Jonathan Wilson tackles the Question
The flaw of Spain’s tiki-taka is that a team can control possession or it can control position, but it can’t do both
When Herbert Chapman took charge of Northampton Town in 1907, he realised that dominating the ball was not in itself enough to win matches. What was more important was where you had it and in what circumstances. Accordingly he had his side sit deep, looking to spring forward and attack the space behind their opponents.
He was the first theorist of counterattacking football, a principle he went on to employ with great success at Huddersfield and Arsenal. His style wasn’t popular. Many thought his sides were simply lucky; others thought to play like that was unmanly, somehow improper, a betrayal of the spirit of the game. Chapman’s revelation continues to shape football today.
A clear pattern has emerged from the first round of group games at Euro 2012. Holland against Denmark, Germany against Portugal, Spain against Italy, Ireland against Croatia, France against England, the first half of Poland against Greece: each have featured one proactive team taking the game to the opposition; one reactive team sitting deep with compact lines absorbing the pressure, trying to restri ct the opposition and looking to score either from counter-attacks or set-plays.
Usually, particularly in a tournament in which the quality is as uniform as the European Championship, most teams would hover somewhere around the middle of the spectrum between proactivity and reactivity: what has been striking here is how readily each team has accepted its role.
The tiki-taka of Spain and Barcelona is perhaps the cause. Against proactivity of that magnitude – even when used defensively – there is little the opposition can do other than to sit back and try to close the space. Some have tried to take Barcelona on, but the tendency has been for them to flare briefly and then crash, as Espanyol and Shakhtar Donetsk, among others, have found. Chile came closest at international level – for their coach at the 2010 World Cup, Marcelo Bielsa, is the high priest of proactive football. They were troubling Spain despite the dismissal of Marco Estrada when it became apparent that a 2-1 defeat for Chile took both sides through, at which time the game fizzled away.
It may be grating to hear every defensive display being described as a team “doing a Chelsea” – defending deep in compact lines has been going on since long before April – but it may be that Chelsea’s displays against two highly proactive sides in Barcelona and Bayern Munich (who had the first and second best highest possession and pass-completion stats in any of the five top European leagues) confirmed in the minds of others that reactive football can be successful. (The claim defensive football is catenaccio is equally as annoying for a host of reasons, but let’s start with the fact that catenaccio in its true form is funded on man-to-man not zonal marking and every side at this tournament is playing zonally).
It’s not even that the teams who played reactively were particularly negative. Italy were extremely lively once in possession. Wi th Michael Krohn-Dehli swooping in from the left Denmark posed a persistent threat. England even, in the first half at least, had patches in which they moved the ball neatly in the French half. Reactive football can be thrilling, as Germany, who have become much more proactive over the past two years, showed at the last World Cup (actually Germany might have intended to be more proactive; it’s just that against Australia, England and Argentina they faced opponents who defended so stupidly against them that it made sense to sit back and hit them on the break). What has been exposed over the past few months, though, is the flaw of tiki-taka, which is that a team can control possession or it can control position, but it can’t do both. Or rather, can’t guarantee doing both.
This isn’t to say that tiki-taka is finished, for all styles of play have their weakness. But for a couple of years it seemed invincible. What after all could you do when the ball was being pinged about midfield at 25 passes a minute? Real Madrid under José Mourinho tried unsettling Barcelona by pressing, but that left space behind the back four. He tried spoiling, but Barcelona are adept at making sure referees know when they have been fouled.
And so finally he went back to what he had done with a far inferior side at Inter; go into the bunker. Chelsea did it in an even more extreme way, working on the principle that the ball will hurt you, but only in certain areas. England restricted Belgium almost entirely to long-range efforts and got away with one when Guillaume Gillet’s 25-yard half-volley clipped the post. They restricted France a little less successfully, but still kept it mainly to long shots; it’s just that Samir Nasri was good enough to fire one of his efforts inside the post.
USA did it in the Confederations Cup in 2009, giving Spain the flanks, essentially gambling that Jay DeMerit would be able to dominate Fernando Torres in the air and that the rest of Spain’s forwards and midfielders were too short really to threaten. Notably when Germany did finally break through against Portugal it was from a header: one of the assets Mario Gomez brings is his aerial ability – and a powerful centre-forward is a weapon that will make opponents wary of defending too deep.
