Tiki-Taka is a set of tactics and style of play which aims to make the best use of space on a football pitch though precise, patient passing and the fluid movement of players between positions.
The aim is to monopolise position and possession of the ball, thus limiting chances for the opposition and creating regular chances for players to score.
When played well, it can lead to some of the most beautifully exhilarating scenes in sport, yet when plans go awry; it can also bring some of the most frustrating.
Following the international dominance of Spain, and the free-flowing, attacking football of Barcelona; tiki-taka has become a much admired style of play, often discussed and imitated, yet seldom truly mastered.
The term “tiki-taka” mimics the sound of a child’s clacker toy and is used to describe the quick movement and interchanges of possession which are a feature of the system. Whilst the ideas and style of play had been in use for some time, the term itself came to prominence in Spanish commentary of the 2006 World Cup. Many consider the style to be an upgrade to Dutch “Total Football” methods, and it is Johan Cruyff, who is credited with beginning the movement at Barcelona in the late 1980s. The Dutch influence on Barça continued with Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard also favouring the system. However, it was Pep Guardiola, a player schooled in the traditions of the Nou Camp; who really brought the style to prominence in his time as coach of Barcelona.
Tiki-taka offers flexibility and favours the technically gifted. Players with a lower centre of gravity, good movement and balance rather than muscular, more physical players, have best suited the system. Players need to possess a highly developed footballing brain and understanding of how to create and utilise space for themselves and team-mates. The energy to press the opposition in their own half, the vision to pick a pass, a good first touch and dribbling skills are all vital. A generation of Barcelona stars including Xaxi, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi has grown up playing this way.
After a familiar early exit for la Roja at World Cup 2006, apathy surrounded the national team. The late Spain coach Luis Aragonés, decided his team’s style of play needed to be modified to suit his players strengths. Unafraid to make bold decisions, Aragonés dropped senior players such as Real Madrid’s Raúl, and built a side capable of playing tiki-taka. His choices were initially derided in Spain’s media and his team were roundly booed in internationals on home soil. However, Aragonés’ changes ultimately delivered the country’s first silverware for 44 years at Euro 2008, and provided the blue-print for Vincente del Bosque to win further titles at the World Cup of 2010 and the 2012 European Championships.
The spectacular success of Spain’s 3 titles in a row, and Guardiola’s Barcelona, who in 2009 won 6 titles including the Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey treble; has led many to attempt to find the formula behind their victories. In England, Swansea City under Brendan Rodgers were much admired for their footballing principles as they survived and prospered in the Barclays Premier League against the odds. Arsenal’s style under Arsène Wenger has drawn comparisons to tiki-taka.
Critics of tiki-taka accuse teams of “trying to walk the ball into the net” and complain that it often lacks purpose and direction with possession for possession’s sake becoming dull and uninspiring to watch. Vincente Del Bosque acknowledged this ahead of the World Cup, signaling that his side would further evolve in defence of their title and mix their tactics when required to do so. Indeed the rigidity of principles in tiki-taka often leads to questions of whether a “Plan B” exists. Barcelona’s defeat to Chelsea in 2011/12’s Champions League semi-finals being a prime example of how a team with a strong and organized defence can limit even the world’s best to an off-day. Guardiola, now at Bayern Munich, dominated the German Bundesliga, yet was comprehensively beaten by a physical Real Madrid side with the aerial ability of Sergio Ramos in this year’s Champions League semi-finals.
The ideal and romance behind “beautiful football” as witnessed when tiki-taka is in full flow, is often applauded whilst more physical teams are held up as “barbaric, non-believers” stuck in a bygone age. Whilst football is a game of expression and fans love to see flair and skill on display, not all men are born to play tiki-taka football and neither should they be. Whilst football is about expression, it also about gaining results through understanding your own strengths in relation to the opposition and formulating a plan for success as Aragonés himself identified.
Spain, Barcelona and proponents of the tiki-taka style have shown us a beautiful way to win, but it shouldn’t be mistaken as the only way.