The Spanish football team did not have a pleasant history. A solitary European Championship win in a four-team tournament in 1964 was overshadowed by years of underachievement by a team that always fell short to match the sum of its parts.
Their reputation was further tarnished by the rather inelegant style of play the national teams adopted over the years. Thanks to a physical and non-elaborate approach, the Spanish football team earned nicknames like La Furia Roja or the Red Fury, Los Toros meaning the fighting bulls.
Spain’s football was all about feeding the balls to its wingers who would attempt to find the twin forwards with a barrage of crosses. It was a direct approach that yielded the team little success and very few admirers.
It all changed in 2008 when Spain led by a new crop of gifted technical footballers embarked on a journey of global domination winning back-to-back European Championships in 2008 and 2012 that sandwiched a first World Cup triumph in 2010.
As unparalleled as the feat was in international football, Spain’s success between 2008 and 2012 was as much about its outcome as it was about the manner in which it was achieved.
Coached first by Luis Aragones in 2008 and later by Vicente del Bosque in 2010 and 2012, Spain mastered tiki-taka football, a tactical system that revolutionised modern football. Characterised by an obsession with keeping possession of the football and using short, quick passes and movement to unlock opponent defences, Spain mesmerised the world with an exhibition of artistic, technical football that had rarely been orchestrated on the international stage.
Tiki-taka was defined by writer Sid Lowe in his piece for The Guardian as “the nonsensical phrase that has come to mean short passing, patience and possession above all else”. The style of football had its roots in the Schalke team of the 1930s and ‘40s, the Dutch team that adopted the total football philosophy in the 1970s and also the Romania team that played a tweaked version of this possession-based system in 1970.
Its influence on Spanish football predominantly came through a batch of Dutch coaches led by Johan Cryuff, Louis van Gaal and later Frank Rijkaard who coached FC Barcelona and instilled the principles of total football at the club and its academy La Masia.
Thus by 2006 when national team coach Aragones was running out of ways to make Spain successful in big tournaments, he decided to abandon the direct and physical style of the old and implement a more non-direct and technical approach that suited the players at his hand. It was rather by force than by choice that the foundations of tiki-taka were laid.
Euro 2008 - Possession as a defensive tool
With the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas, who all excelled in possession-based systems, available to him to play behind a striking partnership of David Villa and Fernando Torres, Aragones adopted possession and passing as the team’s most important tools.
But defence had always been Spain’s Achilles Heel and it was no different by the time they made it to Euro 2008. And with so many technical players packed in the team, Aragones had to strike the right balance. The addition of Marcos Senna made it possible. A traditional defensive midfielder with a very high work rate allowed Spain’s technical players to show their magic. Xavi held it all together, the likes of Silva, Iniesta and Fabregas provided the killer pass and one of Villa or Torres finished it off.
The technical players mean it was very hard for opponents to take the ball off Spain. However, due to the lack of defensive strength, Spain did not press too heavily. For them, possession was a defensive tool to avoid turnovers and retain the shape. The team shuttled between a 4-4-2 and a 4-5-1 to dominate opponents and eventually carve them open thanks to the abundance of attacking riches at their dispoal.
Fifa World Cup 2010 - Tiki-taka and total control
Come 2010, Aragones had left his position and Senna was out of the team. It gave Del Bosque a problem to solve. He did so by tweaking the system that his predecessor had implemented but didn’t change the principles.
But instead of one holding midfielder, Del Bosque went with a double pivot of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso. The two players weren’t as physically blessed as Senna but were excellent passers of the ball. So it gave Spain a lot more control of the ball in the central area of the pitch. Their average possession in the 2010 World Cup rose to 55% from 50% in the 2008 Euro.
However, the double pivot meant that Spain had to do without their twin forwards. Pedro Rodrigues, a young player who had thrived in a similar system at Barcelona, was brought in essentially to provide more width to the attack.
With one of only Villa and Torres playing, Spain couldn’t score too many goals and netted just seven times in eight games at the World Cup but barely allowed their opponents a sniff. They controlled games thanks to their tiki-taka football that by then had caught the imagination of world football. Spain’s World Cup triumph further rubberstamped the effectiveness of the system.
Euro 2012 - The false nine and 4-6-0 formation
But by 2012, the tiki-taka had faced its version of setbacks. Barcelona’s marauding winning machine had faltered and with Spain going into Euro 2012 without an in-form striker meant there were fears that they would follow the same route.
Del Bosque had a big task on his hands but he came up with an emphatic answer, albeit an unusual one.
Spain deployed a false nine, essentially a midfielder playing in the striker’s position that drops deep to receive the ball. The 4-6-0 formation that consisted of a back four and six technically gifted midfielders was bewildering at the start. It made Spain’s football a bit dull to watch as they hogged possession more than ever without threatening all the time. Their tournament average was 59%. The key though was patience and movement. Spain would keep passing the ball until a gap opened up where a midfield runner was always willing to exploit it.
This hexagonal attacking system was so fluid that it became impossible for opponent defenders to mark their players. With the player playing as the false nine dropping deep, it brought defenders out of their positions allowing others to use it to their advantage.
Spain epitomised this new system in a 4-0 thrashing of Italy in the final of Euro 2012 that was the crowning glory for their tiki-taka brand of football.
La Roja haven’t won an international title since this triumph and have now moved away from the tiki-taka brand of football as a lot of technical players that made this system so successful have retired.
But in those five years from 2008 to 2012, no international team could match Spain’s dominance. The golden generation of Spanish football has gone down in history as one of the greatest teams to ever play the sport and their system of tiki-taka football will be a case study for coaches, players and enthusiasts for years to come.
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