Counter attacking is one of the most deployed tactics in the modern game. Nearly every team uses some form of a counter-attacking approach after regaining possession. Some teams specifically implement this tactic in a more systematic, rigorous manner; while others simply set up with the type of players, formation or style of play that is conducive to quick attacking transitions. What cannot be understated however, is how modern-day versions of counter-attacking could not have evolved to such a great extent, without the maturation and long-standing success of tiki-taka football and the countless hours managers like Jose Mourinho would have spent scrutinizing over how to stop it from becoming the most prevalent method of playing in world football.
For a while, tiki taka, highlighted by the intricate triangles created in Spain’s Xavi-Iniesta years, prevailed as the dominating tactic of the beautiful game. However, with Spain’s struggles in recent tournaments and the much talked about “possession without purpose” that has haunted many teams in recent modern day matches, I pronounce the death of tiki taka.
WHAT WAS TIKI TAKA?Embed from Getty Images
Before its slow death, tiki-taka was a Spanish style of play characterized by short triangular movements and passing. Essentially, teams would work the ball from left to right through a combination of sideways, backwards and coordinated passes in between lines. Teams like Spain and Barcelona who deployed this tactic would maintain possession for the purpose of opening up angles to in theory progress forward at the right moment. If no angles to go forward existed, these teams would often move the ball backwards or sideways instead, until the right moment presented itself to go forward. Its development as a football concept is often credited to the evolution of Ajax’s ‘Total Football’ and the possession-based tactics of Dutch manager Johan Cruyff, who managed Ajax (1985-1988) and FC Barcelona (1988-1996). With both Ajax and Barcelona, Cruyff utilized two central midfielders and a high amount of positional interchange around them to effectively control the game. Once Pep Guardiola took over at Barcelona, the tactic took off to extreme heights. Classy midfield passers were deployed as centre-backs, full-backs played in line with central midfielders, the false nine role was concocted and the goalkeeper became essential in playing out from the back. All of these principles contributed to a highly possession based style of play and the roots of Barcelona’s tiki taka football under Pep Guardiola. During this time, Spain coach Luis Aragonés and his successor Vincente del Bosque were implementing the same principles with the highly successful Spanish National Team.Embed from Getty Images
Spain utilized this tactic to impressive success at both the European Championships in 2008 and 2012 and most famously at the 2010 World Cup. Perhaps stemming from a relatively small side that lacked physicality, Spain monopolized the ball and shifted possession from left to right, working the right angles to progress forward. They won all three of these tournaments back-to-back-to-back, becoming one of the most dominant footballing teams in any era ever. In this system, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, formed something of a midfield diamond, maintaining a high amount of possession in the middle third of the pitch. The better players were constantly on the ball and when the moment came to attack, Spain were ruthless.Embed from Getty Images
The high-profile success of the Spanish National Team was also accompanied at this time by the high-profile success of Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona and later Bayern Munich’s domination in the Bundesliga under Jupp Heynckes and later, none other than Pep Guardiola. But with the popularized success of tiki taka, it was inevitable that opposing managers would one day figure out a way to combat the tactic. Enter Jose Mourinho – the first real adversary to tiki taka football.
MOURINHO – THE ANTITHESIS TO TIKI-TAKAEmbed from Getty Images
Perhaps no other manager in the history of world football has been more adept at studying their opposition and turning their strengths into weaknesses as Jose Mourinho. Central to Jose Mourinho’s over-arching style of play is the notion of counter-attacking, also known as playing on the break. Instead of maintaining the bulk of possession, Jose Mourinho sides often set up to deny space and shut down their opposition. Whether it was with FC Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid or Manchester United, Mourinho has always deployed the same over-arching methodologies.
