variant on the dutch Total Football mould. With large steps in the growth of this system being made by Van Gaal, as well as giving club debuts to the likes of Xavi and Iniesta all those years ago, it is fitting that he is the man to have lead what the media see as the dismantling of Tiki Taka.
A lack of energy throughout the World Cup campaign has lead to journalists considering whether the Spainish squad was too old. While the average age of the 23 man squad is 28, it does not account for the fact that the engine room of the team – the midfield, included Xavi (34), Xabi Alonso(32) and Iniesta (30). On paper, this would always have paved the way for a youthful, and defensive/counter attacking team such as the Netherlands, to cause the Spanish a lot of problems.
I believe the use of Diego Costa is another contributing factor in Spain’s poor showing. Not only was Costa not fully fit after limping out of the Champions League Final three weeks previous to the start of the World Cup, but he looked lost at the top of the Spain line, with all of the quick passing and possession happening behind him. It also gave wide men an easy way out at times with the option to play what turned out as aimless crosses towards Costa, who was the only Spain player in the opponent’s box – therefore easy to defend against. Even though the ‘False 9’ system was criticised for a lack of cutting edge, I feel the extra man to participate in build up play would have made a difference. Defender’s lives were made easy with a target man-like figure in Costa to stick to all game, rather than playing a guessing game to find the Number 9 like years gone by.
Vicente Del Bosque looked like a man resigned to defeat following the humiliation at the hands of Netherlands. Rumours coming from the Spain camp were that David Villa was looking incredibly sharp in training, and could be in line for a start in the crucial game to start against Chile. Instead, Del Bosque stuck with Diego Costa, who clearly showed in the first game he wasn’t quite up to the job. In somewhat of a swansong, David Villa played in the dead rubber game against Australia, and scored a wonderfully executed backheel to put Spain 1-0 ahead. Del Bosque’s substitutions at times left a lot to the imagination too. With Spain lacking control of the game against Chile, and Alonso having a match to forget, Del Bosque brought on Koke instead of most people’s choice in Xavi. Spain went down 2-0 in the end, and in turn confirmed their exit from the competition after only two games.
Aside from all of the negativity, Spain continues to produce exciting young talent which was highlighted no more than a year ago in the Under 21 European Championships in Israel. The Spanish squad contained a fantastic crop of players including De Gea, Montoya, Illarramendi, Bartra, Iñigo Martinez, Koke, Rodrigo Moreno, Thiago, Morata, Alberto Moreno, Muniain, Carvajal and Isco. After two opening games against Russia and Germany being decided by late Alvaro Morata goals, Spain turned on the style, and romped to tournament victory in the end. Only three of the Under 21 squad featured this summer in Brazil, but that was more down to a trusted group of older players rather than lacking youngsters.
Wholesale changes for Spain will no doubt be made following the World Cup failure. Expect to see many younger players being blooded in the coming months, with a new XI built around Andres Iniesta potentially being the next step. Whether Vicente Del Bosque will step down or not, plans for Euro 2016 will have already begun.
While an end of an era for many players in the World Cup squad (and maybe even the manager) is likely, that does not at all mean the end of Spanish dominance in the International game. With around 58% of all minutes played in La Liga being by Spanish players, it is still as great a breeding ground for the next generation as ever. Write Spain off at your own peril. They will be back again in 2016 with a new look team, and maybe even a new look philosophy to match.