“When the run is over, it’s over”
– Isiah Thomas on ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons
All good things must come to an end. It happened to the Miami Heat during the NBA Finals. The same has happened to Spain during the 2014 World Cup. When you have been a champion and have been on top for so long (not only were Spain the defending World Cup champions from four years ago, but they had also won consecutive European Championships in 2008 and 2012) then it is also a matter of time before age, mileage, fatigue (both physical and mental), and complacency kicks in.
Many of Spain’s core players such as goalkeeper Iker Casillas, defender Sergio Ramos, midfielders Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas and forwards David Villa and Fernando Torres have won everything there is to win in football – both domestic and international. It is tough to have the same hunger when there is nothing else to conquer.
Spain were installed as favorites to win consecutive World Cup titles at the tournament. But following losses in their first two games to the Netherlands and Chile respectively, La Roja were the first team to be eliminated.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque admitted there would be consequences following their humiliating World Cup exit and that should be expected whenever any championship reign ends with such an embarrassing fashion. There is little doubt that changes have got to be made for Spain going forward, but how much change?
Perhaps now would be as good a time as any for Del Bosque to step down as coach. Although the 63-year-old is under contract until after the Euro 2016, perhaps it is time for a new voice, particularly if one plans to breakup the team’s core. One of the criticisms levied at Del Bosque in Brazil has been his insistence to stick with the old guard. But how can anyone blame him for sticking with a group that have rewarded you so many times during the last six years? The fact that Del Bosque could not bring himself to make massive changes after Spain’s drubbing at the hands of the Dutch is reason enough why he should not be in charge of any rebuilding process.
There is also a need for some fresh ears to go with that new voice. Xabi Alonso is expected to announce his retirement from international football now that Spain is out of the World Cup. The 32-year-old has 112 caps for La Roja. Xavi, who has won more trophies than any Spanish player in history, should soon follow suit after 133 appearances for his country (he is also rumored to be leaving Barcelona this summer). Goalkeeper Iker Casillas (156 caps) is no longer an elite goalkeeper, and his disastrous performance against the Dutch showed why he was no longer the first-choice keeper at Real Madrid during the season. Perhaps now is the time to go with the much younger David de Gea. David Villa (91 caps) and Fernando Torres (109 caps) saw very little action in Brazil and there will be calls for their removal from the national team as well.
It is not like Spain lacks talent to replace these players. There is a younger generation of players poised to replace the old guard. One popular choice is midfielder Koke. The 22-year-old is coming off a brilliant season at Atletico Madrid. His passing and attacking ability makes him a perfect candidate to replace someone like Xavi. His teammate at Atletico, Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa, is himself just 25-years-old and should continue to grow into his role as lead striker on the national side. The aforementioned De Gea, still just 23, continues to improve as the starting keeper for Premier League giants Manchester United. It is time to hand him the starting job with La Roja. And perhaps it is time to give other talented players such as Juan Mata (age 26), Pedro (age 26), Javi Martinez (age 25), Cesar Azpilicueta (age 24), and Thiago Alcantara (age 23) more of an opportunity going forward.
There is also the issue of Spain’s playing style. For six years, La Roja dominated the world stage by using a style of play predicated on short passing as well as ball and player movement in order to maintain possession – commonly known as tiki-taka. It allows Spain to dictate matches against their opponents, with the thinking that the less your opponents have the ball, the less damage they can do. It also allowed them to protect their defense, which can be suspect at times. It also helped that the core of the national team was made up of several Barcelona players, where tiki-taka is said to be originated.
But have teams now figured out how to combat tiki-taka?
Former England international Chris Waddle had this to say on BBC radio following Spain’s 2-0 defeat to Chile:
They were two hard games for Spain, against Chile and (the) Netherlands, and that is because teams have changed the way they play against them. Before teams used to sit back and play on the counter attack, but now they press high up the pitch and nick the ball off them. And because Spain are not used to that, and they leave space behind with their full-backs coming up, teams are having success.
So yes, by taking a more aggressive approach, teams can have success against tiki-taka. The Dutch and the Chileans (whose work-rate against Spain were tremendous) showed that it can be done. Atletico Madrid used this same strategy in their matches against Barcelona in the 2013-14 season with great success, as did Real Madrid during their Champions League semifinal tie against Bayern Munich and former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.
Does this mean that tiki taka is now dead? To believe that would be somewhat premature. But it also means that Spain needs to be some tinkering in their style of play in order to become less predictable.
Whatever the case, a football dynasty is now over. This “golden” generation of players brought success to Spanish football that was never seen before. Instead of being admonished for their performance in Brazil, they should be praised for what they accomplished during the last six years.
Now tough, but necessary, choices have to be made.