For perhaps the greatest example of Mourinho’s tactics of playing on the break, we revert back to Chelsea’s 2-0 victory over Liverpool in that historic 2014 game in which Steven Gerrard’s title hopes literally slipped away from him. In this title-deciding game, Liverpool completely and utterly dominated possession (73%). But Chelsea were so defensively organized and compact that Liverpool couldn’t help but rely on Steven Gerrard shots from deep. Nine of Liverpool’s twenty-six total attempts in the match came from the Englishman, who was desperate to make up for his early mistake that Demba Ba pounced on and converted. Many of these shots were blocked and Chelsea played on the break at every opportunity they could. In the dying moments, the Blues’ quick counter attack through Willian and Fernando Torres killed off the game and the Blues won 2-0, despite having only 27% of the possession during the game.Embed from Getty Images
Throughout the match, Nemanja Matic, John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard man-marked the fruitless trio of Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen, compacting the midfield and leaving no room for Liverpool to breathe. With this approach, Steven Gerrard became frustrated and well, the rest is history. This is perhaps the best example of the utilization of a counter-attacking approach to a football match ever. Chelsea parked the bus for 90+ minutes, but it didn’t matter because they were incredibly effective on the break and won the match 2-0. Many of the same principles that Mourinho deployed in this match had been used in his previous spell with Inter Milan, with whom he won the UEFA Champions League in 2010. This is perhaps where the story of Mourinho as the antithesis to tiki-taka football all began.
In 2010, Inter Milan won the UEFA Champions League semi-final by essentially man-marking two of FC Barcelona’s crucial figures – Dani Alves and Lionel Messi out of the game. Alves had a habit of bursting forward down the right side and Messi, who at that time played as a right winger, would create space in central areas as a result. Mourinho utilized Esteban Cambiasso to man-mark Messi out of the game, while the overlapping runs of Dani Alves were mitigated by the dropping deep of Inter’s left winger Goran Pandev.Embed from Getty Images
By setting up with this level of defensive organization, Inter were prepared to allow Barcelona possession, essentially allowing them to play to their strengths. But because Mourinho’s defensive organization was so rigorous and systematic in its construction, any time his team regained possession they were deadly on the break. Players like Maicon, Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito had pace to burn and out of possession, Barcelona’s silky midfield maestros could not keep up. Normally, the position of Dani Alves and Maxwell as wing-backs and their overlapping runs in wide areas would be the death of the opposition. But Jose Mourinho systematically set-up in attacking transitions to exploit the void that had been left by their movements up the field. Perhaps even more crucially, the combination of Pandev playing like an inverted winger and Wesley Sneijder’s astute man-marking completely stopped Xavi from being able to find any sort of rhythm in the game. In usual fashion, the Spaniard completed 95% of his passes, but on this occasion hardly any of it was progressive. In total, Barcelona had 71% of the possession to Inter’s 29%, yet it was the Italian giants who won the match 3-1. This was perhaps the first high-profile indication that maybe, just maybe, tiki-taka wasn’t all that it seemed to be.Embed from Getty Images
The concept of first working to deny space and then play on the break was expanded on by many managers that followed. In the 2011-12 Champions League semi-final Roberto Di Matteo expanded on Mourinho’s approach to stopping Dani Alves, utilizing a more traditional ‘number 8’ in Ramires to keep a close eye on his Brazilian compatriot as part of a rigorous 4-5-1 system. Chelsea’s defensive organization meant Barcelona were forced to keep all of the possession in their own half. This frustrated Lionel Messi, who came extraordinarily deep to pick up the ball. The Argentine’s usual attacking prowess was used in the wrong end of the field and again it was a ‘Number 10’ – this time Frank Lampard – who stopped Xavi from playing. Chelsea won the match and later went on to be UEFA Champions League winners.
