The end of tiki-taka?
The Spanish teams dominated possession against their German opponents in Europe this week but an 8-1 aggregate scoreline tells its own story. Adam Bate looks at the reasons for the perceived power shift and points to teamwork rather than individual brilliance. Pressing over passing...
By Adam Bate - Follow @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 26/04/13 8:15am
"What a player he is," yelled Gary Neville as Robert Lewandowski completed his amazing hat-trick against Real Madrid. It was some performance, for which the Polish striker will quite understandably take the headlines. But above all, Dortmund's 4-1 win - like Bayern Munich's 4-0 victory over Barcelona 24 hours earlier - was the triumph of a cohesive team philosophy.
The Real Madrid players recognised it. Young centre-back Raphael Varane told UEFA immediately after the game: "We went down to a very aggressive team who were compact and gave us no space. Lewandowski played really well and we failed to stop him. But it's more a team failure than an individual one."
Football makes heroes of individuals. When Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo score more than 100 goals each over the course of just two seasons, that much is inevitable. And yet, both men - yes, even Ronaldo - know the game well enough to appreciate they operate as part of a whole. And that whole failed to function against Germany's finest this week.
As ever, the possession football was in evidence. Real dominated against Dortmund with 56 per cent of the ball, while Barca enjoyed a whopping 66 per cent of possession in their four-goal defeat in Munich. Those statistics have led some to report the death of tiki-taka football. But in a sense it is misleading.
Even after being outpassed by Barca on Tuesday, Bayern have still enjoyed more of the ball than any team to reach the quarter-finals of this season's Champions League. Indeed, they are the only team other than Barca to dominate more than 60 per cent of the ball in the top five leagues in Europe this season. It isn't that passing football doesn't work, it's that it needs to be accompanied by pressing.
Barcelona have become synonymous with the possession game, but that is arguably the symptom rather than the cause. As Sir Alex Ferguson noted as they ascended to the top of the European game under Pep Guardiola: "What has changed is the pressing and the areas in which they press the ball. That is what Guardiola has brought to the team."
Pressing high up the field was at the heart of their success. "We play in the other team's half as much as possible because I get worried when the ball is in my half," explained Guardiola. The logic is simple: "If we recover the ball here we have to run only 30 metres up to the opponents' goal. If we recover the ball in the defence we have 80 metres separating ourselves from that objective."
With Guardiola no longer there to guide his students, it appears almost as though some of the players have misunderstood the root of their success. The focus on retaining possession has continued but, without the necessary tempo both with and without the ball, there is a danger of the philosophy descending into parody.
The warning signs were there even towards the end of Guardiola's reign. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in The Guardian: "Rather than just let his Barca wither away, rather than face the prospect of their philosophy being overcome... Guardiola sought to stave off the entropic imperative by exaggerating what had made Barca great, by holding possession even longer, by getting even more men forward."
What Barcelona failed to do on Tuesday was win the ball high up the field, as was their trademark at their peak. They tried to do so but their efforts were disjointed. It requires energy. Energy some of their players did not have. Messi, seemingly struggling for full fitness, was uncharacteristically lethargic throughout and completed just seven passes in the attacking third against Bayern Munich.
In contrast, Dortmund were full of energy against Real Madrid. "On every individual battle on the pitch they were stronger than us, they were more aggressive physically, they were more aggressive mentally," Jose Mourinho told Sky Sports. "We lost easy possession, easy possession and we couldn't cope with their counter attack and with their transition."
Dortmund's pressing, particularly in the midfield zones where Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric were so conspicuously rushed, was remarkable. It was notable how often this was done through partnerships - whether it was Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski on the right or Ilkay Gundogan and Sven Bender in the centre. Their teamwork made Real look slow.
Unlike Bayern, it has long been evident that Dortmund utilise a different approach and coach Jurgen Klopp fuelled the fire for a clash of styles in the Bundesliga next season when stressing he could not compete with Guardiola for the attention of Mario Götze. "I cannot preach football based on quick transitions and now start playing tiki-taka," explained Klopp on Tuesday.
In truth, the lesson of this week was not so much about which approach is right. The message to be taken is that it doesn't matter what philosophy you have as long as you stick to it and everybody works together. At the highest level of the game, if you don't do that - no matter how good the individuals in your team are - then you're unlikely to find success.