Chelsea and Bayern Munich lost their respective Champions League semi-finals. They did not just lose, but rather both teams were comprehensively out-played and beaten comfortably. On the tactical spectrum, Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are extremes. One will do everything including parking the bus to win, while the other will never divert from the purity of principle. Both the losses showed crucial flaws in the respective tactics (Parking the bus vs Tiki Taka). As we build up to the final, I decided to re-watch the 2 semi-finals. While the problem with parking the bus is for another time, I really feel the urge to defend Tiki Taka. As a Real Madrid fan I never thought that a day would come where I would go and defend something as Barca as Tiki Taka.
So first up, Tiki Taka is not an offensive tactic.
While I exaggerate a bit, it is not in essence an offensive tactic. The philosophy of Tiki Taka is simple: If you have the ball, you control the game. The opposition get exhausted simply chasing shadows and you simply play short passes to keep possession. Tiki Taka is a tactic to control the game.
The offensive nature of it comes via 3 main reasons. First, it is key for the players to be able to use their movement to drag the opposition’s defense out of position and create openings for runners to rush into. The 2009 Barcelona team did it brilliantly. The moment any defender looked on the verge of making a mistake, Messi, Eto’o or Henry were rushing into that space often accompanied by Iniesta. When it was initially introduced, teams were left clueless on how to cope with it. Often running around chasing the ball and ending up too exhausted halfway through the second half.
Another crucial component of using Tiki Taka offensively is speed. As a Real Madrid fan there are few things as glorious as Xabi Alonso looking up, seeing someone making a run and delivering an inch perfect diagonal cross field ball. Barcelona used to do this with just 2-3 ground passes incredibly quickly! Abidal zipped it to Busquets who would pick Xavi out who would slip in Messi. In a matter of seconds the ball had gone from the left back across the pitch to the right winger. (Yes, Messi played on the right in 2009). The purpose remained the same; the defense had been sucked in towards one side of the pitch and quickly switching the direction created space for a free attacker.
But the most innovative aspect of Tiki Taka which made it incredibly hard to play against was the sheer intensity of Barcelona’s pressing. In basketball terms, it was a pure full court press. In 2009, Barcelona committed a majority of their tackles/fouls in the opposition’s half! Not when they were defending their box, but rather almost immediately after losing possession. Their attackers hunted in packs never allowing the defenders any rest and ended up simply winning the ball back before they had even managed to get the ball across the half way line. Henry had committed more fouls than Pique while Messi and Eto’o had fouled more than Puyol. Let that sink in, their attackers had committed more fouls than their central defenders. That was almost unheard of back then; Hell! Most teams still don’t do it today! The pressure this created was unbearable. Teams kept dropping deeper and deeper often ending up with all 11 men defending near the box without any hope for getting out of there and almost always committing a mistake which Barcelona capitalised on.
So if Tiki Taka depends on speed, intense pressing and movement, do we still classify the way Bayern played in the semi-final as Tiki Taka? They lacked pace, barely pressured Real Madrid when they had the ball and their movement was predictable at best, non-existent at worst. Everyone seems to be so busy hating Pep Guardiola and his quest for perfection and bringing allegedly heretical ideas that no one seems to give enough credit to Real Madrid. Bayern Munich did not lose because they played “Tiki-Taka”, they lost because Real Madrid were better than them. At every single thing, Real Madrid were better than Bayern Munich. While Bayern had 70% of the ball possession, when Madrid did have the ball (not just for the counters) they moved it much better, with more movement and speed.
That was the key problem Bayern Munich faced – a lack of intensity. The reasons for that are two-fold. The league was won weeks before the semi-final second leg and it was obvious that too many players let their levels drop. The second problem is that Tiki-Taka worked brilliantly at Barcelona because they had players who had grown up playing that style, the Bayern Munich players have not. They do have the technical ability to play it as they have shown time and again in the Bundesliga, but it was caught short against quality opposition. (It wasn’t even a very effective Manchester United and you have to be very liberal with the word quality if you want to apply it to them this season)
Also, Bayern Munich lost the tie in the first 35 minutes. They conceded 2 goals from dead ball situations through some really bone-headed defending. Yes, the whole “Pep uses midfielders rather than defenders who can defend” is a played out joke. But the fact is that both the goals were avoidable. There is no excuse for top-flight center backs to be so completely sucked in towards a single player. For both the goals, Boateng and Dante were double-teaming Cristiano Ronaldo. Sergio Ramos has always been a threat from set pieces and that is even ignoring his psuedo-striker exploits in the previous matches. Bayern Munich defended horribly when it mattered and simply could not motivate themselves when the going got tough. Again, more of a psychological issue than something that can be blamed on a particular philosophy.
But the main reason for defending Tiki-Taka is the hilarious notion by the anti-Tiki-Taka journalists that Bayern Munich played counter-attacking football last season. That was true. For exactly TWO matches last season. Yup, you might have guessed, it was the 2 semi-final legs against Barcelona. For the rest of the season, Bayern more often than not had comfortably more possession than the opposition. What Jupp Heynckes did was to recognise that getting into a midfield battle against a team who are better at the possession game was a losing battle. So he bypassed it and killed Barcelona on the counter. Now correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that exactly what Carletto did? Real Madrid can and at times did keep the ball as well as Bayern Munich could, but when you have two ridiculously fast finishers on the wings, why even enter a midfield slugfest?
The main trend is that rather than being slaves to one way of playing *hyperlink the barca article here??* the successful teams have started to have multiple ways of playing and winning games. Both Bayern Munich last year, Real Madrid and to a certain extent Atletico this year can switch things up and adjust their own playing style based on the opposition.