2018 FIFA World Cup: Tiki-taka meets its match in ‘bodies on the line’
Will football one day limit the number of defenders allowed behind, say, a quarter of the field’s length?
There were periods in the first half when you could see a line of six full backs in the Iranian defence, moving up and down in unison. All the tiki-taka artistry of Spain came to nought against such a wall. The Spanish forwards hardly got a shot at goal in 45 minutes. And if unfancied Iran can reduce the best exponents of tiki-taka to this, it raises questions not only about Spain but World Cup football itself.
When the dam finally broke in the second half, the breach came from a breakout move and not tiki-taka. The ball had been passed forward from the Iranian half but Andres Iniesta spotted an opportunity and darted back to seize possession. The speed with which he passed it through to Diego Costa caught the Iranians with their guard down. Even then, Costa had two defenders on him when he tried to turn and shoot—and it was a clearance from an Iranian boot that ricocheted off Costa’s knee into the goal.
How the game changed after that! From a frustrating exercise of trying to penetrate a massed defence, we saw waves of attacks on both sides in end-to-end football that made for an engrossing spectacle. Iran showed they had attacking flair when they chose to deploy it, and came close to equalising twice—a narrow offside caught by video review and a header just over the bar saved Spain. The deft touches and short passes in tiki-taka formation can be demoralising for an opponent that endures long stretches of running about without touching the ball. But if a team chooses from the very outset of the game to sit back in defence, as Iran did, the tables can be turned. The fluid, triangular formations that work so well in the midfield become disorganised when attackers are heavily outnumbered around the penalty box. Then the final thrust forward for the coup de grace is hard to deliver.
That’s why the role of Diego Costa will be crucial going forward, especially against defensive teams. The tall, muscular Spaniard is an antithesis to the small, slender, and agile tiki-taka masters like Iniesta and Xavi who won the World Cup for Spain in 2010. Teams have responded with defensive tactics since then, and so the power of Costa is now needed for the finish.
But he’s going to be heavily marked. What Spain need to complement the tiki-taka is a long range striker of the class of Cristiano Ronaldo. Nacho Fernandez showed promise with a breathtaking goal against Portugal.
Another possible tactic is the bullying defender Sergio Ramos pushing forward when he gets a chance against an ultra defensive team. We got a glimpse of that in the Iran game, but it’s fraught with risk because it leaves Spain vulnerable to the counter-attack.
Apart from the viability of tiki-taka, the larger question the Spain-Iran encounter raises is about football as a spectacle. The World Cup format is such that lesser teams like Iran come into the group stage happy to earn a draw against the likes of Spain. So the game is set up for stodgy defence.
If the defensive team gets a lucky break, it can even win—as Iran did against Morocco who dominated the game otherwise in terms of possession and shots on goal. The danger of counter-attack makes even the stronger team cautious.
If the point system—three for a win, one for a draw—provides some incentive to go for wins in the group stage, the lower ranked team is even more preordained towards defence in the knockout stage. Defence is easier to plan than attack which requires more skill and imagination. If it goes to a penalty shootout, it’s anybody’s game.
From a spectator’s point of view, there’s no doubt that attacking football should be incentivised. This is true of other sports as well. Cricket, for example, introduced field restrictions to encourage batsmen to go for shots to clear the infield instead of playing for singles and twos with most fielders deployed on the boundary.
Will football one day limit the number of defenders allowed behind, say, a quarter of the length of the field? Otherwise, Spanish tiki-taka, Brazilian Ginga, or the attacking midfielders of Germany that wowed spectators in the last World Cup will inevitably stumble against bodies on the line.
Sumit Chakraberty is an author and independent writer based in Bengaluru.