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FIFA World Cup 2018: Time for Spain to Look Beyond Tiki-taka Fetish

In trying to template something that was almost perfect, Spain became a parody of themselves, much like U2 became unrecognisable from the band that released The Joshua Tree.

Dileep Premachandran | News18 Sports

Updated:July 2, 2018, 3:54 PM IST
FIFA World Cup 2018: Time for Spain to Look Beyond Tiki-taka Fetish
Andres Iniesta (FIFA Image)
A decade ago, Spain and Russia met twice at Euro 2008. In their first encounter, in the group stage, Spain took the lead with a classic counterattack. Joan Capdevila’s clearance travelled more than 40 yards and found Fernando Torres, who shrugged off his marker, cut inside and squared the ball for David Villa to tap in. With Villa scoring a hat-trick, Spain won 4-1.

Just over a fortnight later, the two sides met again in the semifinal. Russia had upset the Netherlands in the last eight, and they gave as good as they got in a tight, goalless first half. Then, the Spanish worked the ball from the back, exchanging a succession of passes before Marcos Senna slipped one forward to Xavi Hernández. Xavi moved it to Andrés Iniesta, out wide on the left, and ran into the box. Iniesta darted inside, beat a couple of challenges and drove in an exquisite pass for Xavi to volley home.

The second goal was transition in excelsis. A Russia move broke down on the edge of the Spanish area, and in a trice, David Silva was speeding through the midfield. He then passed to Dani Güiza on the right wing. Guiza gathered, played it inside to Sergio Ramos and moved towards the box. Ramos passed to Cesc Fabregas, who dinked the ball first-time into the box. Güiza chested it down and lobbed Igor Akinfeev in the Russian goal.

The final goal also came from Russia conceding possession deep in Spanish territory. Once Iniesta got the ball, he looked up and toe-poked it long down the left touchline. Fabregas gave chase, gathered, came inside and squared for Silva to control and lash home. From the time the ball left Iniesta’s boot to the time it nestled in the back of the net, barely ten seconds had elapsed.

Spain 2008 were hardly a long-ball outfit. With Xavi, Iniesta, Senna and Silva in midfield, they cherished the ball and protected it. But possession wasn’t fetishised, and they were happy to use more than one method to break teams down. The pace and strength of Torres, and Villa’s all-round forward play meant that the quick transition from defence to attack was as viable as the slow and patient build-up.

Torres, Villa and Güiza were hardly tiki-taka players, but their very different qualities meant that Spain always had an outlet if teams decided to try and encircle Xavi and Iniesta. In six matches at Euro 2008, Spain scored 12 goals and conceded just three. When they retained the trophy four years later, they matched that goal tally while conceding just one.

Those numbers, however, hid the fact that the team was no longer as versatile as it had once been. Villa missed Euro 2012 because of a broken tibia, and Torres was a shadow of the player who had terrorised defences in his prime at Atletico Madrid and Liverpool. More importantly, Spain had begun to believe in the myth of possession. They destroyed Ireland 4-0, and repeated that scoreline against Italy in the final, but several of their other games were bloodless affairs.

That had been the case when they won the World Cup in 2010 as well, scoring just eight goals in seven matches. An avalanche of possession, and not enough end product. The exuberance and joy of 2008 had given way to chess on grass. It was fascinating to watch, but it didn’t get you out of your chair screaming: “Did you see that??”

In trying to template something that was almost perfect, Spain became a parody of themselves, much like U2 became unrecognisable from the band that released The Joshua Tree. Iniesta’s words after the defeat on Sunday night were telling. “In the end, you have an opponent that also plays and does their job,” he said, having watched from the bench as Spain played 400 passes in a first half where they touched the ball just four times in the Russian penalty box.

“We had the dream to go one step further, and we haven’t been capable of it,” he added. “Everything has a beginning and an end.”

As much as he and Xavi, who retired after the World Cup debacle in 2014, will be missed, it’s now time to recognise just how valuable Villa and Torres were. They have proved as hard to replace as the two midfield maestros. Without them, and with Diego Costa a heavy-metal drummer in a chamber orchestra, Spain had only elaboration and no focus.

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| Edited by: Arnab Sen
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