The Great Debate: Tiki Taka Football vs Defensive Counter Attacking
In the aftermath of Leicester’s historic Premier League title and Atletico Madrid working its way systematically through both Barcelona and Bayern Munich there was a lot of debate about which is better – the tiki taka style preferred by Barcelona, Bayern Munich and our Arsenal or the defensive, counter-attacking style exhibited by Leicester and Atletico Madrid.
Of course the argument against the defensive style, is that it isn’t aesthetically pleasing. Parking the bus to the romantic football stylists isn’t playing football. It’s boring and depends a lot on luck. Conversely, an argument about the way tiki-taka can become tedious when it is without purpose or intent looms large over the style. For Arsenal supporters, we’re all too familiar -especially this season with a style of tiki-taka that results in a very high possession rate but results in very little. Also some would argue what Pep has done to a team like Bayern Munich is make them more predictable and complicated especially in Europe.
It’s a great debate to be had for sure. Especially since there isn’t a whole hell of lot worth writing about with regard to Arsenal these days. So we reached out to a few of our favorite Arsenal bloggers and put this question to them – which is better – tiki-taka or defensive, counter-attacking football.
Football tactics tend to go in circles. In the late 1990s and throughout the majority of the 2000s, it was all about defensive, counter attacking football. Think Manchester United. How often did it go from Schmeichel to Beckham, Beckham across to gigs, gigs middling it to Yorke. Or Arsenal’s 4x100m relay team. And finally Chelsea. Duff, Robben and Drogba breaking swiftly after stout defending by terry, Makelele & Carvhalo. It seemed every week on Match of the Day they were having the stop watch on how quickly the ball went from front to back for a goal.
And then Barcelona & Spain, and later Bayern Munich came along and football changed. No longer was it about defending, it was about keeping the ball. Tiki-taka football. The opponents might have two banks of four, but keep passing it and eventually a gap will appear, the goal will appear. A new style for the 2010s.
Arsenal actually tried to adapt a tika-taka from 2005. A team built round Cesc Fabregas. With Hleb, Rosicky, Reyes, Nasri, van Persie. All players who could play, could pass for fun. Unfortunately injury records and greed meant that Arsenal’s tika-taka team never reached its true potential.
The problem with tika-taka football is it always left you open for the break. With your defenders tending to sit on the half way line, causing a high press, it meant that if you lost the ball half way in the opponents half, you were in danger from a ball over the top. Arsenal have often attempted to exploit this by playing Walcott and Sanogo upfront against Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
The thing with tika-taka is you need a certain type of player who simply does not give away the ball. Xavi, Ineista, Fabregas. Even an Arteta, Nasri or Rosicky. These players are few and fair between. And that is maybe why we are now seeing counter attacking football take a hold once more.
The likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich now give the ball away far more than they did. This leads them open to the break a lot more. They have not adapted to the players they now have.
And that is perhaps my summary. You need to create your own identity, with the players you have at your disposal. There is not point playing tika-taka if your centre back is Per Mertesacker, as that ball over the top will kill you every time. Likewise, there is no point you playing counter attacking if your striker is Olivier Giroud, as he will not be able to get on to any balls over the top.
Play to your strengths and adapt your tactics around the players you have. Do not try and put square pegs in round holes.
I’m greedy so I want both. We used to play an attractive blend of possession and transition. The 1996-2006 teams could pass with the best but were lethal on the counter and that’s what I think Arsenal should revert to. We saw shades of it pre-Santi’s injury against Norwich but have struggled with an identity since. It wasn’t until we introduced Iwobi as a secondary playmaker that things improved. A mobile front three would help with this.
Tiki-Taka is dead! Vive Le Counter-Attack!
If this season is anything to go by, the above nonsense seems to be spot on.
Barcelona and now Pep’s Bayern have been efficiently put to the sword by the cut and thrust of Diego Simeone’s Atleti machine. Leicester City not only winning the Premier League, but at a canter, whilst boasting one of the lowest overall possession stats of the season – a little over 48%.
It appears that having the lion’s share of the ball means very little if you have a springboard in place when you do obtain the leather sphere. Reports of possession football being dead though, are wide of the mark. The key component in both footballing frameworks, is adaptability.
