During the second half of the Confederations Cup final against Brazil, an unfamiliar wave of resignation swept over the Spanish side, who lacked any real urgency about them as they joylessly caressed the ball back and forth at the Maracana, condemned. In a match cast as a preview of next year's World Cup final, la roja had failed to keep up their end of the bargain. The team had conceded three goals, missed a penalty kick, and lost a man to a red card. For Spain -- winners of the last World Cup and European Championship -- what had gone so wrong? It appears that what had enabled this side to dominate world soccer over the past six years -- its sui generis style of play, called tiki-taka -- had rendered them predictable and effete against a more innovative and powerful Brazil. Spain's hapless performance indicates that tiki-taka's dominance may be over. So is it time to say adios to soccer's most famous onomatopoeia?
Tiki-taka is usually quite lethal in its simplicity. Employed by Spain as well as F.C. Barcelona (many of whose players overlap), the system is possession-heavy, making it nearly impossible for defenders to get the ball given the speed with which the players pass. However, while eminently stylish, tiki-taka eschews free expression. The players are fungible cogs in a system that suppresses individuality; the team collectively overwhelms opponents with its rapid passing triangles. Both Spain and Barcelona -- under the direction of midfield tandem/bromance Xavi and Iniesta -- play with such impassivity -- back and forth and back and forth and back and forth -- that they hypnotize opponents; slowly entranced by the meandering horizontal passing game (Xavi...to Iniesta...Xavi...back to Iniesta...Xavi...now Iniesta), opponents lower their guard until, all of the sudden, it's 1-0 (Xavi...GOAL!). Over the past few years, pundits have often hailed this geometric way of playing of soccer as a sort of panacea to the overly defensive "anti-football" practiced by many winning teams. (Ahem, Inter Milan under Jose Mourinho). But, regardless of its revolutionary success with Spain and Barcelona, tiki-taka, like every style, still has an expiration date -- one that fast approaches.
This has become apparent lately. Flaws in tiki-taka's design surfaced earlier this year, as Barcelona -- the world's best team for the past few years -- lost 7-0 over two games to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Bayern -- whose new coach for next season, Pep Guardiola, arguably inaugurated tiki-taka at Barcelona -- mirrored the way the Catalan giants played throughout last season, but boasted a versatility that Barcelona, too wedded to its footballing cause, lacked -- or, out of principle, refused to display -- when the two sides met. The severity of this defeat (7-0!) raised an existential question for Barcelona: what good is possession --such as the 63 percent of the ball that they had in their opening leg 4-0 loss to Bayern -- if it does not lead to goals? After all, comeback victories can't spring from (excessively) patient buildup through the midfield. The recent dominance of Spain and Barcelona had more or less eliminated their need for a back-up plan, but as the losses to Bayern and Brazil expose, a flurry of exquisite short passes and flicks can't help a team down by more than a goal.
For Spain, with most of its lineup fixed already, changes in style won't arrive until after the World Cup, when one of the team's metronomes, Xavi, may retire. More dynamic players like Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara -- who don't play that much for Barcelona and Spain because the demands of tiki-taka stifle their freedom on the pitch -- will likely only get a shot at reshaping the ideology of the Spanish team by the time Euro 2016 rolls around. Likewise, at Barcelona, tiki-taka has squandered precious talent by forcing individualists (e.g. Zlatan Ibrahimovic) to efface their personal style for sake of the system. In the cases of virtuosos who can single-handedly win a match, sometimes it's in the team's best interest for players to not play "for the team." The qualities of the next cycle of players may force Spain and Barcelona to phase out tiki-taka and adopt this more individualist approach.
Some, like ESPN columnist Gabriele Marcotti, contend that claims of tiki-taka's demise are greatly exaggerated. "Take it with a grain of salt," he wrote after the Confederations Cup final. Spain, after all, rode this system to the final of a big tournament yet again. However, the fact that Spain encountered such uncharacteristic difficulty along the way -- they didn't score against Italy and needed penalty kicks to advance to the final -- suggests that the system isn't as fearsome as it once was. Teams know how to attack it, and what once felt visionary about tiki-taka now feels aimless and uninspired. But for Spain, while the Confederations Cup eluded them, that's no matter -- they will still play this way during next year's World Cup, even if they do meet Brazil again at the Maracana in the final. And that's fine -- over the past few years, tiki-taka has inspired moments of almost seraphic beauty on the pitch and deserves one last stand. But, for once, it won't be pretty.