Bayern Munich were unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League by Real Madrid last week and the obituaries of Pep Guardiola’s “tiki-taka” style of football have been pouring in ever since; but to write-off a method that has enjoyed such success seems rash, to say the least.
There are many people involved with the emergence of this style of football but two of the most synonymous names with the tiki-taka brand are Barcelona and Josep Guardiola. In many ways, the latter is a victim of his own success; starting his managerial career without blemish.
As a product of Barcelona’s youth system, these ideals and ethics were bred into Pep from an early age and nurtured under the likes of Johan Cruyff and Louis Van Gaal. He took over a floundering Barcelona B team in 2007 and won promotion with the same team in his very first year. Not a man to do things by halves, he took over the senior Barcelona team in 2008/09 season and won every trophy available to him, including an illustrious treble of the Liga title, the Copa del Rey and European Cup.
In his four years at Barcelona, Guardiola won the Champions League twice, the league title three times, the Copa del Rey twice, the UEFA Super Cup twice, and the FIFA Club World Cup twice. The most impressive facet of his managerial armoury is the style of football he coaches his teams to play. Possession is everything; the onus on technically gifted players keeping the ball, pressing their opponents with ferocity when they lose it. No wonder Bayern Munich saw fit to hand the reigns of the current European champions over to the Catalan. If anyone was to retain Europe’s most sought after prize for the Bavarian club, surely it would be Pep Guardiola. Taking into account Guardiola’s typically brilliant debut seasons, there was certainly a great deal of surprise when his Bayern Munich were brushed aside 4-0 at home against a Real Madrid side he had so often sparred with during his time in Spain.
In shock at the result but also the manner of the beating, many have called into question the tiki-taka style Guardiola employs, citing this defeat and also Barcelona’s slow demise from the summit of European football as the death knell for the possession based method. Real’s victory last week at the Allianz and Barcelona’s 7-0 aggregate defeat last year at the hands of Bayern Munich were apparently nails in the tiki-taka coffin. The formula for playing against this style was simple; defend deep, starve opposition of space in the final third and hit them on the counter.
However, nothing is ever this simple; there are subtle greys between the black and white lines. Take Barcelona’s comprehensive 7-0 defeat over two legs at the hands of Jupp Heyncke’s Bayern. The second half of Barcelona’s season last year was fractured dramatically by the absence of manager Tito Vilanova due to his battle with cancer. Leo Messi’s fitness was also a major factor and the diminutive Argentine played no part in the second leg at the Nou Camp. Not to take away from Bayern Munich’s two excellent performances against Barca; the Germans were clinical and devastating in equal measure. Despite the humiliating Champions League exit, the late Vilanova guided Barcelona to another La Liga title and did so with a record 100 points.
This season, Barcelona are more of a fading light without the likes of Guardiola or Vilanova to oversee their very specific brand of football and although current coach Tata Martino is an advocate of attractive football, he has not reached the same levels that his predecessors have. The strict philosophy employed by the two previous coaches has slipped slightly under the new man, as the pressure exerted on their opponents without the ball has diminished in the new regime. Barcelona lack direction and leadership, through no fault of the style of football they play. Every great era must come to an end and even though they are nowhere near their best, at the time of writing they are still in contention to win the Spanish league title.
Bayern Munich’s defeat to Real Madrid over two legs in the Champions League this season was so surprising because, not only were they reining European Champions and favourites, but they were coached by Pep Guardiola. His previous instant successes in debut seasons and his large silverware haul made it all the more shocking to see his side taken apart while looking so out of ideas.
There are a number of factors to take into account when contextualizing this result. The emphatic way in which Bayern Munich wrapped up the Bundesliga title with seven games remaining at the end of March put the German champions in a difficult position. As any team would do, the standards slipped in games that didn’t mean anything in the long run and it’s difficult to turn form on like a tap. Playing the same players in the first 11 led to an injury to midfielder Thiago Alcantara in a meaningless game. Rotation led to the team losing it’s rhythm. Guardiola found himself in a catch 22 situation.
At Barcelona, Guardiola inherited a side that had largely grown up learning the principles of La Masia, Barcelona’s youth system. At Bayern, it shouldn’t be a huge shock if his players don’t perform at full throttle against a quality side like Real Madrid in the very first season of asking. His side against Real were laboured in possession, slow to transition from attack to defence and ultimately undone by the simplest of plays, two set pieces. Poor to say the least, but nothing too damning on the system.
It’s not an unreasonable request to give a coach like Guardiola time, and in turn, the advocates of “tiki-taka”. His style of football has been castigated after a handful of bad performances despite the fact it was not the brand of football that failed, it was the implementation. In the same week as Guardiola’s methods were questioned, the conceived opposite philosophy to his, championed by Jose Mourinho was firstly eulogized and then subsequently condemned in the space of three days after Chelsea’s victory over Liverpool and their defeat to Atletico Madrid respectively.
There is no doubt Guardiola’s team will have to improve to achieve success in Europe and there is no doubt Pep will work himself to the bone to see this happen. But to dismiss a philosophy like tiki-taka after all of the success it has delivered with not only Barcelona, but two European Championships and a World Cup win with Spain, seems reactionary and short-sighted. Guardiola’s Barcelona lost to Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the 2010 Champions League semi-finals and still went on to win the competition the next season. Should Bayern Munich not trust the coaching values of a man who has won so much? Tiki-taka is not dead; it will rise again.
John O’Connor, Pundit Arena.
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