SIMEONE AND CO EXPANDEmbed from Getty Images
Diego Simeone is perhaps the only other manager who could even come close to Mourinho’s level of meticulousness with defensive organization. In 2013-14, Simeone’s favoured 4-4-1-1 formation was so narrow that it often involved four central midfielders, with two of them playing as the most narrow wingers you’d ever see in your life. It’s no mystery why a narrow four man-midfield would be able to stop a possession-based midfield triangle, but it was still a genius intervention from the Argentinean manager. When Barcelona and Atletico met up in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final, once again a ‘number 10’ – this time Raul Garcia – was deployed to stop Xavi and Sergio Busquets from playing out. With the level of organization and lateral shifting Tiago and Gabi had to offer in central midfield, Raul Garcia might not have even been needed. That is just how good they were in shutting down space. With the help of this midfield triangle, playing on the break and deploying a counter-attacking approach worked to perfection for Atletico. In attack their normally narrow wingers would become more like traditional wingers, flying down the wings and sending in crosses for the robust Raul Garcia and Diego Costa. This approach ultimately presented several opportunities for corner kicks, which the two centre-backs Miranda and Diego Godin had a habit of heading in. Atletico’s compact and narrow defensive organization out of possession and quick attacking transitions after regaining possession, led to their shocking La Liga title win and first UEFA Champions League final appearance under Simeone.Embed from Getty Images
At the 2014 World Cup, Louis Van Gaal, a major contributor to the development of tiki-taka football, had the tactical performance of a lifetime, utilizing a 5-3-2 system, vertical long-balls from deep and Arjen Robben’s deadly pace in attacking transitions to catch Spain off-guard. Their rapid transitions in attack not only led to Robin Van Persie’s historic headed goal, but Spain’s biggest defeat in 64 years – a 5-1 thumping. Again, key to this was defensive organization and a man-marking system to stop Spain from developing rhythm. Like Mourinho did four years prior, Van Gaal utilized Wesley Sneijder as the ‘number 10′ to completely cut off Sergio Busquets’ rhythm. The tough tackling and lateral shifting of Nigel de Jong completely dominated the aging Xavi Hernandez, Wesley Sneijder made Sergio Busquets look foolish both in and out of possession, and the energy provided by the de Guzman/Wijnaldum combination at various stages in the match was enough to outplay the relatively stagnant Xabi Alonso. Out of possession, the Dutch remained organized and compact and let Spain keep 64% of time spent on the ball. But after regaining possession, Van Gaal’s men broke away quickly, playing in their two forwards at every opportunity – both of whom scored twice. Netherlands would utilize similar strategies all tournament long, ultimately finishing in third place.
Finally, a discussion about defensive organization and playing on the break would not be complete without mentioning Antonio Conte – who had incredibly successful spells at Juventus, Chelsea and Italy. Recognizing that he had minimal resources and a much stronger defensive base than attacking prowess, Antonio Conte deployed an incredibly astute form of counter-attacking football at the 2016 European Championships. When his side met Belgium in the second Group Stage match, many tipped Marc Wilmots’ side to be the favourites. However, with Conte at the wheel for Italy, that was certainly an incorrect assumption.Embed from Getty Images
Belgium kept all of the possession, but the vast majority of it was in the middle third of the pitch, attributed to Italy’s narrow and compact defensive organization and 3-5-2 system which compressed the midfield. Belgium couldn’t break Italy down and Conte’s men played on the break through long vertical passes to a target man in Graziano Pelle and the quick, vertical movements of work-horses like Emanuele Giaccherini, Eder, and Antonio Candreva. A couple weeks later, Italy played the exact same way and beat Spain by the same score-line (2-0), with Graziano Pelle and Emanuele Giaccherini looking like tactical geniuses, simply for their ability to benefit Italy in attacking transitions. From the moment Italy won this match and Antonio Conte celebrated like a lunatic, tiki taka was dead. Spain’s failure yet again at another major tournament, at the hands of a very light Italian side, meant tika-taka had been found out and no longer would be the marker of success or the dominant method of playing for successful teams. Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration. But it’s been well documented in recent years that you can keep all the possession like Spain, but if you do nothing with it and just keep it in your own half and the middle third, teams will intentionally set up to play on the break and overcome the odds to be victorious. No other manager was better at this than Jose Mourinho, with his much lamented but tactically astute ‘park-the-bus’ strategy at Chelsea and various man-marking schemes at Inter Milan. However, many that have followed in his footsteps such as Diego Simeone and Antonio Conte have expanded on popular ideas of how to properly play on the break and set up to frustrate the tiki-taka based team. This is likely only going to continue with clubs like FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich unlikely to change their footballing philosophies anytime soon.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Tiki-taka once dominated the landscape of the footballing world with the likes of FC Barcelona, Spain and Bayern Munich seeming unbeatable utilizing the tactic. But following in the footsteps of analytical managers like Jose Mourinho, counter attacking has been used as an effective ploy to stop tiki-taka based teams not only from having success, but from imposing their methodology of playing on the rest of the world. Tiki-taka is no longer the marker for a successful team and that in large part is due to the success of counter-attacking as a triumphant method of playing against it.
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