Well the wait is over. EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and many other European leagues have kicked off (or will be in a short amount of time). This summer was unusually busy with EURO ’12 and the London Olympics taking place one after another and to top it off, soccer fans were provided with copious amounts of material including plenty of transfer drama. Two topics deserve some greater analysis.
Spain won EURO 2012. Big surprise? No. It’s a huge accomplishment, winning back-to-back EURO ’08, World Cup ’10, EURO ’12 titles. No other nation in history has ever achieved it, although West Germany did come close back in the 70s (winners of both EURO ’72 and World Cup ’74, but runners-up of EURO ’74). The Spain of the 90s that I grew up with was dominant in club football but totally lacking in international performance. They had a star-studded squad back then as well, with the likes of Hierro, Luis Enrique, Guardiola, Mendieta, up-and-coming Raul, Casillas and Morientes. Yet, in all the tournaments of the 90s and early 00s, this squad’s biggest achievement was quarter finals. So what brought about the change and success of the Golden Generation? It all started with Luis Aragones back in World Cup ’06 who opted for the adoption of tiki-taka style of football (popularized by Barcelona) after realizing that his team was physically inferior to many of the teams they would be facing. He believed that if they could not out-muscle opponents to the ball, they would at least keep total possession of it.
And the outcome? Viewers were introduced to what some describe to be an upgrade of “total football” which was formulated by the Dutch in the early 70s. Essentially, Spain’s game had transformed into a fairly simple “pass and move” style of play. The way I see it, Spain literally treats a football match as an up-sized “keep-away” (or what some may know it as “piggy in the middle”) training drill. There is a constant flow of passing and movement. The passes aren’t random either, they have a very specific target each time. Spanish players make sure to find the easiest and most available players around them. In other words, they opt for the safest, most secure passes. How do they exactly bring this about?
Triangles, both in offence and in defence. Whenever a Spanish player receives the ball, pay attention to his teammates next time. The players without the ball make themselves available by running into empty spaces and approaching the player with the ball (not away from the ball as many would believe should be done). This is done to ensure that the player with the ball always has at least two passing options. Thus, imaginary triangles are formed between the Spanish players and this is the key to how they are able to pass around the opposition so easily and effectively. Safe, secure, short passes and constant movement into open space. They recycle the ball and keep total possession of it, which not only annoys the opposition but allows Spain to push up and play a very high defensive line. In other words, it allows Spain to completely shove the game into the opposition’s half of the field. With the Spanish wingers cutting in and leaving space for the full-backs to play way up the by-line, Spain not only achieves amazing width but is able to throw in an enforcing number of bodies into the penalty box. With all these in effect, it’s only a matter of time until the opposition slips up and provides Spain with a scoring opportunity.
All right, so the ball will end up sooner or later in the opposition’s feet. What does Spain do then? Simply put, they apply tremendous pressure high up the field in the opposition’s half. Usually, two or three Spanish players close down whoever has possession of the ball in the opponent. The rule is six seconds. The idea is to get back the ball from the opposition in at most six seconds after Spain has lost possession of it. This intense amount of pressure does two things: gives little playing or thinking room to the opposition so they cannot start up a meaningful set of passes that may lead to an attacking opportunity; forces the opposition to make mistakes and give up the ball, which may lead to counter-attacking opportunities for Spain. The way I see it, it can be described as “choking” the opposition in their own half. Spain’s offensive and defensive mentality is to keep the ball in the opposition’s half. That’s why you see 70-80% possession stats for both the Spanish national team and other teams who employ the tiki-taka syle of play like Barcelona.
Funny thing is, as effective as this style of play has been for both Barcelona and Spain, it has finally started to bore the fans. The booing that occurred during Spain’s semi-final against Portugal in EURO ’12 is a prime example of this. Regardless, just like the Italians are known for their rock hard defending, and the Germans for their impressive discipline on the field, the tiki-taka style of play has given Spain its own identity.
ARSENAL ON CENTER STAGE
As with every transfer season in the past five years or so, Arsenal is playing center stage this year as well. Sadly for the Arsenal fans, it’s not for their incoming transfers but for their outgoing ones. Following in Ashley Cole, Adebayor and Nasri’s footsteps, van Persie has also decided to ditch the club. I say “ditch” because that is exactly what it is. When you, as the captain of your club, leave your team hanging to the last second with transfer rumors and finally make the move to a fierce rival the week that the English Premier League is starting, then expect a fair few of your jerseys to be burnt by fans and displayed on Facebook. Many had no doubt that had van Persie stayed, he would’ve surely reached the “legendary” status that players like Henry, Bergkamp and Tony Adams have already attained.
But come to think of it, would you really want a player like Robin van Persie to continue on at the club? Not only has he refused to sign a contract extension, he has gone public with numerous press statements about how he has had enough with Arsenal and is looking for a cup-winning team. That is humiliating for a club like Arsenal, especially when it’s your captain who is saying such a thing. While many fans are obviously ticked off at such an act of betrayal, I personally view it as a great business deal for Arsenal. Robin van Persie had a great season last year, but his performance was a borderline anomaly. For an aging, extremely injury-prone player to play through a completely injury-free season and score thirty goals is definitely impressive, but I would not count on it to happen again. On top of all of that you also have to consider the negative impact that holding onto a grumpy captain, who has mentally severed all ties with his club, would have on the morale of the other players in the dressing room. Taking all of these factors into account, the 24 million pound price that Arsenal was able to charge for van Persie, is an excellent deal in my opinion.
There’s no guarantee that van Persie will win cups with Manchester United either. Remember Michael Owen? The captain of Liverpool who back in the day made the move to Real Madrid “to win cups,” only to watch Liverpool win the Champions League in Istanbul the very same season that he left. In contrast, you have players like Del Piero and Buffon who refused to leave Juventus even when they were relegated to Serie B due to match-fixing scandals. Both of these players helped pull Juventus out of Serie B and played key roles in Juventus clinching the Serie A title last season, six years after the relegation occurred. That is club loyalty. That is what gains you legendary status.
Ege Babadagli is a recent Electrical Engineering graduate with a deep-rooted passion for soccer. You can find him playing at Lister Field when he isn’t conducting research in the lab.