Op-Ed: Champions League failure will only improve Guardiola & tiki-taka

Posted May 2, 2014 by Tyrrell Meertins
One day you’re a hero, the next you’re a villain. That’s one of the various sub-plots that can be taken from this week’s Champions League semi-final showdowns.
Bayern Munich's Spanish head coach Pep Guardiola reacts during the German first division Bundes...
Bayern Munich's Spanish head coach Pep Guardiola reacts during the German first division Bundesliga football match Hertha BSC Berlin vs FC Bayern Munich in Berlin's Olympic Stadium on March 25, 2014
Odd Andersen, AFP
In the span of two days, both tiki-taka and defensive-minded football –– often referred to as ‘parking the bus’ –– were dead for the umpteenth time.
When it’s successful it receives the plaudits it deserves, but when it fails, the incessant banter of boredom and the lack of a plan B quickly circulates. Jose Mourinho’s decision to play reactive football in big games is often criticized as anti-football, but when he succeeds he’s a tactical genius. While neither statement is true, it goes to show that football fans may not be the wisest.
Similarly, the reigning European champions were convincingly outmatched by a top-class Real Madrid side that is at their utmost best when they play on the counter-attack. Many concluded that tiki-taka was boring, useless, and primarily ineffective, while relating to ball-retention superiority as a pointless measure of dominance. While the latter is true, neither of the aforementioned managers base their approaches around entertaining the millions of viewers worldwide; they do it for results.
In football you win or you lose. You could choose to do it in style, or in a dull manner, but three points or progression in a cup competition is the main goal. During his time at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola defended his preferred style of football by stating "possession is the best form of defence," and it’s often been the approach he utilizes on his European travels. Put simply, if the opposition doesn’t have the ball, they can’t score.
It sounds simple, logical, and effective if implemented correctly, but it does require technically astute players that are tactically disciplined. The possession based system focuses on quick passes and constant position interchanging to create spaces and goal scoring opportunities. Likewise, when the team concedes possession they maintain a defensive high-line and counter-press in the oppositions half to quickly regain the ball. Guardiola utilized this style of football at Barcelona, and while teams were pondering various ways to negate the flamboyant outfit, the Catalan side continuously obtained trophies.
Defeats to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan and Real Madrid, and a shocking exit in the Champions League at the hands of Chelsea left many stating that tiki-taka was dead, and Carlo Ancelotti inflicted further damage to the system this week. Madrid’s performance was magnificent; Ancelotti’s men were ruthless and efficient on the counter-attack, and clinical from set-pieces, leaving Guardiola distraught on the touch-line.
Bayern had played arguably their two worst games under Guardiola against Madrid. The passing tempo was slow, penetration was non-existent, the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Dante, Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger were underwhelming, and most importantly they didn’t score. Guardiola got his tactics wrong, and Madrid were magnificent without the ball, as reactive football triumphed again.
But is tiki-taka really dead?
No chance. 180 minutes of football should never define the success of a system, and while Bayern crashed out of the tournament in a convincing manner they still managed to win the Bundesliga with seven games to spare and are set for a German Cup showdown with Borussia Dortmund. By no standards is that a disappointing season, as many have shifted the blame to the Spaniard for implementing his tiki-taka approach.
However, according to domestically Bayern’s average possession rate rose eight percent to 71 and they took 18.5 shots per game opposed to 17 last season. Defensively, though, they conceded more shots, while experiencing a decrease in completed tackles and interceptions, which is expected due to their improved possession rate.
The misconception that Guardiola’s completely strayed away from Jupp Heynckes’ system is a myth. Heynckes’ system also focused on possession-based football, with only Barcelona retaining more possession than the German club throughout Europe. And while Guardiola did sacrifice Bayern’s physicality in midfield, and lesser balls were played into Mandzukic from wide areas, the only time the German’s played reactive football on the break was their first leg showdown against Juventus, and their semi-final clash with Barcelona.
