Author: Ashley Munson
The term ‘tiki taka’ became a mainstream word in the global game when Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side dominated both on the La Liga table and the International competitions. Still, football hasn’t always been the game of short, snappy passing.
There was a time when football was all about rigid formations, huff and puff tactics and a win at all cost’s mentality – the performances were somewhat secondary – but times change. The sport seemed to learn from its American namesake. It’s commonplace that most NFL players go through their college football careers trying numerous different plays throughout, with regards to how the quarterback should approach things.
The traditional game has now moved in a similar direction with patterns of play drilled into players during training. The glory Spain experienced at international level helped with the profile of ‘the technical footballer’ but their success was underpinned by Barca and their methods.
Guardiola receives most of the plaudits for introducing tiki taka but in truth the style was ingrained into Barca’s system a long time back. Luis Aragones was in charge between September 1987 and May 1988 overseeing a mixed bag of results and with the club on a slippery slope thing didn’t look great. There was a lack of passion, a squad bereft of ideas and a fan base that was becoming disillusioned – and then Johan Cruyff arrived.
The club needed rebuilding and Cruyff approached it with a wrecking ball rather than in a ‘brick by brick’ manner. Out went 15 players including a number of so-called key players and in came a dozen new faces including a pair – Eusebio and Jose Mari Bakero – who went on to cement their places in the new-look midfield.
The immediate impact, other than the overhauled playing squad, was the formation. Cruyff set his side up in a then unheard of 3-4-3 with the attacking trio being comprised of two flying wingers and a standalone centre forward.
Cruyff’s approach on match day was to score more than the opposition knowing that if his side kept hold of the ball then they’d win most of their games and his ethos was to transition from back to front with a mix of short but quick passes; the style relied on a quality first touch, intelligent thinking, quick movement and crisp passing, which is a principle coached to all children nowadays, but the simplistic approach was almost impossible to defend against when executed correctly.
During a managerial reign that lasted eight years Cruyff became the most decorated manager in the club’s history with 11 trophies – including four back to back La Liga titles and a European Cup – but the groundwork he put in place was perhaps more important.
Fast forward to July 2008 and Guardiola, a player who was brought through under the tutelage of Cruyff, was named manager. Guardiola took the tiki taka to new levels with Andres Iniesta and Xavi at the heart of the side. Guardiola instilled a defensive resilience to the side without having a completely elite backline – a mentality that says ‘if we keep the ball you can’t score’ – and his team carried out his plans to absolute perfection time and time again.
Iniesta and Xavi are arguably the greatest midfield pairing ever to have played the game with their confidence and ability to both receive and manoeuvre the ball in tight spaces. They could take the ball with three men around them and with a deft touch – and a smartly moving teammate – they’d go from seemingly being in danger to being on the attack. That’s the key factor to the way Guardiola wanted his side to play; holding possession wasn’t enough, his players had to entertain and create with it.
It’s true that Guardiola was blessed with a talented squad but he has the knack of maximising potential from players and systems alike and the 14 trophies he won as coach at the Camp Nou – surpassing his original mentor, Cruyff, as the best Barca manager of all time – proves it.
Will anyone produce a team as dominant as the Barca team that toyed with Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final? It seems unlikely that the current team is able to do so, especially thanks to the Messi engine. Thankfully, we’ll always have the memories and tiki taka will live on.