Story by Aaron Bliss
There are some styles that open our eyes. Spain’s infamous ‘tiki-taka’ is the current beau de jour. Based on relentless possession and movement around the pitch, it works by draining the opposition, simultaneously pulling them gradually out of position, and tiring them enough to limit their own counter-attacking exploitations. Essentially, it is about extreme preservation of ball possession through minimal touches, maximum movement over small distances, and exquisite technique and composure under pressure. But this is only one half of the whole process. Perhaps the more important tiki-taka deployment is its function when not in possession. Take some time to watch Spain during the rare moments they surrender the ball, and you’ll normally see a pattern emerge. The pattern is that once yielded, possession is instantly sought once more by virtue of aggressive pressing on the first two men who wield it: that is, Spain will have two or more men race after the man in possession, and then harry the man who receives the first pass. This is more often than not enough to win the ball back, because most teams not in the upper echelons of world football are not comfortable enough in possession under intense pressure, particularly England. Once these opening two or three passes are completed, play opens up as players drop back into formation. This is the bedrock of Spain’s success. Not the passing and movement with time and space, but the retention under intense pressure for the first two or three passes. A rhythm of play can only be developed after these initial passes, which is why breaking them up immediately can be crucial to success. England may never have the technical ability and composure to string together thirty pass moves across the pitch, but they would do well to train relentlessly at getting in the faces of opposition before these first two passes can be made, for the extra energy expended here will be conserved should you retain possession for periods yourself.
England seemed to approach this tournament like Greece circa 2004. That is, little pressing until the ball approaches your eighteen-yard line, two tight banks of four keeping the pitch as compact as possible. The main issue with this approach is that you limit your own opportunities greatly by virtue of the fact you will be shattered well before the end of the game through chasing all around the pitch with little relief, and your own passing rhythm will be ineffective. This is only really useful if you have an exceptional dead-ball deliverer like David Beckham, or can rely on hitting a big man or sprightly winger from the back. England did not really have the tools to deploy this strategy effectively against the big nations, and, some would argue, it is a little demeaning to be playing with such fear when your starting eleven’s combined salaries could clear Greece’s debt.
As for the 2012 model Germany, their style is not fresh, but a renovated version of a style those growing up in the 1970s might be familiar with: total football. The Dutch World Cup team of 1974 implemented Rinus Michels’ Ajax tactics, which in essence allowed every outfield player to perform any role at any time, with any other player dropping back to cover if need be. We can see this today, with right-back Philip Lahm appearing on the edge of the eighteen-yard box to crack in a stunner, Mesut Ozil floating from one wing to the other, while Manuel Neuer is often seen covering as a sweeper on the edge of his box, such is the freedom of the rest of the team. The German midfield is so fluid at times it is difficult to pinpoint any player’s actual starting position, and it is a joy to watch. While Spain remorselessly grind down teams with short passes around the middle third, the Germans move from one end to the other in the blink of an eye, aligning their 2006 trait of rapid counter-attacks with a new, more composed probing game, adding more firepower to their already formidable armoury. One might argue the centre of their defence is not quite so secure since Per Mertesacker and Arne Friedrich, but with Sami Khedira patrolling in front, and Mats Hummels coming on in leaps and bounds, the Germans are perhaps the ‘people’s choice’ for the Euro crown.