11 June 2012

Olé España, Olé Tiki-Taka!

Well, the French and the English clash tonight; but apart from these two nations I have seen just about everybody who matters in Euro 2012, currently being played in Poland and the Ukraine. My crystal ball tells me a final between Spain – the defending World and European champion – and either the Dutch or the Germans.

There is only one way to describe the way the Spaniards play: utter joy! How the Spaniards go about their business nonchalantly knocking the ball around the park is in every coach’s training ground routine: neat triangles and quick one- or two-touch passing.

Simple enough when you give it a moment of thought; but immeasurable difficult to achieve when players invariably fall to the pressure of competitive matches.

The Spaniards call their neat rapid-fire passing tiki-taka, a football philosophy based on patience, on holding onto possession, of playing the ball to feet and of waiting for just the clear-cut opportunities to play the killer forward passes.

Theoretically, a team that holds onto possession of the ball cannot be beaten. It goes without saying – albeit again theoretically – that any team that has more of the ball is in less danger of losing. After all, the opponent needs the ball to score.

Then again, by quickly moving the ball all over the field, the opponent is continually being forced to adjust and readjust its defensive shape to cope with the perpetual movement.

It is during these readjustments that spaces inevitably appear; and sometimes from sheer loss of concentration on the part of certain players, particularly when they get tired in the endgame.

As a finished product, the way the Spaniards play looks remarkably simple. It is anything but.

Passing the ball over ten yards is a mundane enough skill that even 10-year old kids are capable of. Passing the ball in limited space in an actual match, however, requires composure on the part of the player who has the ball. For a team to enjoy as much possession as Spain does, it goes without saying that all players are comfortable in possession.

This is not always the case even among professional teams.

Of course, for the passing to be that simple, the man on the ball needs support from teammates at all times. This is where work ethic comes in, because supporting the man on the ball requires an awful lot of work on the part of all the players.

So maybe Antonio di Natale’s goal for Italy meant that Spain did not have it all its own way. That said, the Italian lead lasted for no more than three minutes as Cesc Fabregas soon restored parity.

And this was Italy being made to look like a Sunday park team, mind! Yes, a four-time world champion. Had Fernando Torres been anything like his old self, the Spaniards would have won quite comfortably, indeed!

I would not read too much into the Dutch losing to the Danes. The Dutch were almost as fluent as the Spaniards and would have won comfortably if Robin van Persie was not doing his best to do a Fernando Torres impersonation.

The Germans managed a workmanlike 1-nil victory over the Portuguese; but it was no more than that, workmanlike. As ever, German tenacity was again evident; but somehow missing was the swagger that brought them to the semi-finals of the World Cup in South Africa.

The next game for the Dutch and the Germans will be against each other; and if this game is not tricky, then I do not know what it is.

Lose and the Dutch will become tourists admiring the Polish landscape. If they win, the group becomes complicated. Personally, I am counting on both countries to go through to the next stage.

The Russians also looked neat in their 3-1 win over the Czech Republic. I do not think, however, that their defence was anywhere near as tenacious as the Germans or even the Dutch, for that matter.

Besides, the Czechs looked frightfully ordinary; so I will reserve judgement on the Russians until after I see them play against a stronger team. For the record, the Russians were semi-finalists in 2008; so there will be no surprise on my part if they make it that far again.

Of course, the European Championships are quite unlike the World Cup in that rank outsiders have been known to actually win it from seemingly out of nowhere. The Danes did it in 1992 after actually having failed to qualify; and were drafted in to replace Yugoslavia. Then eight years ago, Greece against all odds was crowned champion after defeating the Portuguese on their own turf.

It is early days yet, and form in tournaments like this changes on a game-to-game basis. This early, though, the Spaniards are already looking like a well-oiled machine.

[I have always been an England supporter; and this is probably the first time in decades that an England team flew out to a tournament with expectations at home quite low because of injuries to key players. Dare the English actually do well? Come on, England!]

Steven Gerrard, Loss of Form and Shankly’s Tenets
The World Cup




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