Tiki-taka will live on for Spain, but the old guard may have to give
JUN 20, 2014 11:26a ET
RIO DE JANEIRO
Spain have a squad of extraordinary depth. They continue to excel in youth tournaments. To speak of the end for Spanish football is misleading and premature, but what ended against Chile with a 2-0 defeat in the Maracana on Wednesday was this Spain, the world and double European champions, the team of Xavi and Xabi Alonso that passed teams into submission. They went out of the World Cup and departed into history.
No team, no matter how great, goes on forever but it would be ludicrous to think that there is suddenly something wrong with the Spanish blueprint for football. In his post-match press-conference, Vicente del Bosque, the Spain coach, was sombre but forthright. It was not the time, he reiterated, to be contemplating the future. He would go away and think, consider his own position and the future of the national side.
There was something calming about his tone: the nature of football is that scapegoats tend to be found after disappointment: defeats have to be expiated by sacrifice, but with his stolidity Del Bosque seemed in that moment precisely the man to lead Spain forward, to take difficult decisions and encourage the new generation. He is not somebody to throw away six years of unprecedented success over two defeats.
Others were over-reacting, gleefully proclaiming the end of the tiki-taka. This, though, was the end of a generation of players, not the end of a philosophy. In part that was perhaps down to age - Xavi, who has been vital to both Spain and Barcelona's success is 34 now and no longer able to dominate games as he once did, his omission against Chile an acknowledgement of that - but it was also, as Xabi Alonso acknowledged, down to hunger. It's a completely unexpected failure but that is sport," he said. "These things happen. It was unexpected but we have to take the great sadnesses in the same way as we take the great joys, as men.
"I believe that we haven't been able to maintain the same levels of conviction, of hunger. The success, the happiness of before is gone, it's run out and we haven't been able to keep it going. We've made lots of mistakes, we've lost a bit of our know-how, and we've paid for it with our solidity that had helped us win so many games. We've not been able to keep the same levels of ambition and hunger, perhaps the real conviction to go for the championship."
Like Del Bosque, Xabi was impressively forthright in analysing the reasons for failure. "I think it's a bit of everything," he went on. "Mentally we weren't ready, physically maybe the same but putting that all together we weren't in the best shape. Then we have played against teams that were well-prepared and at their peak, and now we're going home."
Weariness after a season in which many of their players were involved in the Champions League final, and in an exhausting league season that went to the wire, perhaps offers some explanation. But as ever in football, there are no simple reasons. Spain, it should not be forgotten, led 1-0 against the Netherlands when David Silva was played one-on-one with the Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen. If heâd scored, would the Dutch have come back from 2-0? As it was, his attempted dink was saved and a couple of minutes later Robin van Persie scored his brilliant header to change the course of the game.
What was telling about that game was less that Spain lost, or even the margin of their defeat, than the way, when challenged, their players lost their heads. Perhaps that was understandable: not since September 2006 against Northern Ireland had Spain lost a game in which they had taken the lead. Spain charged forwards in search of an equaliser and, in so doing, exposed the weakest part of their team, the center of the defence, to the pace of Arjen Robben. Once challenged, once the old plan stopped working, everything fell apart.
There will be changes, of course. Tiki-taka probably will never dominate as it did - in part because the players who made it work, the players from whom it developed, are ageing, and in part because it no longer intimidates opponents. Some sides will sit deep against those that practise a radical possession game, looking to absorb pressure and strike on the break, as Bayern Munich did against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final in 2013 or Real Madrid against Bayern this season; others will do what Chile and the Dutch did, playing a back three and so releasing an extra midfielder to interrupt the passing game higher up the pitch. But tiki-taka will endure.
What will not is this Spain squad in this form. Xavi and perhaps Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso may have played their last games for their country, there will be new blood and there may be slight tweaks of approach. "Things are going to change," Xabi said. "Eras end with defeats... and this was a painful defeat."