Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Greatest Soccer Team Ever

It's very rare to watch history in the making, and much rarer to realize that in real time. I think the time has come to declare just that.

About 6 years ago, the Spanish National Football team made a crucial decision. Having realized their inability to out-muscle their opponents, they decided to adopt a playing style that has now come to be known as "Tiki-Taka". This style was not their invention - some credit goes to the Barcelona team during the early 90s under the super-successful manager and a legendary player himself - Johan Cruyff. It has been evolving since then. The Barcelona team under Josep Guardiola (a pupil of Johan Cryuff) and the Spaniards just took it to the level of absolute perfection. There is a significant overlap between the rosters of Barcelona and the Spain National Football team, and the playing styles are nearly identical.

The Dutch made "Total Football" famous and highly effective in the seventies. In this style, the players can switch positions and reliance on specialists is reduced. Barcelona's "Tiki-Taka" takes this basic idea even further and adds more elements to it. In this system, the players can be physically small, as long as they are technically talented and exceptionally fit. They make quick passes to each other, with just one or two touches before passing. It requires exceptional team coordination, vision and space awareness. A typical pattern in this system is triangulation, where 3 players keep advancing field position while passing ball to one another. Others join in as needed to make new triangles.

But the style is just a technicality if it isn't successful. Barcelona has won 15 titles under Guardiola, and Spain just became the first country to ever win 3 consecutive titles - Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and now Euro 2012. And of course, success of the style depends on the caliber of the players as well.

The relationship is mutual. This style has created a generation of great Spanish players and the continued success of the style depends on their greatness. Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Fabregas, Silva, Torres, Pedro - the list is endless. In Euro 2012, they were without Puyol and David Villa - and they still won. This combination of individual talent and a great style, has been a perfect match. Hence, I have no hesitation in claiming that we are indeed watching THE greatest national soccer team ever.

Such claims are often met with skepticism. What about Brazil with Pele, or the Dutch team of 70s ? Comparing players across generations is hard, comparing teams is even harder. What is great about Spanish team today, is that it is not dependent on some key players - rather it depends on having many players that play the system exceptionally well. Surely, Xavi has been the architects on many attacks - but the success doesn't just depend on him. Messi makes Barcelona the ultimate club team ever, but he is not part of the Spanish team. That's the point. Spain doesn't need a Pele or a Maradona or a Platini or a Zidane. There is no one player without whom the whole edifice will collapse.

A key idea of the system is to keep possession at all times. In many games, Spain has possession for 70% of the time, and routinely complete 500+ passes every game (with 80%) accuracy. If your opponents do not get the ball, how will they score ?

This style of play also generates criticism. Spain's goal margin in wins is often 1-0. People find the game slow, some go as far as calling it boring. I can see why they might feel it that way. But I find their play mesmerizing. It's like watching an intricately choreographed ballet. Elegance and precision are two words often used to describe their play.

What's remarkable is this style is not a secret. Other teams have been studying them, trying to copy some of their ideas, but more importantly figuring out ways to defeat them. Neither Spain, nor Barcelona is invincible. Chelsea has had success against Barcelona. But overall, both Spain and Barcelona have maintained their position at the peak for a long time. This playing style, and the physique of current players makes the long crosses and headers a bit rare. Very few players are over 6 feet. I don't mind that.

You cannot defeat them because you cannot take away the ball from them, and if you get the ball, you cannot score a goal against them. That's true. Often during the Tiki Taka talk, what gets little mention is Spain's defense. In the entire Euro 2012, Spain played more games than everyone else except Italy, but there was just one goal scored against them. Just ONE. This was when their main defender Puyol could not play the tournament due to an injury. Think about it. Victor Valdez is considered to be the best goalkeeper Barcelona has ever had. And he is a reserve for Spanish team, because current goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas is on track to be called one of the greatest goalkeepers ever. Spain's coach has the reverse problem - who to keep on the bench ! The talent pool is very deep.

No matter what you think of this being the greatest team ever, it's beyond doubt that Spain and Barcelona have redefined Soccer. And this happened in last 5 years. Many great teams have come and gone, many more will surely come in future. But very rarely a team is credited for starting a new School of Soccer playing. I consider myself to be absolutely lucky to have watched Spain - and in particular Barcelona play. It has been a pure joy. Thank you Spain, thank you Barcelona !

Here is a very nice video explaining this style of play - not goal scoring, just passing.


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