The uncertainty principle
Essentially a team in establishing its philosophy must pick a point between two extremes. It can try to control the ball, in which case it is forced to an extent to play where the opponent will allow it. Or it can decide to defend its box by packing men in its defensive third in which case it will probably have to accept it will not see much of the ball. The former is proactivity, the latter reactivity. Proactive sides can defend by cycling the ball away from opponents; a reactive team will attack by looking to lure the opposition on and then hitting the space behind it. Rinus Michels’s Ajax, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were overtly proactive. Chapman’s Arsenal, Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale and Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea were overtly reactive. Most sides opt for a compromise somewhere in between the two extremes.
“Great teams all have the same characteristic of wanting to control the pitch and the ball,” Sacchi said (and I thank Paolo Bandini for putting the question to him). “Then, the players need to know when they are better off marking, and when they should be occupying space. And the point of reference should never be their opponent, but their team-mate. Football is very complicated. When you are on the attack you need to keep the right distances, have the right timing, the right methods for losing a marker. If you don’t have this, the football you produce will never become that harmony. Football is a sport for teams that are in harmony. Very often teams aren’t teams at all, they are just groups. And they struggle to move together.
“The d esire might be there, but that is not enough. The magic that transforms a group into a team, is the play. A system of play that has to include everyone in both the attacking and the defensive phase. And in this context, it is clear that whoever is closest will have the most solutions. And by close I mean a compact team. In the defensive phase it means that you will you will burn less energy, because 10-metre runs don’t wear you out like 20-, 30-, 40-metre runs.
“The team will get there first, it will be calmer because it can apply pressing, have more collaboration. And during an attacking phase it will have lots of alternatives because everyone can move. This is the difference between a very organic team, a team with great understanding, and a team that has a collective … many teams have soloists, and these break the harmony. Barcelona don’t have soloists, we didn’t have soloists, Ajax didn’t have soloists. We had people who played with the team, for the team, all ov er the pitch, for the whole game.”
The great reactive teams, of course, also defend as a unit. They also have a harmony. It may even be that, as Sacchi suggests, the great proactive teams are greater than the great reactive teams (depending, of course, how you define greatness: Gipo Viani’s Milan, a reactive side, for instance, won three scudetti to the one of Sacchi’s Milan, but are remembered less fondly even by those with an acute sense of the game’s history).
And Sacchi is talking of great teams. His Milan might have been able to defend with Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit coming deep, to within 20 or 30 yards of their own box, but only because his side was technically proficient enough not to lose the ball if forced to play a string of short passes when breaking. Roy Hodgson’s England or Morten Olsen’s Denmark, probably rightly, go for something simpler and more direct.
The other point, surely, is that at least some of the options players need in the attacking phase must be forwards. Both Barcelona against Chelsea and Spain against Italy experienced a number of instances when a player received the ball 30 yards from goal and had only sideways or backwards passes available; what is needed then is players to make runs from deeper to burst beyond the line of the ball. That’s precisely how Cesc Fábregas won the penalty against Chelsea and precisely how he scored his goal against Italy. The introduction of Fernando Torres, meanwhile, while it might not have done much for Spain’s harmony, certainly disrupted Italy, not least because it made Daniele De Rossi attempt to defend.
There’s an irony there, of course, that it may be better for a proactive side to introduce a player that disrupts its own harmony because of the greater disruption he causes to the harmony of a reactive opponent. On the other side of the equation, Chris Waddle, perhaps remembering his own days with England when Bobby Robson repeatedly instructed hi m to hold his position rather than go wandering as he would at club level, commented on Monday that England had held their shape “too well” – that they were, in other words, too rigid to be creative.
That’s the balance all teams must strike. Football is a game of relatives not absolutes: strategy is determined not merely by the resources available but also the opponent to be faced (and external factors such as climatic and pitch conditions). Had England been less rigid, they would have been more likely to score but they might also have been even more likely to concede. Had Spain introduced Torres earlier – or Fernando Llorente for that matter – it might have disrupted their possession-controlling rhythms but made them more likely to score. That’s also why sides who eschew compromise and pursue their ideals to the maximum, such as Barcelona or Sacchi’s Milan, are so memorable; it’s very rare and very difficult. With Bielsa at times (and perhaps Guardiola and Arsè ne Wenger as well) the sense is that he can be idealistic to the point of fundamentalism.
Harmony is key, but only in relation to the harmony of the opponent. Read More