One of the biggest predicaments in life is that absolutely nothing lasts forever. All things, good or bad, are destined to bite the dust one day.
As the last few days have transpired, an era in modern football has come to an end. The moment Charles Aranguiz’s shot ruffled the net, the age of Spanish football’s dominance and influence came crashing down. Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie had done some quite telling damage earlier, and it was left to Jorge Sampaoli and his ‘nuclear-powered’ men to cut the thread by which Spain were hanging.
It had led a marvellous life, make no mistake. The Spanish team, on their day, were a sight to behold. Their movement, passing and vision was unreal, to say the least. Alonso, Xavi and Iniesta didn’t even need to look to know where the others were, while Sergio Busquets would intercept every crater of a meteor shower. When aided by Fernando Torres, before his net-allergy days, and David Villa, that team would go into every match with almost a 1-0 head-start. They knew how to grind out matches too, as most of World Cup 2010 would tell you. But at their peak, as against Italy at the Euro 2012 finals, Spain were untouchable. Oh, it was beautiful.
Six years is a long time and a change in the world order was in store. Jurgen Klopp and Juup Heynckes had shown the world how to counter possession-based football with speed and verticality. While at it, they gave a rather convincing demonstration on how to be successful too. Pressing and intensity were taken to another level altogether. Toni Kroos was winning more tackles in the opposition half than Boateng had to deal with in his own. More than the energy and intensity involved, the success it got them made the world sit up and take notice. Like tiki-taka before this and total-football for the last gazillion years, teams started attempting to emulate it. Not everyone was doing it right, but some of them were absolutely exceptional at this.
Diego Simeone took Atletico to La Liga glory and the Champions League final. The way his players hassled opponents was some sight. No space or time was given to make decisions. Koke and Raul Garcia were easily the most hated midfield-pair among European opponents this season. Barring the final in Lisbon, where they ran Real ragged for 90 minutes but lost all energy thereafter, they didn’t lose even once to Madrid and Barcelona, the two superpowers boasting of talent depths Atletico could only dream of having. It was difficult to not accept this as the way forward. In England, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were pressing and counter-attacking with brutal efficiency and success. The big teams couldn’t handle their pace. If only they won against some of the less illustrious opponents.
Bizarrely enough, Vicente Del Bosque chose to leave out Koke from the starting lineup against Netherlands. Although the first 30 minutes may have vindicated him, the next 60 certainly did not. The moment Netherlands started to harry the Spanish midfield, they started making the wrong decisions. Before you could blink, 5-1. Miguel Herrera’s Mexico almost did the impossible against Brazil the other day. Their defensive work-rate meant the Neymars and the Oscars, used to having aeons on the ball to figure out their next move, needed to pass and move rather swiftly. Hurried possession is inevitably harmful and the Selecao defence was caught out more than once. They were lucky to escape with a point that day. Similarly, Chile had been quite astonishing since Jorge Sampaoli took charge. They didn’t need to overhaul their squad, but induced a system where standing and breathing is an alien concept. If you’re Chilean and you want your porridge, you better hassle the missus to serve it soon. They’ve embarrassed a fair few teams over the last year or so, including England at Wembley, Germany at the Mercedes Benz Arena for a large part of the 90 minutes and Spain at Santiago late last year. This had been coming.
As I write this, Costa Rica have qualified for the round of 16. How? Don’t give Pirlo and Marchisio enough time on the ball.
Pressing and high-intensity football has been the theme of this rather enjoyable World Cup and by the looks of it, the next few years of global football. As the most successful teams start adapting to it, the slow walking-pace passing football may be thrown inside the attic. Tiki-taka, however, isn’t dead. Spain have dominated all age-group competitions over the pertaining time-span and you could trust them to not deviate too much from what is now the national identity. It will evolve and take new dimensions, certainly, but it’s far from dead and buried. Maybe an amalgamation of the two. A tiki-taka playing team who work their socks off without the ball could be lethal. Pep Guardiola reinvented tiki-taka and made it fashionable when he took charge at Barcelona. You could rest assured that there’ll be coaches who are going to counter pressing football in due time too.
For now, let’s celebrate this brave new world.