Guardiola shifted Bayern's formation to a 4-1-4-1, Phillip Lahm enjoyed a sensational season in the holding role, and Thomas Muller was outstanding as a false 9.5 role in the battering of Manchester City at the Etihad. We’ve seen full-backs fielded as additional centre midfielders, and a 3-0 victory over Dortmund earlier this season showcased that the Spaniard will play direct if necessary.
No team has retained the European Cup since the 1990’s –– no club has in the Champions League era –– and while it’s easy to say Heynckes would have with the squad at his disposal, there are various factors that should be considered.
Would he be able to maintain the side’s hunger?
Would his system become predictable?
Would new players come into the side and succeed?
In his third stint at Bayern, Heynckes endured a trophy-less first season losing the league and cup to Dortmund and the Champions League to Chelsea, before claiming a prestigious treble the following year. Put simply, the expectations that came with Guardiola’s hiring were irrational –– so is the belief that Heynckes would repeat his treble-winning season –– and claims that his system is ineffective at the highest level is farcical.
Ultimately no system is perfect, and while reactive football appears to be dominant, it’s not to say that tiki-taka is suddenly futile. Guardiola demands his side to control possession because it gives his side the incentive to determine the tempo of the match. And although controlling spaces is equally as important, Bayern controlled their own destiny against Madrid. The constant sideways passes mixed with the lack of pace, energy, and penetration impeded their attack, which explains why Guardiola was keen on taking responsibility for his side’s loss.
"We played badly, that’s my responsibility," Guardiola told reporters. "We are at the highest level in Europe and such errors are punished. I’ll try to lift the players. It is a fresh experience now, but it is too early for a general analysis.
"I've have had several hard defeats in my career and this is one of them. We conceded goals from set pieces, but we played awful, it’s the only reason we lost. There’s no other reason, its just football."
Following three physically demanding seasons filled with heartbreak and success, perhaps Bayern ran out of gas. Perhaps winning the title early decreased their hunger for success, or maybe the team is far from its finished product. Guardiola wasn’t hired to replicate Heynckes' philosophy or instantly win the treble. Bayern was keen on bringing Guardiola to the Allianz with hopes of instilling continuity, sustaining their status as European powerhouses, and that his attention to detail and admirable work ethic would see Bayern exceed the success he achieved at the Camp Nou.
With Guardiola comes a style that’s seen him claim 14 trophies in four years, and is on course for a quartet this season. While a pinch of pragmatism and a plan B will always remain a topic when he fails, the aforementioned success ensures that perhaps there’s no reason to stray away from his plan A.
Although majority of the team displayed that they can adapt to playing tiki-taka, 12 months isn’t a reasonable amount of time compared to the side he created at Barcelona, in which the core team had the system instilled into their lives at a young age. The main missing ingredient in Guardiola’s kettle of success is a killer in attack. While Mandzukic has proven he’s a reliable goal-scorer, the Croatian doesn’t possess the traits to be the main man at Bayern in this system. Likewise, while the Croatian did offer positive qualities without the ball under Heynckes, Muller and Robben scored the important goals in the latter stages of their Champions League campaign.
This explains why Bayern pursued Robert Lewandowski –– an excellent all-round forward –– and it wouldn’t be surprising if he bolsters his attacking options. The imperious Lionel Messi wasn’t at his disposal to save Guardiola's side, and even the likes of Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, David Villa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have all played a significant role in the Spaniards success in Europe when Barcelona were placed in a must-win game.
Nevertheless, various minor factors can be related to Guardiola’s inability to overcome a sturdy Madrid side, the defeat will serve as much-needed wake up call. With teams having now found an way to negate tiki-taka, it’s unlikely that we’ll see Bayern continuously storm past top quality sides in the manner that Barcelona did.
"I can't change what I feel and what I feel is we must play with the ball and attack as much as possible," Guardiola said.
"I have my ideas and I have to convince my players. Following this defeat I am even more convinced of my philosophy.”
The Spaniard, however, has developed a foundation that is now determined to prove the cynics wrong, and while Guardiola and his system came up short this year, it’s not far-fetched to believe that we’ll be praising him sooner rather than later.
It’s what football fans do; it’s in their DNA.