“It’s tiki-taka. But nothing is happening.”
That’s not a quote from Mick McCarthy, Neil Warnock or your grandfather watching the game in the pub, but Cesc Fabregas. That’s Cesc Fabregas, La Masia graduate. That’s Cesc Fabregas, who played extensively for Barcelona and Arsenal, two of the most famously possession-heavy teams in recent history. That’s Cesc Fabregas, who has won three major trophies with Spain playing this style. If anyone knows tiki-taka, it is him.
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka,” as Pep Guardiola said in 2017. “It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal. It’s not about passing for the sake of it.” He is the manager most famously associated with the style, denouncing it.
But tiki-taka, at its best, is not passing for its own sake. It is quick, accurate passing and movement, drawing defenders out of position and exploiting the space that creates. Fabregas and Guardiola are describing a supermarket own-brand version of the genuine product. Done badly, and tiki-taka ends in the sterile domination that allows weaker opposition to gain a foothold. It also erodes goodwill amongst your own supporters.
Spain, humiliated at the last World Cup, will feel little better in 2018. They have been eliminated by the lowest-ranked in the tournament, the hosts reaching their first quarter-final since 1970. This defeat, to a team who barely bothered to attack them but still held Spain at arm’s length, will have repercussions that go beyond one performance. An inspection of Spanish football’s modern identity may soon take place.