Whenever Spain lose a major international fixture, it is only natural for many to dedicate obituaries to the team’s possessional style of play, or what a number of folks have come to call the ‘tiki-taka’ methodology — much to the chagrin of one Pep Guardiola.
And so it was that when La Roja succumbed to a penalty shootout defeat to Russia at the 2018 World Cup, these declarations of death poured out, proclaiming the demise of a playing style where possession is king — something that has always been the case with this particular brand of football. In fact, to pinpoint when ‘possession is gone’ became an opinion as bluntly put as ‘they bottled it’, one might have to go back to April, 2010, when Josè Mourinho is said to have executed the undoing of a possession obsessed Barcelona in a UEFA Champions League semi-final with an approach that eventually began to be identified as ‘anti-football’ among the purist sections of the sport.
However, three months later in Johannesburg, South Africa, Spain lifted their maiden World Cup trophy with the same kind of football that was defiled after Barcelona’s loss to Mourinho’s Inter Milan side. The ‘purists’ rejoiced alongside the Spaniards, while others put on their ‘sour are the grapes’ attire and labelled the competition as a boring one. In May, 2013 the pattern was repeated with Barcelona once again responsible for highlighting the futility of possession as the Catalans were beaten 7-0 on aggregate in yet another Champions League semi-final. An year later, Joachim Löw’s German side won the World Cup with a dosage of ball possession gulped in with lukewarm counter-striking, while Spain — the proponents of the style — had a painfully short trip to Brazil, saying their goodbyes at the group stage. Since then, La Roja haven’t gotten anywhere near to international glory and the anti-possession lobby has grown more confident in its dismissals of the approach.
A few romantics, on the other hand, try to turn a blind eye to the outbreak of lamentation, themselves constructing arguments to have a reason to say that the Spanish way of playing is yet far from an abysmal end; or as John Keats put it: the poetry of earth is never dead. I daresay, one may want to differ at this point, but the aficionados belonging to the latter category of people somehow seem to know what they are talking about; and they will, if they must, go out of their way to convince you that had Keats been alive to watch Spain play a game of football, the bard would have readily agreed that poetry and sport are indeed the same thing.
Yet, as it turns out, not everyone can be convinced with an adage of poesy; a fact which consolidated itself in Spain’s last fixture in the UEFA Nations League — a 2-3 defeat to England at home. It therefore becomes necessary for a more concrete truth to intervene and set things to order while letting the verses run afresh on patches of green grass. For Spain, following a woeful summer in Russia, this intervention has been in the form of a forty-eight year old Asturian gentleman: Señor Luis Enrique Martínez García; and although the loss to a smash-and-grab-minded English side might have planted doubts in the minds of many, it is still safe to say that Luis Enrique’s band has definitely arrived to restore Spanish pride.
With the selección under him just three fixtures old, Luis ‘Lucho’ Enrique became the sweetheart of the nation’s media — an observation reflected well upon the covers of Marca, Spain’s prime instigator of morbo-induced ‘rivalry’ between the country’s prime footballing giants: Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. The connection immediately made the paper’s display of cordiality towards the Asturian an interesting affair for those aware of the little piece of history between the two, for Enrique — back in his playing days — was not as fancied in Madrid as he now seems to be. Apparently, he did a few things that begrudged him to the Bernabéu faithful; like moving to the Camp Nou after a five-year long stay with the Blancos and, to make matters worse, celebrating his first goal against his former club with a passionate display of love for the blaugrana shirt and the Catalan shield on it before a furious Bernabéu crowd.
That was during the 1997-98 season and on the eve of that memorable clasico, Marca, according to Phil Ball in his book morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, had “decided to remind the Spanish public that he [Luis Enrique] was a traitor” before “helpfully adding: ‘And we all know what happens to them.’” More recently, Sergio Ramos’ admission that a section of the press had “tried to divide [Enrique and him]” because they have been “two people with a lot of character” only highlighted that there had been little love in the heart of the Madrid-based press for the Asturian as long as he had had connections with the Catalans.
Come July, 2018, the covers of Marca appeared to be on a first-name basis with Luis Enrique. El Nuevo Luis — ‘The New Luis,’ the paper’s headline ran, as if trying to proclaim that Spain’s new coach was not the anti-Madrid, Catalan-shield-kissing Lucho of old, but a new version of him who at all costs must be made to feel comfortable in and around the Spanish capital. Luis Enrique mira al Bernabéu — ‘Luis Enrique looks to the Bernabéu,’ Marca reported in September — a headline that wouldn’t have sounded as celebratory during the late 1990s as it now did.
