FOOTBALL is a sport that constantly reinvents itself, so there is nothing particularly unusual about a prevailing orthodoxy collapsing. Rarely, though, can the decline have been as rapid or emphatic as the one that came to a head on Wednesday evening.
Spain’s 2-0 defeat to Chile didn’t just bring about the departure of the reigning world champions after their opening two group games, it also marked the end of the era of tiki-taka. A shift that was already well under way on the European club scene has now been transferred to the international arena.
Cultivated in the Barcelona academy, and based around a style of play that espouses quick, short passing, regular positional interchange in the attacking areas and, according to the system’s critics, possession for possession’s sake, tiki-taka swept Spain to two European Championships and a World Cup and carried Barcelona to four La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues in the years since 2008.
Slowly, though, the weaknesses in the philosophy became increasingly apparent. The best sides worked out how to counter tiki-taka, pressing much more quickly in higher areas, using superior physical strength and energy to negate the effectiveness of short passing and not being afraid to be more direct to rapidly turn defence into attack.
When Bayern Munich trounced Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the semi-final of 2013’s Champions League, it felt like the start of a changing of the guard. Bayern counter-attacked brilliantly in those two games, with the muscularity and pace of players like Thomas Muller, Arjen Robben and Mario Mandzukic completely unsettling Barca’s previously unruffled playmakers.
One imagines Diego Simeone watching that game and putting the final touches to his blueprint for his Atletico Madrid side last season. Physical, energetic and extremely well drilled, Atletico claimed the La Liga title as their intensity showed up the frailty of Barcelona’s more aesthetically-pleasing model.
Still, though, there was Spain to carry the torch. Brilliant as they caused death by a thousand passes at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, La Roja were less thrilling as they reclaimed their European crown in Poland and Ukraine two years ago, but no less effective.
Cracks were apparent as they were brushed aside by Brazil in last summer’s Confederations Cup final, but that was put down to fatigue at the end of a gruelling club season and touted as something of a fact-finding mission ahead of the real business this summer.
Unconvincing friendly performances, most notably last November’s 2-1 win over Equatorial Guinea and 1-0 defeat to South Africa, were attributed to the Spanish federation’s desire to flog their world champions to extract the maximum financial gain. In hindsight, they should have been interpreted as evidence of a much deeper-rooted malaise.
The footballing world had changed, but Spain were either unable or unwilling to change with it. Hence their dramatic World Cup exit after calamitous defeats to Holland and Chile.
That is not to say that a continued adherence to the tenets of tiki-taka was the only reason Spain bombed so spectacularly in Brazil.
Vicente Del Bosque stands accused of selecting the wrong players, and there is merit in that debate. Why was so much faith shown in Diego Costa when he was patently unfit after his ill-advised attempt to start the Champions League final? Why did Iker Casillas start in goal after spending most of last season on the bench at Real Madrid? Why weren’t the likes of Koke, Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla used more extensively?
In fairness to Del Bosque, similar questions can be levelled whenever a great side – and make no mistake about it, this Spain side fully deserves that label – reaches the end of the road.
It is extremely hard to drop superstars who have carried a nation to World Cup and European Championship success, hence the understandable, if misguided, decision to stick with the likes of Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, even though they have clearly been struggling for form.
Even the best sides grow stale, and when the chips were down on Wednesday evening, there was a distinct lack of urgency and desire from a group of players who have already won everything there is to win. Did Spain’s players want it as much as their opponents in a Chile shirt? It certainly didn’t look that way.
The draw also played a part, with Spain’s opening two games pitting them against sides who could conceivably find themselves playing in the last four of the tournament next month. Holland, with Robben and Robin van Persie firing, were always going to be dangerous. Chile, as the next few weeks could prove, are arguably the most underrated side playing in Brazil.
Yet even taking all of that into account, it’s hard to get away from the thought that Spain did themselves no favours by simply trying to mirror the approach they adopted four years ago in South Africa.
It’s easy to pass your way through an opposition side when you’ve got plenty of time and space in which to do it – it’s rather harder when your opponents have worked out that if they harry you to win possession and then break at pace, any defensive inadequacies are likely to be exposed.
For all of that, Spain will be back. In David de Gea, Jordi Alba, Cesar Azpilicueta, Javi Martinez, Koke and Costa, they have the core of a side that are all 25-years-old or younger. Thiago Alcantara and Isco, two of the most highly-rated players in Europe, couldn’t even make their squad.
The strength of La Liga, and the fact the league boasts a higher proportion of domestic players than the Premier League, means Spain will still start as one of the favourites for Euro 2016.
Success in France, though, will mean adapting their playing style. Not abandoning tiki-taka entirely because an ability to pass at speed will always be valuable and there is still much to be said for a fluency of formation and personnel in attack.
But as the last few years have proved, a degree of power, pace and energy is back in vogue. Spain had none of it, and will need to rediscover some quickly if they are not to become relics of a bygone age.