I’ve always been relatively ambivalent towards the tiki-taka phenomenon, without ever quite understanding why. Having since puzzled it out, I now realise that simple recourse to onomatopoeia would have saved me a deal of soul-searching. The childlike flippancy of the term itself encapsulates much of my aversion to the style it denotes.
In an era of neo-brutalist vulgarity, in which forwards are equally prized for their defensive as offensive qualities (Tony Grant might have been an unlikely pioneer of the age, had he not abnegated his place in history by scoring freely up-North for Glenavon), Barcelona’s attacking, progressive football is rightly regarded as a breath of fresh of air.
Concessions are made to certain indispensable elements of the Zeitgeist; Barça press hard, but to state that a modern professional football team presses hard is to state that it fields eleven men. The Spanish national team, with the explosive and unquantifiable variable of Lionel Messi excised from the equation, represents arguably the purer strain.
I think I’ve expressed before my preference for the Russo-Ukrainian school of football espoused by Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kyiv and USSR teams (they were essentially one and the same). The following is an excerpt from Lobanovskiy’s book The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, quoted by Jonathan Wilson in this month’s World Soccer.
“When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play.”
“If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counter-play, then we need to find a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game”.
(Thought you’d escaped the politics, didn’t you? Not so fast, motherfucker!)
Attempts to conflate styles of football with the political and cultural environments in which they flourish are invariably tenuous (where they’re not downright mischievous). But Lobanoskiy concocted a style genuinely expressive of egalitarian values; a hard-running, dynamic, counter-attacking game which was exhilarating to watch, all the more so because it was played at such pace (unlike tiki-taka).
In Lobanovskiy’s framework, every member of the team was a potential playmaker. The man in possession, whether he was a full-back, a midfielder or a central defender, was expected to launch the counter-attack with a single long pass to a free player as soon as the opponent relinquished the ball. Likewise, everyone was expected to chase down possession with equal fervour.
This is where the crucial cleavage between the Russo-Ukrainian school (faint echoes of which survive in Eastern Europe today) and tiki-taka becomes apparent. Lobanovskiy strove for constant movement of both ball and man. In his eyes, a player who could release the ball and then receive it back in the same position wasn’t working hard enough.
The Barça model lacks that kind of rigorous humility and a certain amount of, as it were, Dynamism. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad Barcelona won the Champions League, and I’m glad Spain won the World Cup. But they are teams to be admired, not teams to be loved. They neither aspire to, nor are capable of attaining, the sublime (except in the person of Messi). Rather, their holy grail is the achievement of absolute technical competence, like a backroom of IT geeks, or Fleetwood Mac.
A small, blackened corner of my heart drew immense satisfaction from Barcelona’s defeat to Inter in the first leg of the 2010 Champions League semi-final (as dismayed as I am by any outcome which burnishes Mourinho’s reputation).
Barcelona showed up at San Siro expecting to pass rings around a flat-footed collection of South American has-beens, cast as the Washington Generals for one night only. Instead, Guardiola’s side visibly wilted in the face of a fearsome fusillade of passionate, attacking football which cut them down to size. Their self-satisfied arrogance had blinded them to the dialectic of the game; they had no response.
One could make the claim that FC Barcelona’s success has given contemporary Europe the champion it deserves; a technocratic elite, backed by big money, which parades across the continent beneath the banner of UNICEF in a false posture of social solidarity.