Atletico Madrid do not simply take the ‘Mourinho’s Chelsea’ approach, and form a ten man barricade around the eighteen yard box, lying in wait until they inevitably snaffle the ball. Nor do Barcelona or Bayern play continuous passes, whilst moving in an aesthetically pleasing shape, until the opponent is either dazed or too bored to find the ball. They mix and match. Many a time the Catalans have hit a 40yard ball to a rampaging Suarez, Neymar or Messi – which negates their opponents midfield in one swoop.
If Sunderland do it – it’s long-ball tactics.
Alternatively, Simeone has schooled his men so well, they have perfected the timing for when to spring the next attack. They do rely on the pace of Griezmann, but they can certainly pass rings around you if given the chance. They change their tack game by game. It’s tactics.
In terms of which is better to watch – as Gooners, we have had the most experience to answer this. What is the point in playing a 72-pass move, when it either ends in a transition of possession, or the ball is still fifteen yards from the box? It isn’t passing formations we watch football for. We watch and attend games for goalmouth action, to see our team create chances.
Neither mode of football is more aesthetically pleasing – it is the drama and goals we seek. If either come via a counter attack or a flowing move, it matters little. You won’t remember the move. Unless it’s Wilshere’s goal against Norwich a few years back.
I’m proud Arsenal attempt to play around and through the congestion, but if we won 4-0 with all the goals coming from a defended corner, would we bemoan the fact Özil, Ramsey and Sanchez didn’t play a triangular passing move prior to the goal?
Plus, are there many better sights in football, than your team running full pelt towards goal, leaving their markers in the dust, as they counter from a defensive posting?
If we play as we are attempting to this season, we need pace and adaptability. What’s the point in making the ball do the work and cutting out half the opponents defence if we then let them regroup? We need to adapt, just as our opponents seem to when they successfully gain points from us.
Evolve! It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.
I am not sure the choice is between Tiki-Taka and fast counter-attacking football. I think it is just that everyone is talking about counter-attacking football because of the success of Leicester domestically and Atleti in Europe.
I am not convinced of the choice as between 1997 and 2004 Arsenal played devastating football on the break whilst, certainly latterly being able to pass other teams of the pitch. The fast transition shown particularly between 2001 and 2004 was down to the athleticism and pace of the players but combined with their technical quality and the precision of their passing. To hit a team on the break will seldom happen with one player sprinting with the ball as no one can carry the ball as quickly as an opposition player chasing back with out it. No it will involve 3 or 4 players exchanging fast forward passes and players knowing where to pass ahead of the team mate ahead of them. Poor anticipation of execution and cause the attack to falter.
I think the change to 4231 from 442 impacted Arsenal’s ability to play that way. Small technically gifted players replaced the powerful rangy panthers and the so-called “Wenger Ball” emerged. It can be effective if every cog in the machine is gifted but it can easily break down when a cog or two are not being effective. The lack of pace in Arsenal’s attack has almost dictated the slow passing build up and I am sure Wenger would now like to revert to his earlier style. He must be searching for a Welbeck upgrade rather than the Giroud upgrade and I for one yearn to see an Arsenal side playing with 2 strikers again or at the very least Özil in the Bergkamp “10 role”. Having players who are not technically good enough such as Ramsey or even Coquelin to a degree may have limited his options but Elneny and a returning Wilshere and Cazorla will likely expand them.
Wenger’s buys in the summer window will tell us whether it is Back to the Future or The Temple of Passing Doom.
Football played the right way. How many times have we heard that phrase? How many times have we heard it from some pundit on TV without any thought of what it could actually mean? What is the right way anyway? Football is a competitive sport, so any measure of right or wrong must revolve around the outcome, right? We’re not talking about Strictly Come Dancing, here; Bruno isn’t going to give you a 9 instead of a 10 because he doesn’t like the way you hold your elbow. Well, no, apparently not. Apparently, there is a whole mafia of managers, pundits and fans alike insisting that there is an aesthetically right and wrong way to play the game.
Perhaps it is a peculiarly English thing. Perhaps we’ve always had a predilection for attack, attack, attack above all else. Perhaps it stems from the nineteenth century origins of the game from the same root as Rugby, when the object was to collect the ball, put your head down and charge towards the opposition goal until someone hacked your legs off at the kneecap. Winner was the team with the most intact lower limbs at the end of the game. Or perhaps more recently, there was a reaction against this visceral spirit. Perhaps, back in the dark ages of football hooliganism and post-Heysel isolation, when the rest of Europe had moved on to a more sophisticated possession-based game and English clubs were still playing Charles Reep football, equating “the right way” to the possession style might have made more sense. But not in the modern era.
