World Cup Update: Tiki-taka moves north

Spain’s quick elimination from this year’s World Cup brought pronouncements that their style of play — known as tiki-taka, which features short passing and maintaining possession around the perimeter of the opponent’s goal — is dead. This article in the Wall Street Journal, proclaiming the triumph of “fast break” soccer, is a good example.

But it may that taki-taka isn’t dead, but has just moved north — specifically to Germany.

In its group stage game against the U.S. and in today’s knock-out match against Algeria, the Germans eschewed their customary direct, dynamic attacking style in favor of short passes and possession. It worked against the U.S. — indeed, it produced the dominant but low-scoring victory that characterized Spain’s fantastic run of success during the past six years.

Against Algeria, though, the Germans were poor practitioners of tiki-taka. Too often they failed to maintain possession, which gave rise to extremely dangerous Algerian counterattacks. And even when they kept possession, they failed to find the killer passes that would break Algeria down.

Consequently, they did not score in regulation time, though they managed to win 2-1 in extra time.

Germany’s embrace of tiki-taka is probably no coincidence. Typically, as many as six of the national team’s starting 11 play their club football for Bayern Munich. And Bayern is now coached by Pep Guardiola, a Spaniard who previously coached Barcelona. Using tiki-taka, and led by key members of the Spanish national team, Barca achieved massive success under Guardiola. Now, he has successfully imported something close to this system to Germany.

Can the German national team ride tiki-taka to World Cup glory? Maybe. But this style seems to require not just good technical players, which Germany has in abundance, but true “pass masters” like Xavi and Iniesta who, in their prime, were almost impossible to take the ball from.

It also seems to require excellent attacking fullbacks who can push deep into the attacking zone and serve as outlets when things become too congested in the middle. Jerome Boateng played that role pretty well against the U.S. However, he was called into service today as a center back (due to an injury to Mats Hummels), and his replacement (former Everton reserve Shkodran Mustafi) was woeful.

Tiki-taka also requires two fast, talented center backs to cover for the fullbacks and central midfielders when the ball turns over and cannot quickly be won back. Without Hummels, the Germans came up short in this department too, forcing goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to serve, in effect, as an extra center back. Had he been a half step slower when racing well up the field, Germany might have conceded three goals in regulation time.

Spain’s demise in this tournament came at the hands of Holland and Chile. Both teams used a 3-5-2 formation. In fact, Holland switched to this set-up just to counter Spain.

Germany is unlikely to face a 3-5-2 team. But against Algeria, it struggled to break down what looked like a pretty conventional 4-3-2-1 played by a team of no great distinction.

If there’s a bright spot for Germany, it’s the fact that it can play both the possession game and the more direct style, as it did in the 2-2 draw against Ghana and when it scored the go-ahead goal today against Algeria. It just needs to play both better than it has no far.

The real keys are probably getting Hummels healthy and back on the field, finding the optimal fullback pairing, and striking the right balance in attack between precision players and power players.

Next up is France, which also struggled today, but is likely to pose the sternest test Germany has faced so far in the tournament.

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