Note: I recognise that the term “tiki taka” is a contentious one these days. And while it has a broader meaning than just Barcelona’s play under Pep Guardiola, it is nevertheless a term that conjures up images of that period. So forgive its use – for want of a better term.
When Barcelona eased to a 3-1 win over Manchester United at Wembley to secure the 2010/11 Champions League trophy, there was a sense that we were watching a football revolution.
Pep Guardiola’s Catalans had won the world’s most prestigious club tournament with a brand of football that looked set to change the way the game was played. But it now seems clear that we while we did witness something extraordinary, it didn’t quite amount to a football sea change.
The tiki taka style displayed by Barca of four years ago actually had Dutch roots, being initially developed by the succession of Dutch managers – Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard – at the Camp Nou.
All played a part in developing the quick, short passing possession game in the club’s La Masia academy that was instrumental in producing a generation of technically brilliant ball players who excelled at possession football.
Guardiola with his visionary coaching and a squad that boasted Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta lifted tiki taka to incredible heights.
With their high defensive line, fluid positional interchanges, intensive high press, jaw dropping ball recovery and retention, and high order game intelligence – Barca appeared to redefine football.
An approach that allowed both control of the ball and the opponent – surely everyone would be forced to follow?
Some tried. Spain, unsurprisingly given the overlap in personnel, followed suit in the international game – with resounding success.
Closer to home, Brendan Rodgers had a deal of success with the tiki taka style at Swansea, success that saw him get the Anfield hotseat.
Meanwhile back in Catalonia, many believed Barca’s approach could dominate European football for years to come based on a production line of identikit players out of La Masia who, the theory went, would seamlessly support and then replace Messi, Xavi and co.
But only four years on, the revolution has rather evaporated. There are still elements of it present at the Camp Nou and elsewhere, but nothing close to the smothering brilliance we saw at Wembley in 2011. So what happened?
For me, there were two issues. Firstly, the technical and physical requirements of Barca’s game were ultimately too difficult to replicate.
And secondly, despite initial hopes that the club could coach successive generations of the required player types, it subsequently became clear that Barcelona’s success ultimately owed much to the presence of a once-off trio of football greats – Messi, Xavi and Iniesta – whose careers happened to coincide in the right time and the right place under the right manager.
Of the three, it was Xavi who was really the key.
The Guardian’s Barney Ronay captured the playmaker beautifully in his obituary of the Spanish World Champions as they exited the 2014 World Cup, describing him as the spider at the centre of the web.
Genuinely, I don’t think there’s ever been a playmaker with his ability to control a game.
The proof of his importance to Barcelona and Spain’s success came with his decline, for with it went their dominance.
In fact, as his legs and lungs began to diminish, so too did the ability of both teams to impose their game on opponents.
Evidence, perhaps, that it’s the players who ultimately dictate the system. More evidence can be found in Guadiola’s attempts to impose the same style of play at Bayern Munich.
Yes, the Bavarians have maintained their dominance of the German game.
But it has been in Europe where the limitations of the tiki taka style became clear – or rather the limitations without the right kinds of players.
Pep’s stubborn belief in the approach was at the heart of Bayern’s Champions League demolitions at the hands of Real Madrid and Barca in the last two seasons.
Bayern have wonderfully talented players, but not the right kinds of players to replicate what we saw from Pep’s Xavi inspired Barcelona.
It’s interesting that in what is set to be his last season in charge of the German champions that Guardiola appears to have moved to a more direct, indeed more conventional, game more in tune with his current crop of players.
It’s also worth underlining that the turnaround in fortune experienced by Luis Enrique at the Camp Nou last season revolved around his realisation that Xavi could no longer deliver.
Replacing him with Ivan Rakitic and changing to a more conventional game built on quick, often long vertical balls to Luis Suarez, Messi and Neymar was key in the club returning to the top of the European game.