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The Divergence Away from the Barça Way

Barcelona is a club obsessed with a philosophy and a way of playing but the football elite has shifted away from it.

FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala 2010 Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

The term tiki-taka is said so often it has seemingly lost it’s meaning. Barcelona popularised this style of play during their era of dominance between 2009 and 2013 but itt is now used as a simplistic label of a passing game. In reality, passing comprises only a small subset of the footballing ideology.

The phrase tika-taka is considered to be the child of Spanish commentator Andrés Montes. An onomatopoeic description of when a team pings (ticks) the ball between each other. But it is not tiki-taka alone that excelled Barça and Spain to the top of the footballing tree.

Many consider Pep Guardiola to be the poster boy of tiki-taka but he himself has rubbished the term

“I hate tiki-taka. Tiki-taka means passing the ball for the sake of it, with no clear intention. And it's pointless.”

At first glance, it seems Guardiola is dismissing the style that saw him win numerous trophies at Barça but in reality he is dismissing such a simplistic term to cover a wide-ranging philosophy embedded in from the start at Barça.

Barça’s style does revolve around passing but it is passing with conviction and a purpose. Every pass is an attempt to create space or holes in an opponent’s defence. A cross field pass from the halfway line is not to simply switch the play, it is to stretch the compacted defences that Barça so often came up against. If tiki-taka was accurate, every Barcelona player would never leave their half. But even still, there seems to be a negative stigma attached to this style. Perhaps it is because the system can leave you vulnerable if you fail.

The reality is, you have to have players of extreme quality to be able to make it work. You need players who can consistently find their teammates in tight areas, who can happily put together passing sequences that are 20+ passes strong. This is simply not the case for the majority of cases. Without a Xavi, without an Iniesta, without a Messi this style of play becomes next to impossible to compete with at an elite level.

Take Guardiola at Manchester City for example. He has good passers such as David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne but he does not have a team of them yet. Having one or two good ball players makes it easy for your opponent to mark them out of the game and render your strategy useless. It takes years of development to achieve. Johan Cruyff installed the philosophy at Barça but it did not bring instant results. It requires patience that the modern football world does not have. With managers losing their jobs every one or two years, it makes it extremely different to have any real effect on the way a club, not just a team, plays.

The vogue style of play is a counter-attacking one. Strong, tall, athletic players over smaller but more technical players. It is a method that does produce immediate results and works well in the modern era. It was only in the years after Barça’s success that clubs attempted to play a controlling game but without the sufficient preparation and infrastructure, the majority of elite teams have switched back to their regular style of play.

Barça themselves have fallen pray to it. Under Tata Martino, they switched to a pace-driven counter-attack and tried to maximise Messi, Neymar and Sánchez. The reality is it significantly lessened the impact Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets had on the play. Barça subsequently won zero trophies that season and Martino lost his job. Under Luis Enrique however, Barça have reintroduced the controlling nature but it is not the same as it was under Guardiola. The midfielders have become more physical as has the forward line through the introduction of Luis Suárez.

This means the team is unlikely to get bullied off the ball but a good execution of Barça’s philosophy meant this was never going to happen anyway. Now, opponents play against Barça knowing they can challenge them in a physical aspect whereas before, there were very few who could get close to Barça’s technical level.

The loss of Xavi was not as immediately apparent as it perhaps should have been. He was phased out during his final year but there hasn’t been anyone to come in and play that kind of role. That job fell to Iniesta but as discussed before, this technique requires eleven players of technical excellence to achieve and too much reliance on one player leaves the system unbalanced. This is not to say Ivan Rakitić was not a good replacement for Xavi, it is to say Rakitić is more of an Enrique midfielder than a Guardiola one.

Barcelona’s next managerial appointment will be an extremely interesting one. A continuation down Enrique’s path may be forced depending on the style of the incoming boss but there seem to be fewer and fewer coaches who are dedicated to the Barça way.

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