Nauseating, isn’t it? Unwise too.
That’s what happened to Spain, who tiki-taka’ed their way out of the World Cup in a Sunday surfeit of penalties. The 2010 champions booked a plane ride back home instead of a quarter-final berth in the World Cup.
The absence of playmaker Andres Iniesta in the starting lineup was the first indication that the Spanish think-tank was taking the match a little bit for granted. Were they saving the aging legs of the maestro for bigger battles ahead?
As it transpired, Russia proved once again the folly of underestimating the adrenaline rush of patriotic fervour that powers host teams to victory against the odds. David slayed Goliath in Moscow.
The lowest-ranked team among the 32 that qualified for this World Cup, Russia had no illusions about what it had to do against Spain. Burrow deep into the trenches and stop the Spanish attacks.
Strangely, there was no sign of attack from Spain. Instead, the Spanish team was playing a game of tiki-taka in midfield, perhaps hoping to go on a stealth attack after the Russians fell asleep.
The principle behind possession football is that the opponents can’t score if they don’t get the ball. But that becomes absurd if the rival team has neither the skill nor the will to go on the offensive. The whole of Russia was praying for the game to go to a penalty shootout where their captain Igor Akinfeev would have an edge over Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea who had fumbled a straight shot from Cristiano Ronaldo in their World Cup opener.
That plan went awry when veteran Russian defender Sergei Ignashevich turned his back on the ball to wrestle his Spanish counterpart Sergio Ramos to stop him from getting to a cross. The wily Ramos pulled Ignashevich toward himself, and in falling forward the Russian backheeled the ball into his own goal. It was a far cry from the Spanish tiki-taka goals of yore, but it would do.
Russia’s tall, burly forward Artyom Dzyuba had other ideas, heading the ball into an ill-advised upraised arm of Gerard Pique off a corner kick for a penalty. With 140 million Russian hearts beating nervously with his own, Dzyuba slammed in the equaliser minutes before half-time. Ajuba!
The break was an opportune time for Spain to rethink their tactics. The tiki-taka in the middle was just consuming time, with the Russians happy to sit back in defence. The few forays forward were running into an iron curtain. Spain needed to go on all-out attack and it could afford to do that against a team that looked far from threatening even in counter-attack.
But there was no sign of Iniesta even after half-time. When he finally came on after the 60th minute, we began to see offensive tiki-taka with darting passes forward. It was too late, however, and this was after all only a shadow of the tiki-taka that won the World Cup in 2010, and the European championships of 2008 and 2012.
There was no Xavi to complement Iniesta. The other veteran of tiki-taka, David Silva, made way for Iniesta to come in. The upcoming Isco has the ball skills but not the short-passing magic that would let Spain waltz into the Russian goal as in the past.
In the event, it turned out to be too little, too late. Spain’s best chance was to come out with Iniesta when everyone had fresh legs at the start, and take the game into the Russian penalty box more frequently without worrying about losing possession. Maybe the five goals that an aging Spanish defence let in at the group stage made them conservative. But that, and an underestimation of Russia, proved fatal.
The Spanish tactics inevitably renew the debate over whether the plot was lost at the very outset when the coach, Julen Lopetegui, was sacked a day before the World Cup. The Spanish football federation boss, Luis Rubiales, decided it was unacceptable that Lopetegui was moving to Real Madrid right after the World Cup (and unbearable that he had been informed of this only minutes before it became public).
Lopetegui’s replacement, Fernando Hierro, one of Spain’s best defenders in his playing days, had been a coach for only a year with second division side Real Oviedo. He had been appointed the sporting director of the federation, which was more of an administrative job. Now, suddenly, he was thrust into the role of national coach. “I came in a suit, I’ll leave in a tracksuit," he said.
Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that the former Spanish defender had little clue about how to fashion a tiki-taka attack. He will get time to work that out on the plane to Spain.
Sumit Chakraberty is an author and independent writer based in Bengaluru.