Thursday, May 10, 2012

A rough year for tiki-taka

Starting elevens
Bilbao and Atlético Madrid met yesterday for an all-Spanish Europa League final. Even though Falcao stole the show and eliminated all doubt (if any) surrounding his worth by offering his team the cup on a silver platter, there is a broader issue to take into consideration: could this be the end of an era of passing football and the rebirth of catenaccio?

The match started off in a very lively fashion. It wasn't hard to envisage Bilbao playing and pressing high, but Atlético were by no means shyer and tried to stifle Bilbao in their build-up phase (something that Bilbao were clearly not expecting and for which they didn't seem to have a proper solution). With both wingers high up and just the back four and Iturraspe near the ball, the Basques were finding it very hard to bring the ball out from the back and, indeed, Atlético often managed to get the ball back in very dangerous positions with little defensive coverage from Marcelo Bielsa's men.

Up to Falcao's first goal, Atlético pressed high up, keeping Bilbao from playing out the back.

Atlético consistently forced Bilbao backwards and always had a player on Javi Martínez.

As seen here, Bilbao were a broken team, with acres between their lines,
repeatedly exposing themselves to risk.

After the first goal, the rojiblancos dropped back mainly for strategic reasons. First of all, it would be virtually impossible to keep up the initial pace and they were actually in front. Secondly, if there is one thing Bielsa's team is not so good at, it's pressing after giving the ball away, opening up numerous pockets of space for their opponent. With Diego, Turan and Adrián, Atlético were right where they wanted.

Atlético chose to sit back after the first goal, trying to break quickly after getting the ball back.
After the first goal, the match fell into a repetitive pattern, with Bilbao insisting on being (too) vertical and having little patience to open up their adversary, and Atlético retreating, attracting their opponent into the trap and then suddenly counter-attacking. Despite Falcao's goals, the man of the match award should go to Diego. The Brazilian, usually not very adept at defending, was brilliant in the way he was able to take up two defensive positions, effectively blocking Javi Martínez and Iturraspe, Bilbao's two engines.

When the ball got to Javi Martínez, Diego would get high up to meet him.

Five seconds later, Diego was marking Iturraspe.

In fact, Diego's display makes us wonder whether this is 1994 all over again. Back then, Barcelona was known as the Dream Team, led by Guardiola (on the field), on the back of their European Champions' Cup triumph in 1992. In 1994, they played Milan in the final and there were no doubts that the Italians would be crushed, except Fabio Capello's (yes, that Capello) men played a brilliant positional game and picked up the Spaniards' pockets by conceding them the majority of ball possession - setting the tone for almost a decade of sitting back, quick transitions and fast breakaways.

In this year, we have seen several teams that favour an intricate passing style being outfoxed by teams in a defensive 4x4x1x1; the examples of Barcelona, Bilbao, Manchester City, et al, immediately spring to mind. Are we witnessing the end of a cycle? Will this year's Euro confirm the tendency and see Spain going out in flames to a defensive-minded team with two banks of four?

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