Then came the first wave of revival. Against England. At Wembley.
Ball possession once again had its crest crowned in Luis Enrique’s scheme as nightmares from the summer in Russia began to sink along the edges of memory. The intent was all too visible; the pressure, scorching for the opponent. There were instances when the Spaniards intercepted the Englishmen in their own half, pouncing upon them to reclaim the ball as soon as it was lost and — with a little luck — managing to hold on to a 2-1 lead till the final whistle.
Yet, as the encounter had approached its last fifteen minutes, it had occurred that a potent strike and an impregnable defence were spectacles yet to be seen. Saúl’s equaliser for Spain in the face of Rashford’s opening goal and Rodrigo’s finish which ultimately proved to be decisive earmarked a ‘buen debut’ for Luis Enrique. But had England converted most of its chances in the closing minutes, or had de Gea not gotten lucky with a fumble that gifted Danny Welbeck an easy goal (which was ultimately disallowed), the transformation within the Spanish team would have barely been visible.
But the next two fixtures changed most of it.
You see, some encounters are like paraphrasing poetry, though some might differ and say they are more of an interpretation of one. One like me, however, sticks to the former equation because during such games of football, one is presented with a clarity around the idea being conveyed by the team they love without having to draw assumptions.
So when Spain faced World Cup runners-up Croatia in UEFA’s competitive tie and a month later, Wales in a friendly, one could see a lovely bit of poetry being written into perfect prose. Across the two encounters, Spain scored ten goals and conceded one, as with each passing minute Luis Enrique’s brand of football consolidated itself across the ranks of La Roja.
In Elche against the Croats and in Cardiff against Wales, the Spaniards did not just stealthily pick locks; they hammered at the gates before eventually tearing them to shreds. The intent behind each pass and the occupation and exploitation of the tiniest pockets of spaces between passing the ball to maintain shape and possession seemed all too deliberate and as clear as daylight. Amid all this, some remembered the names of Xavi and Iniesta, but this new crop of men in Spanish colours had left the tailcoats and the harps behind in revered shrines and picked up bass guitars and drumsticks to set a different mood. Possession was still key, but this time there were dynamic guitar solos where earlier during the golden days there had only been the mellow resonance of harps and lyres.
23-year-old Saúl Ñíguez, brilliant in midfield, did what the Spanish call a llegada y gol (arrival and goal) after rushing, almost inconspicuously, into the Croatian penalty box to connect and finish. Marco Asensio, a year younger than Saúl, seemed unafraid to shoot from outside the box at any favourable opportunity, an act of bravado that added two goals to Spain’s tally. Dani Ceballos, also 22 years old, eagerly wriggled and scurried on and off the ball in midfield and along the edge of the rival’s box to penetrate and displace the defence. Sergio Ramos, captain and one of the remaining veterans from the World Cup winning generation, picked up precise diagonal passes for right-back Dani Carvajal while left-back José Gayà brought pace and edge along his side of the park. In Cardiff against Wales, certain characters changed, but the implementation of Enrique’s scheme remained intact: press high, win the ball, keep the ball, hammer against the opposition’s defence with the relentlessness of a dwarf in his smithy and fire at will!
These were the instances which will make it easier to digest what happened next without having to rue much over an unfavourable result, that is, the loss against England.
It is easy to pinpoint what went wrong for Spain in Seville, there being about a handful of obvious reasons including the rise of counter-attacking football which possession-obsessed teams do not see coming their way or that possession indeed is dead. Focusing on individual players will make way for player ratings to come into play, where most Englishmen will average over seven while Jonny goes back to the Wolves with probably a three or a four. The blame will then rest on Luis Enrique for not starting an in-form Paco Alcácer, for picking up Marcos Alonso ahead of Gayà — or for calling up both Alonso and Gayà ahead of one Jordi Alba, who happens to be quite good at football.
However, this essay does not pretend to be a criticism of any kind that picks out scapegoats and lays down guidelines around things to do to avoid failure of a similar nature in the future. This account is of a band of rock artists solemnly trying to write a defence of poetry. Their identity has been questioned and just like you and I, they are being questioned why. Why not give up the ball for once, stop scribbling pointless verses on grass and utter gibberish that every now and then drives home the point, or in other words, wins games?
On yellowed pages of a worn out book of old essays, they shall find the answer to their questions:
“A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”
Well, we know not whence or why.