Monday, June 11, 2012

The solution for tiki-taka?

Starting elevens

Spain and Italy could not provide a better match for a football Sunday afternoon. Filled with great players, tactical nuances and good goals, this one was a treat for the eye. We were even presented with a seldom seen tactical battle - Spain with a false nine up against Italy with a three-man defense - that had many guessing if we were witnessing the birth of the answer to tiki-taka.

Italy's defensive positioning: three at the back (yellow), three in midfield (orange),
plus two wing-backs.
Spain opt for a striker-less system.

1. The Italian defense. With De Rossi sweeping up behind Chiellini and Bonucci, there was some curiosity about what the three centre-backs would do without the ball, since they would probably have no one to mark directly. Indeed, with Fàbregas often vacating the striker space for Silva and Iniesta's penetrations, it would seem three men at the back would be foolish. However, the Italian defense made a great case for themselves by doing three things:

  • When the ball came from the wings into the middle and a through ball appeared possible, De Rossi would push up to try and avoid the key pass - his back covered by Chiellini and Bonucci (plus one of the wing-backs).
  • By having a three-man defense, Italy weren't overly concerned with either passes over their heads or through balls (Spain's specialty and raison d'être).

Even with Navas (yellow) trying to stretch the play, the wing-back could protect the outside
and that side's centre-back could provide coverage without unbalancing the defense.
Giaccherini (the wing-back) follows the Spanish winger (yellow arrow).
Chiellini covers inside and  cuts the passing line (green arrow).

  • When possession was lost in midfield, Italy could afford to have one of their centre-backs move high up the field to stop Spain's quick transitions.
2. The Spanish defense. Spain didn't seem their usual selves - either by strategy or due to fatigue. With a team split in half between Barcelona and Real Madrid players, the defensive side of their game seemed a bit confusing. Spain used to be good at winning the ball back quickly, resting in possession of the ball afterwards. The back four seemed a bit afraid of moving up and minimising the space between the lines and it was clear that Busquets, Xavi and Xabi Alonso didn't have the necessary energy to do it. Besides, Italy's 3x5x2 meant that their wing-backs were picked up by Spanish full-backs, rather than their wingers - suddenly, the three Spanish midfielders had to divide their attention.

Without quick forwards or wingers, Spain's transitions were always likely to be slowed down, especially because neither Xavi or Xabi Alonso have it in them to motor up and down the field. With no pressure high up, Spain became predictable after winning the ball back.

3. The Italian attack. There were numerous interesting aspects in the Italian attacking phase. For instance, Cesare Prandelli's system could make for a broken team, with the two forwards detached from the rest of the team. On the contrary, Maggio and Giaccherini (deputising as left wing-back) provided clear routes to come out from the back and had the freedom to run almost at will. More importantly, Balotelli and Cassano (especially the latter) were critical in linking up both phases of Italy's game by dropping back or running into the space behind Spain's full-backs (busy with Italy's wing-backs).

The other relevant issue was how Italy bypassed Spain. The apparently obvious answer would be Pirlo, in his deep-lying midfielder position. Instead, it was De Rossi (out of his sweeper position) who orchestrated most attacks, shifted the ball around and dictated the tempo of the game. He was the second Italian player with the most touches (68 to Pirlo's 49), the best and most frequent passer of the ball and provided the most long balls (13 to Pirlo's 9) - all of it with an 85% passing accuracy (all statistics from

4. The Spanish attack. Spain kicked off these Euros much like the World Cup in 2010. By trying to make everyone as happy as possible and accommodate many of the midfielders (Silva, Iniesta, Fàbregas, Xavi Alonso and Xavi), Vicente Del Bosque made the same mistake as the first match in South Africa, against Switzerland. Once again Silva and Iniesta tended to drift inward and Fàbregas wasn't particularly effective on his false nine role, especially because there was no Messi or Aléxis Sánchez penetrating the space he had freed up.

Spain were missing an attacking reference.
Here there is only Iniesta trying to make the Italian defense uncomfortable.

Without Pedro Rodríguez, David Villa or Jesus Navas on the wings and without a striker to make short diagonals behind the defense, the midfield area was packed with Italian players and Buffon went almost untroubled, if it weren't for Spain's goal. 

Spain insisted on playing through the middle,
this time with no one making diagonal runs to meet Xavi or Alonso's key passes.

To make matters worse, Puyol's absence means that Sérgio Ramos plays as centre-back, not providing his usual surges upfield. Arbeloa is not that kind of player and Jordi Alba was quieter than expected, further worsening the Spanish woes. Fàbregas' goal was possibly the one time where Italy's defense were not quick enough to make the necessary adjustments - highlighting the importance of blind-side runs.

Iniesta (yellow) passes the ball to Silva and moves out wide, dragging his marker.
On the weak side, Fàbregas (blue) makes a run toward the box.
Giaccherini's positioning (orange) is poor, not tucking in to provide coverage. 
With De Rossi forced to meet Silva, Giaccherini's defensive coverage is already too late.

Torres ended up taking Fàbregas' place up front and, just like the World Cup, David Silva was once again sacrificed for width. Will Del Bosque make him go through the same and leave him out for next game? Will Torres (or Llorente) get the nod ahead of Xabi Alonso, for instance (Fàbregas' role is often understated, but his vertical movement from behind wreaks havoc for being unexpected)?

In conclusion, it was a wonderful match and one that left us yearning for the next installments of this tournament. Will the Euros set the stage for a tactical (mini-)revolution and will De Rossi revolutionise the sweeper position - following the footsteps of Beckenbauer or Matthäus? Is this the end of the road for tiki-taka?

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