Stage set for the Champions League final in Lisbon

Semifinals bring up important questions about current, future dominant strategies in soccer

Everything is set for Saturday, May 24. Soccer fans have already marked their calendars for European soccer’s biggest night: the Champions League final. This year it will take place in Lisbon, Portugal in Benfica’s stadium, the Estadio da Luz.

Prior to last week, there were only two things missing for the final: the two teams that would face off. Following last week’s second leg matches of the semifinals, the two teams were determined. For the first time in Champions League history, the final will see two teams of the same city face off, as Real Madrid will be playing Atletico Madrid. While the final will be exciting to say the least, the second leg matches of the Champions League semifinals brought up certain points that have kept soccer fans debating. Let’s take a look at them.

End of the tiki-taka era?

Starting with the former Dutch star player Johan Cruyff’s tenure as manager at Barcelona, that team had initiated a playing style that relied on short passing and movement with most of the importance given to keeping the ball. This style is commonly known as the tiki-taka. Barcelona has been the best example of the evolution of the tiki-taka, as the managers who took charge of the team looked to add to the system. The strategy was perfected under Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich’s current manager.

In his four years as manager at Barcelona, his team won the league three times, the Spanish cup twice, the Spanish Supercup three times, the Champions League and the UEFA Super Cup twice each, as well as the FIFA Club World Cup twice. Such a track record is enough to prove to anyone that the tiki-taka worked.

The success of the tiki-taka was not limited to Barcelona. The Spanish national team adopted the same style of play and went on to win three international cups in a row: the UEFA Euro 2008 and 2012, as well as the 2010 FIFA World Cup. They are also considered one of the favorites to win this year’s World Cup.

Nevertheless, despite the tiki-taka’s recent rise to prominence in the soccer world, for the past two years it looks as if it is not as effective as it once was. Barcelona did go on to win the league last season with a record number of points under the guidance of the recently deceased Tito Vilanova. But they went out of the Champions League in the semifinals with an aggregate loss of 0-7 against Bayern Munich.

For a strategy that focuses on controlling the ball, allowing seven goals is a signal that not everything is going as well as it is supposed to. This year, Guardiola brought the tiki-taka system to Bayern Munich when he took over. The team had won the Champions League, the Bundesliga title, and the German cup. Anything less than perhaps two trophies might have been considered unsuccessful for Guardiola. However, he did not have anything to prove when he took the job. He had won enough individual and team honors to certify himself as one of the best managers in the game. Everyone was expecting Guardiola’s Bayern Munich to continue the previous year’s domination.

Initially, it looked as if Guardiola would repeat last year’s success. His team claimed the Bundesliga in record time with a record of 25 wins and two ties in the first 27 games of the league. However, their Champions League run was shaky. They had managed to get through to the semifinals, but a recent Manchester United squad managed to scare them, and they struggled to capitalize against a ten-man Arsenal along the way to semifinals.

The major blow to Guardiola came in the second leg, when Real Madrid beat Bayern Munich 4-0 in Munich. This was Bayern Munich’s worst home loss in European cup history. Bayern Munich’s honorary president had criticized Guardiola of focusing too much on passing and not enough on attacking. He was right in his criticism.

Guardiola’s tactic worked in Barcelona because his players had learned to play that way starting at a youth level. The players in Barcelona were tailored for the tiki-taka system. The player group in Bayern Munich, on the other hand, was not accustomed to playing with such emphasis on control and short passing. Bayern Munich’s two wingers, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, are arguably two of the best wingers outside of Real Madrid. These players are not accustomed to such plays, preferring attacking and a fast build-up rather than a slow build-up, which the tiki-taka relies on.

They want to have an open field to take on opponents, as their explosiveness and creativity gives them the upper hand. They are not able to use these traits when the build-up takes too long, as with the tiki-taka. Thus, one major criticism specifically to Guardiola’s tiki-taka at Bayern Munich is that it failed to bring the best out of his players. This means that the tiki-taka is not for everyone, but does not necessarily imply that the tiki-taka is not what it once was.

Nevertheless, this is an important point — the perfect tactic is relative. While teams should not rely on tactical systems rather than individual players, the tactical systems should be tailored to fit the player group available.

However, the way the tiki-taka has fared with some of Europe’s best in the past two years should offer signals that the tiki-taka’s fallå from grace is apparent. Since its rise, there have been instances in which the tiki-taka has failed to succeed. Guardiola has faced 52 different teams and managed to win against each of them except for Chelsea. This means that Chelsea has been doing something right.

When Guardiola’s Barcelona faced Guus Hiddink’s Chelsea in the 2009 semifinals, the aggregate was 1-1, and Barcelona advanced on away goals. In the 2012 Champions League semifinals, Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea achieved a 1-0 win and a 2-2 tie to eliminate them. In addition to these eliminations, Jose Mourinho’s Inter managed to eliminate Guardiola’s Barcelona in the 2010 semifinals with a 3-1 win and a 1-0 loss. This year, Tata Martino’s Barcelona lost to Atletico in the quarterfinals, and Guardiola’s Bayern was crushed by Real Madrid in the semifinals. If one analyzes these losses, the weaknesses in the tiki-taka system become apparent.

The tiki-taka system requires a lot of patience, as the team that employs it looks to find one opening in the opposing team to play a through ball. Therefore, if teams make moves to try and overtake possession, they become vulnerable for a through ball. Instead, if teams look to cover up space and apply pressure that way, the tiki-taka team fails to find the passes it needs, which most recently happened with Bayern Munich against Real Madrid.

Obviously playing such defensive and counter-attacking soccer is extremely hard. Therefore, the tiki-taka works against most teams, but high quality teams have begun to effectively counter the tiki-taka. Thus, the tiki-taka has slowly but surely lost prominence. This is especially true for European soccer as teams like Real Madrid, who look to cover up space and then immediately counterattack, or Atletico Madrid, who apply pressure and limit the passing options, have begun to triumph over the tiki-taka system.

Barcelona will still continue to be a threat in the European championships, but it may not be the force it once was prior to the turn of the decade. As for the tiki-taka, perhaps the defining moment will be the 2014 World Cup. If Spain fails to make an impact in this tournament and stays out of the semifinals, the soccer community might as well look to find a new dominant strategy.

Parking the bus

The second major point that the second leg matches put forward is the disadvantages of parking the bus. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea opted to only defend in the first leg of the match to avoid conceding a goal. They did not attempt to search for a goal at all, and it cost them. Instead of parking the bus, had they looked to score, they might have actually scored, and that away goal could have altered both teams’ approaches to the second match.

The away goal rule exists to incentivize teams to not look for goals in away matches. When teams don’t do that, soccer fans are forced to watch a boring game, and the team loses a valuable 90 minutes that they could have used to search for at least one goal. Mourinho has gotten what he’s wanted out of parking the bus in previous matches, but it didn’t pay in this year’s semifinals, as Chelsea have no one to blame but Mourinho in going out to Atletico Madrid.

Diego Simeone, on the other hand, showed his tactical genius by applying the same tactic he has used throughout the tournament. He collected the fruits of his tactics with a decisive 3-1 win in London. I hope that this match showed that Mourinho and other managers should not simply focus on defending in matches, but look to attack as well.

While soccer fans continue analyzing these games and discussing key concepts, they should also look forward to enjoy what is left of the soccer season. Aside from the Champions League, the Europa League final will take place on May 14, as Portuguese Benfica will face off against Spanish Sevilla. This last month of club soccer will definitely provide a thrilling segue into the World Cup!