Spain’s tiki-taka era may be over, but its legacy remains divided

Spain’s run of 136 competitive games with more ball possession than their rival – going back 16 years to the 2008 European Championship final – has finally come to an end.

Croatia had 53 percent of the ball in the opening match of Group B for the 2024 European Championship on Saturday, but Luis de la Fuente’s side won 3-0.

It’s tempting to see the end of that incredible statistical run as a shame, especially as it included historic victories for Spain at the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship.

Instead, many inside and outside the Spanish camp celebrated the loss of possession to Croatia as the long-awaited modernization of an outdated and increasingly unpopular style of play.

Since taking charge of Spain after the 2022 World Cup, De la Fuente has talked a lot about making his team more ‘vertical’ or direct. It has been a theme during media appearances in the run-up to this tournament in Germany, with player after player saying they would avoid possession for the sake of possession.

“The philosophy has always been the same, but each coach has his own accents,” said Spain and Manchester City midfielder Rodri The Athletics in the country’s pre-tournament camp. “(De la Fuente) wants to be more direct and always use ball possession to damage the opponent. You have to change the chip (our approach).”

Luis de la Fuente has spoken of his desire to make Spain more direct (Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

That certainly seemed to be the case against Croatia. Spain’s opening goal came from a counter-attack, with Fabian Ruiz producing a quick pass to release Alvaro Morata for a cool finish. Goals from Fabian and Dani Carvajal, involving Lamine Yamal, ensured that the result was decided at half-time.

De la Fuente attributed that clinical start to the profile of the side’s attacking players, including 16-year-old Barcelona star Yamal and Athletic Bilbao winger Nico Williams, 21.

“If we have players with the pace of Lamine, Nico, Ferran (Torres) or Ayoze (Perez), there is no point in not using those options,” the coach said. “We are very dangerous in these types of situations.”

Many heralded the result as the start of a new era for Spain, making them more dangerous and more likely tournament winners. Some said the era of “tiki-taka” was finally over.

The term became closely associated with Pep Guardiola’s 2008-2012 Barcelona team and Spain’s 2008 European Championship triumph under coach Luis Aragones. Their style of play became more evident under his successor Vicente del Bosque, who tried to put as many ball-playing midfielders on the pitch as possible, including Barça trio Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi.

That Spanish team smothered their opponents with possession and often won games by a narrow margin. At the 2010 World Cup they won each of their knockout games 1-0, and did the same in the final against the Netherlands, where they controlled 63 percent of the ball in 120 minutes.

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When striker David Villa was injured ahead of Euro 2012, Del Bosque decided to use midfielder Cesc Fabregas as a false nine. Fans and pundits questioned the move, but it worked: Spain won a third consecutive international trophy, beating Italy 4–0 in the final with 52 percent possession.

Despite Spain’s unprecedented success, their playing style remained the subject of fierce debate. Del Bosque himself felt they needed to evolve and become more direct, calling up rampaging centre-forward Diego Costa, born in Brazil, for the 2014 World Cup.

All their coaches since then – including Julen Lopetegui, Fernando Hierro, Luis Enrique and Robert Moreno – have talked about ‘modernising’ Spain by adding ‘verticality’ and attacking speed. But their teams continued to dominate possession, as the graph below shows.

Spain’s opponents knew the best way to beat them was to sit deep, absorb the pressure and hit them on the break or take a chance on set pieces. That led to some of the biggest embarrassments in the country’s football history.

In the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup against hosts Russia, Hierro’s side had 79 percent possession, took 23 shots, but scored just once before being eliminated on penalties. At the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Luis Enrique’s team recorded a 77 percent mark against Morocco in the last 16, but managed one shot on target in a goalless 120 minutes and lost 3–0 in the resulting shootout.

La Roja were eliminated from the 2022 World Cup on penalties by Morocco (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

On Saturday, Croatian midfield trio Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic tried to exert control by retaining possession.

This statistic was not the only one that Croatia ‘won’ in the ninety minutes. Zlatko Dalic’s team had more shots (16, five on target) than Spain (11, five on target). They beat expected goals (xG) by 2.38 to 2.01, helped by the late penalty awarded to Spain after a defensive mess involving goalkeeper Unai Simon and Rodri.

The tiki-taka debate has led to strange scenes in recent years. In September 2013, Barcelona fans and pundits heavily criticized then-coach Gerardo Martino for his team ‘losing’ possession against Rayo Vallecano – even though they had won 4–0.

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On the other hand, there were those who were bored or even upset by Spain’s dominance in ball possession. Certain commentators have labeled it as ‘woke’ within the wider culture wars in various parts of society. On social media, some celebrated the World Cup’s departure to Russia and Morocco as if it vindicated their broader political views.

De la Fuente has yet to be asked about those connections and has tended to stick to football in his public appearances – taking special care to avoid anything to do with disgraced former Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales .

But everyone within the Spanish national team is well aware that dominating possession and closing out tournaments is not popular with anyone. De la Fuente and his players are keen to prevent this from happening again and know that speaking publicly about the change in style suits them.

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Note the gap: Yes, Spain won 3-0, but they left way too much space between the lines

However, no one should get too carried away as this Spanish team is still full of ball players, especially the three midfielders of Rodri, Fabian and Pedri.

Spain had averaged 68 percent possession in their matches under De la Fuente before Saturday, even as he added new wingers and talked about a different approach. They might have more possession against Italy tonight (Thursday) and they are also likely to win possession against Albania on Monday. Although they would like it if more opponents brought the game to them in the same way as Croatia.

“We are a team with a lot of playing possibilities,” De la Fuente said. “Our rivals know that we can hurt them with possession, with positional attacks built on a lot of passing, or also – if they give us the chance – that we will run very quickly.”

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(Top photo: Sebastian Christoph Gollnow/photo alliance via Getty Images)

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