There was something weirdly bitter about Iker Casillas after Spain’s win against Croatia on Monday. “Every team now knows that Spain keep the ball very well, that we move it well, and maybe it’s everyone against Spain,” he said. “As [the former Spain coach Jose Antonio] Camacho said, against Spain, every team runs and fights in a way that didn’t happen before.”
Everyone against Spain? It seems a particularly odd thing to say given Croatia had two extremely good shouts for penalties turned down and there was a clear sense among their players that Spain generally had the benefit of the refereeing decisions. “If they had the same situations for Spain, they would give a penalty,” said the Croatia captain Darijo Srna. “It’s a problem for smaller teams.”
Yet it does seem that there has been a backlash against the European and world champions – reflected in the feeling that referees instinctively favor its close-passing style – as though spectators have tired of four years of tiki-taka even as Spain nears what would be an unprecedented third straight tournament victory.
Srna himself was skeptical of Spain’s approach. “They play tik-tak-tik-tak but they created nothing,” he said. “They had one chance at the end which was maybe offside, and they scored the goal. I think after this game Spain have to change the way they play if they want to win the Euros. They found it difficult against Italy. They found it difficult against us.”
Yet Spain’s coach Vicente Del Bosque this week has seemed less concerned by the performance than by the general reaction to it. “Every team [that went through] finished hugging each other, really happy, but not us,” he said. “To us, everything seems to taste of not very much. We have gone from poor to rich very quickly and we don’t value what we have. We have to transmit a message of confidence, not pessimism. I watched the game back again and I have a different opinion to the one I have seen which was all pessimism.”
To an extent Spain has become a victim of its own success; expectations are inflated now and there is a demand not merely for victory but for victory in a certain style. Del Bosque, though, seems more concerned by control.
“We didn’t have much incisiveness, it’s true,” he said. “But it was a good game. We knew a draw was enough. And we went through. Croatia had a shot, but not much else. They played well and denied us space. They constructed a spider’s web and it wasn’t easy. Sometimes moves don’t come off by millimetres, small technical details that don’t quite happen. We had some of those, eh? Just because Rakitic had the chance does not mean that Croatia dominated. We controlled it. Did we have a bad match? No.”
There is a pragmatism to Del Bosque’s interpretation of tiki-taka. Spain won the World Cup, scoring just eight goals in seven games. It dominated possession in every match but often struggled to break down doughty opponents. That was probably where the backlash began. Their performances in many of those games were technically impressive, but viscerally dull. Once Switzerland had pulled off their shock in the opener, Spain managed to make single-goal leads seem impregnable.
At halftime in the semifinal against Germany, having again controlled the ball almost entirely, the score was 0-0. Others might have looked to change their approach, but Spain just kept going, knowing that the way it was playing there was very little chance of Germany scoring and that eventually Joachim Low’s side was likely to crack. It finally did with 17 minutes remaining as Carles Puyol headed in a corner.
That was passing as attrition, wearing down an opponent, dragging them from one side of the pitch to the other, tiring them into a moment of sloppiness. And when Spain take the lead, they are capable of killing a game off simply by holding the ball, keeping it away from their opponent and so preventing them creating chances. When Arsene Wenger spoke of Barcelona’s “sterile domination,” it was that side of tiki-taka to which he was referring.
It was there very early in the system’s development. The hard-pressing, rapid-passing, possession-based style of Spain and Barcelona, of course, is an evolution of the Total Football practiced by Dutch teams of the early seventies. It’s renowned for being thrillingly attacking but watch Ajax against Juventus in the 1973 European Cup final and you see a side, having gone ahead through Jonny Rep after four minutes, intent on keeping the ball away from its opponent. It was proactive football, in that it sought to control the ball and thus the initiative in the game, but it wasn’t attacking football.
To an extent Spain’s approach is dictated by the opponent. If teams defend deep against it – which, Chile excepted, every side in tournament matches has done since the USA showed the way at the 2009 Confederations Cup – what realistically is it supposed to do? If it takes risks with the ball there is a danger of being caught on the counter – as Chelsea did to Barcelona three times in the two legs of its Champions League victory. So it rotates the ball, grinding down the opponent. Some find the approach beautiful, some boring, but Spain have no obligation to entertain or to hurl itself into an opponent’s trap.
“We were in a game against a team with their central midfielders playing very deep, denying us space to play the final ball,” said Fernando Torres after the Croatia game. “It was an intelligent approach.” Torres, of course, was on the other side of the proactive-reactive equation in that Champions League semifinal, in which he scored the decisive third Chelsea goal. “It’s a way of playing,” he said.
“It’s maybe not one that would suit every side, but it is a way of trying to win. A game in the European Championships is a game with two teams, two approaches. Each team has to make the most of what it has for 90 minutes, in whatever form that takes, and they do not have to be the same.”
France, it is safe to assume, will defend deep in the quarterfinal and Spain will again face frustration trying to pass through massed ranks of opponents. “We have not played at the level that Spain can reach and we have to try to be better in the next game,” Torres said. “Spain has to return to her level.”
If it does, that unprecedented third straight tournament victory would be just two games away.