Faux moralising – the Tiki-Taka get-out clause

Spain slipped to an unlikely 1-0 defeat at the hands of Fabio Capello’s under-strength England side at Wembley on Saturday. While England’s limited yet encouraging performance has dominated the back pages, and rightly so, little attention has been paid to the quite frankly petulant response of Spain’s players in the aftermath. Tiki-taka has had fans creaming themselves all over the world for the best part of six years now, and while it is certainly a fantastic way to play if you have the requisite players at your disposal, it is not the only way to play. The eulogising over this style of play has now given way to a warped and bizarre state of affairs by which all over styles of football are measured. A hierarchy has been established, with tiki-taka as its sovereign master.

Barcelona are most football fans second team. When they’re at their best, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever see another team quite like it. In full flow, they are the epitome of what most footballers aspire to. Effective, possession-based football is the Holy Grail; it’s the in-vogue style of the decade.

However, what has begun to irritate me is the fact that most people see victories lessened if they are not done in that very same style. To use an extreme example, if England somehow managed to win the Euro’s playing like they did against Spain for the entire tournament, by that very same token, their victory would be somehow less worthy as it flies in the face of the only apparent accepted footballing principles of our times. This all begs the question, when did we begin to trade substance for style? Or more pertinently, perhaps, when did we begin to rank styles of football based on their aesthetic quality?

Spain’s success at international level has been built primarily around Luis Aragones insistence that they replicate Barcelona’s domestic success, style included, on the international stage. It has worked a treat – Spain are unquestionably the best international side of the last 25 years or so and Barcelona are now arguably the best club side ever. There‘s clearly something to this tiki-taka, then.

But what does bother me, is the way that these footballing deities react when it all doesn’t go their way. Simply because they are sticking to their principles despite it becoming abundantly clear during the duration of the match that their style isn’t working, that they attempt to take the moral high ground. It’s a get-out clause to fall back on in defeat that we’ve seen time and time again.

Cesc Fabregas stated after the England game: “We made England defend nearly the whole 90 minutes. You want teams to have a go at you and test you and see what happens.”

“We saw two completely different styles of football. The more defensive one won but we know that the only way they could score was from a free-kick or a corner and we conceded a not very intelligent free-kick. We paid for it but, basically, we are happy because we played very well.”

For anyone that actually watched the match, Fabregas’s version of events is a generous way of spinning it. Spain lacked penetration, width and invention. They were slow on the counter and were by and large predictable. They were the worst kind of tiki-taka – passing for passing’s sake.

When Fabregas argues that he wants teams to ‘have a go at you and test you and see what happens’, in lamens terms what he is actually saying is ‘we want them to play openly, because we know that we have the better players, it’ll make us look good and we’ll definitely win.’

Whenever Barcelona or Spain lose, the opposition is always derided for having played ‘negative’ or ‘defensive’ football. But when you consider the quality of the opposition, how the hell else are they supposed to play?

Spain and Barcelona are in possession of some of the best players in the world, in a system that they’ve been trained in for the entirety of their footballing education and subsequent careers. England on the other hand were a side missing arguably their three best players (Rooney, Gerrard and Wilshere, not to mention Ashley Young) while in the midst of experimenting with new players in unfamiliar positions.

To play an openly attacking brand of football without the players necessary to carry it off would have been absolutely brainless (just look at Wigan). England were well within their rights to play defensive football if they felt that it was the best way to go about getting the desired result.

Spain have a fierce commitment to passing football, so much so that it has spawned an ideology practiced and imitated all over the world with varying degree of success. While their style of play is easy on the eye, without the necessary spark like Barcelona have with Lionel Messi, it can become somewhat, dare I say it, boring to watch.

Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque said after the game: “England played very deep and did what they had to and are very physical.” while the deplorable Sergio Busquets offered in direct contrast to the all-knowing Fabregas: “We weren’t expecting England to play so defensively, with 10 behind the ball but we also have to respect that style of play.”

The subtlety of their language cannot fail to portray their patronising tone. England may have been the victors on the pitch, but somehow, amidst all the fawning over their abilities, a degree of faux moralising has crept into football – so much so that Spain will probably see themselves as the real victors of the match because they tried to play football ‘the proper way’, therefore completely contradcting the point of football in the first place – to win.

Spain and Barcelona are both fantastic sides. At their best they exemplify all the best qualities that you’d possibly want from a football team. However, their style of play, as admirable as it may be, is not the only way for a successful side to operate.

Somewhere amongst all the hyperbole we’ve lost our perspective. Part of what makes football an inherently absorbing game is the plethora of contrasting of styles; the beauty of it is that it has no formal hierarchy in terms of accepted principles – a scrappy 1-0 can mean just as much as a 5-0 trouncing.

The over the top praise often attributed to tiki-taka has distorted the playing field. To decry a style as ‘defensive’ or ’negative’ simply because it contradicts with your own smacks as little more than an excuse trotted out when the likes of Fabregas don’t get their way and steamroller the opposition into submission. Spain and Barcelona are the standard-bearers of our times, however amongst all the mythologising and moralising, it’s worth remembering that to be successful, there are other ways to play the game aside from tiki-taka, as blasphemous as that may sound.

You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1


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