[Second Coming is a regular column during the 2014 football world cup dedicated to my late brother]
For 90 minutes on Friday night, I tried to search for Xavi at the Arena Fonte stadium using a microscope, as he was invisible to the naked eye, but was unable to find him! That is the real story of the world champions in 2014. When the best central midfielder of the last decade hardly touches the ball in an entire game, you do know that something is awfully wrong out there.
The first major upset of the 2014 world cup came on a Friday evening from the carnival capital of Brazil, Salvador… and what an upset it was. World champions Spain being drubbed by 2010 finalists, Netherlands, 1-5, was a result not anticipated by any footballing pundit in his wildest of dreams.
For Spain to advance in this tournament now would require a miracle boost to self-confidence from the depths of precipice. What it also needs is alternate thinking from Vincent Del Bosque to employ some genuine strikers rather than penalty seekers like the much booed Diego Costa. A 1-0 scoreline now needs a reboot in Brazil with more embellishments of goals.
To be sure, Spain started the game with the same confidence of 2010; it was as if we were watching the continuation of the world-cup final of 2010 with an interregnum of 4 years. The same domination in midfield, the same short passes, the same possession football… in short, it was Tiki-Taka all over again
(for the uninitiated, Tiki-Taka is the short passing, possession football mastered by Spain and Barcelona over the last decade which has resulted in unprecedented success that includes a World Cup and two Euros among many other trophies).
The fact that Spain had 63% possession in the first-half gives us an idea of how much Spain were in control of that match. There was even a period of play between the 20th and 35th minute when Spain completed something like 15+ passes some 3-4 times and were all over the midfield, while the Dutch ran around the field like a blind kitten caught in rush hour traffic. Around the 35th minute, when Iniesta gave that fantastic through pass to Silva beating two Dutch defenders on the line, one was left wondering as to how long would it take for Spain to increase its lead of 1-0.
Then, everything changed in the 44th minute when Robin Van Persie took that leap of faith to produce a stunning header that Iker Casillas had no chance in hell to save. If one where to show both the half’s of the game separately to two individual observers and ask them to debate the game, they might as well argue that these were two different games played on two different days. When Holland returned back to the pitch after the break, it was a completely transformed team.
What Spain was in second half, nobody really knows. When Spain was dominating the proceedings in the first half, Arjen Robben made this one searing run on the right, beating two Spanish defenders, until he was met by Sergio Ramos who calmly collected the ball from Robben and put it back into the Dutch half. In the second half, Robben made multiple such runs straight into Spanish penalty, virtually unchallenged. This contrast was too stunning to be missed; it was as if Ramos and Pique simply didn’t exist in the Spanish defence for the last 45 minutes!
Four of the six goals scored yesterday were produced between Van Persie and Robben as they were the only strikers on the field for 90 minutes. The lone goal that Spain scored came from a penalty as the team simply lacked a real striker to score a field goal. Yes, Diego Costa extended his leg and forced a contact from the Dutch defender leaving the referee with no choice but to award a penalty in the 27th minute, because Costa is a false-9 who is incapable of scoring a goal himself. This has been the problem with Spain, they are so obsessed with Tiki-taka and playing the short passing game that they have almost forgotten such mundane activities as scoring goals! It is like having 10 midfielders in the middle of the football pitch who keep circulating the ball amongst themselves without trying to net it. Whenever Spain encounters real attacking football, like say Brazil in last year’s confederation’s cup, they get thrashed despite all the ball possession (Brazil beat Spain 3-0 in the confederation’s cup final).
When the great Johan Cryuff first envisaged Tiki-taka during his tenure as the coach of Barcelona between 1988 and 1996, he did have important positions for strikers in his scheme of things. Tiki-taka was indeed an extension of Cryuff’s own “total football” philosophy of the 1970s which divided a football field into zones rather than emphasizing on formations, but he always had the clarity of thought to realize that the eventual purpose of football was to produce goals.
The post-modern adaptation of Tiki-taka by Spain and Barcelona would have an important innovation in the form of a False-9, wherein they would use another midfielder upfront to score goals rather than an out and out striker, thereby completing the process of totally abolishing formations and playing only zonal football.
There was only one problem with this new philosophy, the midfielder employed by Barcelona as a false-9 happened to be a once in a lifetime playmaker in the form of the Argentinian genius, Lionel Andres Messi who could score goals at will. Thus, such a template of Tiki-taka was not reusable by other teams.
The fact that Spain won two Euros and a World Cup without really employing a striker is testimony to the reality of the last few decades of football which had turned so defensive and technical that Spain never really encountered an enterprising attack for nearly a decade until Brazil in 2013. So the Dutch thrashed them in totality yesterday night and killed Tiki-taka for good, or at least that is what Europe will declare in its headlines today, for the English and the Germans and the French have all hated the short passing Spanish game each and every day for the last decade.
Tiki-taka maybe dead in the English press because the horribly talentless English teams cannot simply adopt to such a game, but in reality we shall see this beautiful game a lot more than what Europe wants us to believe. In fact, even yesterday, on both the sides of the night, both before and after the Dutch thrashing of Spain, two Latin-American teams employed a similar short passing, possession football with stunning results.
Between them, Mexico and Chile had actually produced 6 goals yesterday night (two of them criminally disallowed by horrible offside refereeing) to reaffirm the belief that attacking football can be accomplished even while playing the beautiful game. In that sense, 2014 is a battle of supremacy for football purists between the European style of long balls, crosses and corners versus the beautiful game of Latin America.
Will there be a second coming for Tiki-taka in Brazil this summer after yesterday’s death knell?
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