Whatever the reason, we seem to be stuck with an ossified, accepted version about which is the superior way to play the game. How or why it’s superior, nobody ever seems quite able to explain to me. Listening to Jamie Redknapp on Sky, I sometimes get the impression it’s a moral judgment and that if we opened a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, we’d find a chapter on playing out from the back with split centre backs.
I don’t get it. I mean, I love seeing a Jack Wilshere goal after twenty-eight passes, three flicks and a pirouette as much as the next fan but – and let me be honest here (please don’t tell Jamie) – it doesn’t really move me to the core. It doesn’t get me out of my seat yelling so loudly, half the canine population of N5 decamp immediately to N17. That’s only something I feel when Jens Lehmann catches the corner, throws it out to Robert Pires, who sprints 40m, passes it to Bergkamp, who plays a one-touch ball to Henry who thwacks it in the back of the net while your brain is still trying to process the visual information your eyes are shovelling into your front cortex. That’s what I grew up watching and nothing I’ve seen since has really come as close as that to picking up my emotions and squeezing them half to death in a bear-hug of pure ecstasy.
And now that counter-attacks turn out to be most effective way of actually winning football matches as well (hi, Diego!), who is there left who still insist that I must think possession based football is playing the game “the right way”?
Aesthetic considerations would be moot if Arsenal had come closer to meeting fans’ and players’ own performance expectations. Few would care about the style the Gunners employed to achieve a Premier League title—or even a more concerted challenge for one.
As it is, sitting in third place behind champions-elect Leicester City and Tottenham, Arsenal are subject to scrutiny of their system and playing style. That review hinges on the question, where should the manager position his team on the spectrum between control of space and control of the ball?
Abler analysts than I am can recount the evolution of responses to that question. The relevant issue now, as planning for the 2016-17 season starts, is what style makes Arsenal most dangerous to the opposition.
To me, a team poses its most significant threat when it’s capitalizing on the strengths of its best players. Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez are the standouts at Arsenal. Because they thrive when the Gunners can turn quickly from defending into attacking, the best choice is a style that combines initial pressing with an ensuing solid defensive shape.
Regaining the ball in the attacking half unsettles opponents and opens spaces that Özil and Alexis are primed to exploit. The German playmaker is a genius at finding those vulnerabilities and at getting teammates into threatening positions before opponents can adjust. Alexis is an energetic improviser who can capitalize on such opportunities.
There have been signs in recent years that this is how manager Arsène Wenger would prefer his team to play. One of the clearest indications came from Tomas Rosicky, who explained in 2013, “When we lose the ball, we begin pressuring immediately. The three seconds afterwards are vital and I think we are all aware of that – when the opposition get possession, we’re after them immediately.”
The challenge has been that Arsenal have rarely had the personnel available to execute this approach. Quickness, desire, synchronization, and an understanding of passing lanes are all required. Although center forward Olivier Giroud has occasionally succeeded in putting pressure on opposition goalkeepers, he’s not—or no longer—mobile enough to serve as the point of the press.
The quartet of Alex Iwobi, Danny Welbeck, Alexis, and Özil has a more effective look, with energy, speed, and nous. When these four have played together this season, as at Everton, the 20-year-old Iwobi has displayed an impressive understanding of when to press laterally and to harass the opposition’s deep-lying midfielders.
Iwobi’s instincts in this regard allow Özil to lead the press, whence he can get on the ball immediately and initiate Arsenal’s threat on goal. Welbeck and Alexis can control the flanks and dart toward goal once the ball is won.
If the Gunners don’t succeed at forcing the turnover, they drop into their own half in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Özil just behind Welbeck. This slows the opposition from arriving in dangerous positions themselves and creates the conditions for a counter-attack. The formation also forms a solid foundation from which to hold a lead, something the Gunners have struggled with this season.
It seems to me, then, that pressure in the opposition half, followed by a firm defensive shape, is a system that capitalizes on Arsenal’s strengths while mitigating its weaknesses. Not for nothing, it also plays to the inherent advantage football offers to one team’s efforts to thwart the opposition.
And in this highly scientific (don’t laugh) Twitter poll – our followers have had their say:
Which style of football do you prefer
— You Are My Arsenal (@YouAreMyArsenal) May 4, 2016
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