From 2008 to 2012, we witnessed a dominance of the game the likes of which we will never see again.
Spanish football won plaudits, by playing what many believe to be the best brand of football ever witnessed; this stylistic excellence was augmented by a plethora of trophies at club and international level.
The combination of style and substance could only have been made possible by world-class players like Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol. From the Euro 2008 glory to another at Euro 2012, and all the trophies in between, it was a glorious four years, and one all football lovers should feel privileged to have lived through.
2013 may go down as the year that the rest of the world rebelled to end Spanish dominance. Spain's big two of Barcelona and Real Madrid were well beaten by Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund respectively in this year's Champions League semi-finals, while Brazil trounced Spain in the Confederations Cup final.
So what has caused this apparent demise, and what aspects of the Spanish game are now being exposed?
The number one reason is time. What goes up, must come down. Global dominance cannot last forever; many factors contribute to this but they all are associated with time.
Firstly players get older, they can suffer physical and mental fatigue, due to sheer effort involved in maintaining such an elite level of performance.
It may not be overly apparent to the untrained eye; Spain and Barcelona may appear to play the same way as they did in 2008 when they systematically destroyed teams with a short passing, high pressing game.
Recently, however, the speed and incisiveness of the passing isn't the same, the positional play isn't as fluid, the closing down of the ball slightly slower. These things add up, they make the small differences that matter in the big games
Coaches from all over the world have had plenty of time to study the Spanish way of playing, and therefore develop a way to counteract it. The price associated with success comes from the fact that everybody stops worrying about their own game, and focuses on stopping you.
Eventually, someone finds a way. Spanish domination has lasted for pretty much four years, no other international side has won three major tournaments in a row. Some may query Barcelona's status as the greatest ever club side, they only won two Champions Leagues out of four in Guardiola's reign; however, their two semi-final exits to Inter Milan and Chelsea were extremely unlucky.
Both sides played against the essence of the game, defending like American football teams, showing they knew Barcelona were the overall better side. Barcelona showed that when they played teams who were willing to play the game in a normal manner, they usually always overcame them.
Nowadays, there is no luck involved in the opponents victories. Bayern Munich and Brazil have paved the way for other sides, in terms of beating Spanish opposition without using Guerilla tactics. During the 'tiki-taka' era, many sides felt Spain and Barcelona were vulnerable at the back, this was true; however, no team had the combination of quality and tactical awareness to exploit it, so this vulnerability wasn't a problem as it was never exposed.
Theoretically, the way to beat them was to deal with their attacking threat, without sacrificing your own ambition going forward. It has taken a while, but the core ideas of this strategy now focus on a few key points.
- Attacking with speed on the counter, Spain and Barcelona often commit many men forward, if you can negate their attacks and start your own, you will have a better chance of scoring because they will few players back to protect their goal.
- You must be able to retain the ball, by not allowing Spain and Barcelona as much possession, it limits their attacks, and helps conserve the energy of your own players when your side needs to attack.
- Defend as a unit, but try not to give away too much territory. Defence will always be key when trying to stifle the attacking excellence of players like Iniesta, Villa or Xavi, but you can't just sit on your own 18 yard box, this luckily worked for Chelsea and Inter, but it won't work every time.
Defending too deep means you will not be able to counter attack as well because you are so far away from the oppositions goal, and it is harder to retain position in a crowded area.
Now most teams will still struggle to implement these procedures effectively, they will lack the quality to do so, but perhaps more importantly, because Spain and Barcelona are still awesome outfits, that can beat you no matter what you try.
However, in the knockout stages, better sides with better defences and quality going forward, can provide the real test of Spanish supremacy.
That being said, Spanish and Barcelona players will not lie down and accept defeat; after all, it has only been one year, it may just have been a blip.
Losing often increases the hunger and desire to win again. 2014 will be the acid test of the 'tiki taka' era, another year without a Champions League at either the Nou Camp, (or even the Bernabeu for that matter) may signal a shift in dominance in European club football.
And if La Roja fail to win the World Cup in Rio, it could be the beginning of the end for the greatest international side of all time. Now it is up to the Spanish to fight back and figure out a new way of defeating their rivals, as Darwin said: "Adapt or die".
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