Small pitches, big ideas

Joel Lumsden of Powerleague UK looks a how Euro 2012 affects 5 a side tactics.

Tiqui-taca and Spanish possession

The short, sharp, high-pressing and one- or two-touch football known to us as tiki-taka characterises the game played by the two most successful teams of our era: Barcelona and Spain. Who’d have thought just a few years ago that sweaty men with beer bellies, playing in the Wednesday evening Summer drizzle, would now be trying to replicate this very Spanish style?

From Catalunya with love

Barcelona under Pep Guardiola are the blueprint for the tiki-taka approach, winning 14 senior titles in just four years and creating an aura of near invincibility until Chelsea somehow managed to nullify them, however fortunately.

This successful approach translated to the international scene with Spain, with the fulcrum of the Barcelona midfield-passing ‘merry go round’ – Xavi, Iniesta and latterly Busquets – working their magic alongside similarly technically-talented midfield passers such as Marcos Senna, Xabi Alonso and David Silva, with Barcelona goalscoring extraordinaire Pedro also added into the mix.

The high-pressing possession approach found favour with subsequent La Furia Roja (The Red Fury) managers Luis Aragones and Vicente del Bosque, with each manager adding their slight variations and tweaks to the theme.

From big to small

Spain’s approach has, to an extent, been a case of technique triumphing over size and physicality. This classic battle of brains vs brawn is very familiar to participants of Powerleague five a side games: a strong physical advantage can lead to domination of the small playing surface, while quick feet and high skill levels can light up a game and overcome any opponent.

For many years the physical approach seemed to dominate in UK five a side leagues, mimicking the Sunday league approach of grit and aggression. Without wanting to revert to predictable stereotypes, it has been somewhat crassly suggested that the blood-and-thunder approach in the UK reflects our national persona with the more cultured, smooth approach of the Spanish reflecting the Mediterranean style. Further to that, there is even a stereotype of the football getter ‘rougher’ the further north you travel away from cosmopolitan London.

Strong fives players are able to effectively hold onto and shield the ball, win 50-50 challenges, tire out their opponents and exert their physicality onto the game, with an aggressive approach sometimes helping to demotivate and ‘scare’ the opposition.

While skilful players in the five a side game will never suffer from the ‘wet night in Stoke’ approach of high balls, headers and crunching challenges due to the head-height and non-slide-challenges restrictions, overcoming the challenge of physical players is tough.

Perhaps it is a consequence of the Premier League, Soccer Am Showboat era, but it’s no longer frowned upon to try tricks and flicks; silky skills are not derided or seemingly mistrusted and the five a side game has started to edge in similarity towards the Futsal-style small-sided game that helps hone the skills of so many South American and Mediterranean players.

More midfielders please

The importance of the midfield control, through possession and a high pressing line, in the Spanish model is paramount and provides an interesting parallel to fives football. Spain have shown in Euro 2012 that it’s possible to play, and win, without a recognised striker, and this flexibility of movement in the attacking half is what we’ve seen more and more five a side teams trying to achieve.

Spain aim to keep possession fairly high in the opponent’s third of the pitch (see the analysis by FourFourTwo StatZone) which if achieved in five a side can lead to many goalscoring opportunities thanks to the wider goals and reduced shooting distance.

Barcelona and Spain have perfected the ‘three point’ passing move to create opportunities and space. It’s effectively a three person one-two, with the first player passing to a teammate in front, who lays off to a third player, who then finds the run of the first player that has continued past the second player. When done quickly, as Spain undoubtedly can, it’s devastating and great at losing markers.

The technique has proven to be ideal in five a side, where often only a yard of space is required to get a shot away. The quick passing move can disrupt even the tightest marking defence and lead to goals just like it does for Pedro, Jesus Navas and Iniesta in the big game.

A timely counter

Despite this fondness for the possession game, Arsene Wenger has a warning. Speaking to FourFourTwo magazine he says, “If you watch five-a-side, most goals will come from a quick burst upfield. One or two passes and then shoot. It is the teams that have too much of the ball and are playing too many passes amongst themselves that have the least success. Be quick, be ruthless and you’ll be successful.”

This is certainly a criticism of Spain, especially when they lack a striking focal point like the clinical David Villa or are relying on a misfiring Fernando Torres.

Come the end of Euro 2012 we may see the fallacy of the tiki-taka approach, or we may just have to get used to calling it ‘el Powerleague’.


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Author info

Joel is a world football fanatic with a particular passion for the finer things, like silky passing and a fancy backheel.  He writes for Powerleague five a side centres, who have 44 centres across the UK.

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