Picking among the bones of the carcass that we call the ‘international break’, I had an epiphany; a startling realisation. It may not be big, it may not be clever, it may not be in-vogue, but after watching Spain pass sideways for roughly 90 minutes in a display devoid of any semblance of invention, it made me long for the days of the simplistic bliss of a striker partnership working in tandem – the birth and of ‘tiki-taka’ has directly coincided with a dearth and subsequent slow death of the strike partnership. Football is a cyclical game; whenever a team has reached the apparent zenith of footballing perfection in terms of tactical advancements, a new school of thought is born that goes onto push the boundaries even further. A quick glance around the Premier League only serves to highlight the paucity of out-and-out partnerships on offer, however, like the proverbial dinosaur in the room, are they gone for good?
Like the old curmudgeon at heart that I really am, I’ve taken a distinct disliking to both the phrase ‘tiki-taka’ aswell as everything that it has come to represent over the past few months. Irrational? Perhaps. Blinded to its brilliance? Not on your nelly. I both love and loathe it in equal measure for the impact and legacy it has had and will continue to exert on the game. My influence for this rant? A recent dose of nolstalgia via the quite brilliant show, The Premiership Years. Football was just better back then, wasn’t it?
An attributing factor to the decline of the strike partnership is the relative lack of space in the modern-day game when compared to eras gone by. A strong emphasis is placed on counter-attacking football, which is why you see the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid pressing so high up the pitch, hunting in packs like ravenous jackals baying for blood. The closer to the opposition’s goal that you win the ball back, the easier it is to start a counter-attack. Simple. The days of counter-attacking goals with just three to four touches spread extravagantly over the space of sixty yards are most definitely over.
The space on the pitch has been squeezed. Whereas ten, twenty years ago there would have been as much as sixty yards between the strikers and defenders on the same side, nowadays, it’s closer to thirty yards. The transition between defence and attack is often seen as the most crucial part of build-up play to any goal. As such, whereas once they threatened to be a dying breed, those players that play in-between the lines have seen their stock rise tenfold.
The likes of Modric, Pastore, Gotze and Silva are now some of the biggest name to dominate the landscape of European football. Their prestige is aligned to their innate ability to pick a pass while all those around them fluster.
Xabi Alonso stated in a recent interview with Sid Lowe in The Guardian: “The pace of the Premier League is different. If you can adapt it improves you. I’m not surprised [David] Silva is performing so well. He’s an incredible player and if you can acclimatise you can use the speed to your advantage: if, in the middle of that frenetic pace, you’re good enough to apply pausa, put the brakes on, feint and send the opponent flying 10 metres past, that gives you a real advantage.”
The introduction of the false nine has been well documented, so much so to the extent that the recent emergence of the false ten has been established, pointing in particular to Cesc Fabregas’s role running from deep at Barcelona and his already blossoming relationship with Lionel Messi. Is it just that strike partnerships have died out, or have they merely adapted?
Adaptability is the name of the game. Total Football may be the blueprint, but it’s been built upon, modified and modernised. Strikers, by their very nature, are in the side purely to score goals. Their clinical ability to put the ball in the back of the net unparalleled; they’ve survived by and large for the best part of seventy years in some shape or form.
Nevertheless, the mythologising of styles of football has given way to a quite frankly bizarre pyramid that ranks contrasting styles based predominantly upon their aesthetic quality. Faux moralising is the name of the game and in ‘tiki-taka‘, they have a standard-bearer by which everyone else is judged.
An ideology has been spawned. A mantra has been established that renders those that do not adapt obsolete. Is it any wonder that the one season Barcelona staked their game plan on a more traditional centre forward incapable of adapting in the same way Samuel Eto’o and David Villa have in the past, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, that they came unstuck in Europe. Players that patrol the same defined areas are easier to mark, as Inter Milan found out to their benefit that year.
In the Premier League, Robin Van Perise and Gervinho have struck 13 league goals and have eight assists at present between them. Are they a partnership? Not really, not in the traditional and conventional sense anyway. Arsenal, much like everyone else on the continent, has disbanded with the outmoded and outdated 4-4-2 system, instead plumping for a variant of 4-3-3, with Theo Walcott the crucial balancing third act of that triumvirate.
Cast your mind back to the inception and glory years of the Premier League – there was Shearer and Sutton, aptly named SOS, at Blackburn, there was Fowler and Collymore at Liverpool, Yorke and Cole at Manchester United and Phillips and Quinn at Sunderland. In fact, most success stories, however unlikely, brief or expected as they were, were built upon the foundations of an accepted and flourishing strike partnership.
Returning back to the Spain and England game at Wembley, as Spain struggled to break down a resilient England defence in the first half, what did Vicente Del Bosque deem necessary to prise open the home team’s rear-guard – more of the same it would seem.
Off went Barcelona trio Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta and Manchester City’s David Silva and on came Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and Fernando Torres. Too many cooks spoil the broth? Perhaps, but while Spain still struggled to for a breakthrough, on another day they could easily have put the game to bed with two or three goals.
The simple instruction that it’s easier to defend what’s in front of you rather than behind you seemed to be lost on the ‘tiki-taka’ brigade and they gave way to the worst excesses of the only adopted footballing principle of the decade. The result was a systematic over-elaboration of their play when the game merely cried out for the simplicity of a strike partnership occupying the opposition’s admittedly superb centre-half duo.
A failure to adapt has seen the strike partnership die out to an extent. Oddly, fielding two of them is now considered a luxury by most teams that they can ill-afford, whereas rewind back ten years ago and it was the diminutive maestro’s that were in front of the the very same firing line.
As I proposed earlier, football is a cyclical game. The pinnacle will never be scaled, conquered and kept forever; there will always be another team or another coach with a different idea willing to place their flag just that little bit higher in the name of tactical advancement.
Strike partnerships have died out as the emphasis on keeping the ball has grown. As ‘tiki-taka’ has engendered a whole generation with a new set of ideals, the main occupation of the opposition at the moment is preventative and reactionary.
Once upon a time Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan team were seen as the perfect exponents of tactical enterprise. Their formation experimented with players in modified strains of traditional roles. Nevertheless, it was still an interchangeable formation with 4-4-2 at its very core. What may seem like the definitive answer now, will be shown up as complete folly in just a few years’ time.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – however, while a hierarchy that exists based entirely around a loose and skewed moral compass which compares and ranks styles of football, the answer may lie in a return to the past. Barcelona and Spain are the masters of ‘tiki-taka’, any attempt to replicate their style is little more than a pointless exercise in futility if ever there was one.
The strike partnership is a rare and precious commodity around Europe these days. If it can survive its biggest test to date – its complete extinction from the higher echelons of the game – and if someone is both brave and bold enough to implement it, then it may well sow the seeds for an old-school tactical revival and with it, simultaneously provide both the answer and antithesis to the over-complication of an inherently simplistic game, with ‘tiki-taka’ as its primary target.
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