There is a worrying need among many football observers to attach a narrative to everything, to portray every big match as the latest in a sequence of linear evolutionary events that propel football forwards in its development. It is a journalistic device, more than anything – nothing helps fills column space like a pre-set narrative arc and nothing gets clicks like a catchy, controversial headline – but it does appear that some people really believe this nonsense. The truth is, obviously, more complex and less final.
While there are undoubtedly obvious evolutionary patterns in football’s development that become visible when one analyses several matches played years apart, these narratives are multi-stranded and intertwined. The development of attacking football stands slightly at odds with and responds to that of the defensive aspects of the game. They coexist and develop together and, as such, the definition of footballing perfection changes all the time. One way of playing cannot die overnight.
It is often forgotten that the history of football is decided as much by circumstances as by anything else. An idea is just an idea. Tiki-taka would have been as brilliant an idea in the 1930s as it is was in the 2000s, but the players would never have been fit or educated enough in football theory to make it work, while the standard of training facilities and pitches would have made its implementation impossible.
As José Mourinho has been keen to remind us in the wake of Chelsea’s victory over Liverpool, football is contested on the pitch and, while concepts may be influential, they have nowhere near as much impact as the requirements of the teams and the abilities and actions of their players. Chelsea played negatively at Anfield not because that is Mourinho’s ideal style but because it gave his side the best chance of securing the result they needed.
Sometimes, external events play a far more important role in football than anything either team does. It is highly doubtful, for example, that Mourinho’s Inter would have taken a decisive 3-1 lead over Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the first leg Champions League semi-final in 2009-10 had the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland not forced Barça to travel all the way to Milan via bus, totally disrupting the Catalans’ physical preparation for the match.
What I am trying to say is that not every game is laden with such revolutionary import that clubs and managers throw the baby out with the bathwater and implement a total re-think of strategy. Sometimes a football match is just a football match.
Take today’s example of great tactical progression, the apparent death of tiki-taka. Set aside the fact that it has already “died” several times before: in the second leg of the aforementioned Inter-Barcelona duel in 2009-10; when Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea somehow squeezed past the Catalans at the same stage in 2011-12; when Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern absolutely obliterated them last season. This time, if you listen to any number of observers, including writers at Daily Mail and Eurosport, it really is done for good at the top level.
Now, there is no doubt that the manner of Real Madrid’s victory over Bayern Munich was genuinely shocking and that, over the course of the last seven days, Pep Guardiola has been made to look like a bit of a fool. His ideological dogmatism played straight into the hands of his opponent, the ever-shrewd Champions League savant Carlo Ancelotti.
The Italian used a more flexible, ruthless and simpler game-plan that made a mockery of the idea that Bayern were unstoppable. Everything that Bayern were in attack – unhurried, ponderous, excruciatingly deliberate – Madrid were the opposite. It was the same story in defence: Madrid’s organisation and concentration brutally exposed the glaring deficiencies in the Bayern ranks. It was a chastening defeat and one that hurt even more because no-one saw it coming.
All of the above said, it is absolutely not the death of tiki-taka. Bayern lost not because their ideas were fundamentally bad, but because they were too rigid in their implementation, too predictable against a high-quality opponent and too slow to react. At its best, tiki-taka is none of those things. Lest we forget that some of the most devastating, fluid and unpredictable team performances in football history came from Guardiola’s Barcelona when faced with opponents who used exactly the same plan as Ancelotti’s Madrid.
More decisive than Bayern’s use of a high-line and their absolute domination of possession was the fact that at no point during the semi-final’s 180 minutes did Guardiola accept that his team selections and tactics were obviously failing and shuffle his pack to present Madrid with a new set of problems. The tempo remained painfully slow, the movement non-existent and the creativity of the players absolutely stifled. For a manager with such attention to detail, it was the most bizarre of failures.
What does the Real Madrid 5-0 Bayern Munich mean in terms of football’s long-term development? Nothing at all. It simply means that over the course of two matches one manager out-thought the other and that one set of players carried out the instructions they were given significantly better than their opponents, that one team carved out several goalscoring chances and scored a few while totally restricting the number of opportunities afforded to the other team.
Sure, this week has seen the three biggest games – the two Real Madrid vs Bayern ties plus Liverpool vs Chelsea – won by the team parking the bus and surrendering the ball to opponents unwilling to compromise, while the other Champions League semi-final is contested by two sides desperate for the other to have the ball, but tiki-taka has not died: it just lost out this time around, and in football that happens. Its time will come again – and sooner rather than later.