The Characteristics of The Tiki Taka System & How to Emulate Guardiola’s Possession Tactic in Football Manager
Welcome Passion4FM’s first ever tactical analysis where I kick it off by analyzing the famous Barcelona Tiki Taka playing style with the purpose to replicate it in Football Manager 2015. I hope you’ll embrace my tactical analysis of the tiki taka.
Upon the last 100 years in the history of football, there have been times when one club rule above all else – winning numerous trophies and playing entertaining football on ‘another level’. Some of these clubs have influenced the tactical evolution more than others. Here we can briefly mention the Hungarian national team of the 1950s, Helenio Herreras Internazionale of the 1960s, the Ajax Amsterdam side (1965 – 1973) or the AC Milan side of the late 80s.
Since the beginning of the 20th century there is one team who have stood out. For over 10 years, FC Barcelona have amazed the footballing world with glorious moments of both individual and team performances – becoming both the most winning club in Spain and producing some of the best players in history.
The System & Introduction
- Tiqui-Taca – What is it?
- Josep Guardiolas System of Play
- The Purpose of the High Defensive Block
- The Importance of Player Positioning
Page 2 – In Possession
- The Beauty of the Pass: Retaining Possession
- Transition from Defense to Attack: Playing Out of Defense
- The Importance of the Pressure Relievers: Creating Spaces
Page 3 – In Attack
Page 4 – Regaining Possession
FC Barcelona can be titled as the most successful club in the 21th century, at least so far. Between 2004 and 2013, FC Barcelona won the Spanish La Liga on 6 occasions, UEFA Champions League trophy three times (2006, 2009, 2011) and ranking up a total of 21 consecutive trophies in the last decade. Most impressive were former La Masia educate Josep Guardiola four year period as manager ranking up 14 titles of the mentioned 21(!) recording an impressive 72.47 win ratio through 247 competitive matches.
One of the reasons behind their success is their playing style and tactics – the tiki taka – a style which is as complicated as its simple.
NOW I feel the time has come to write a tribute to, and salute, the Barcelona tiki taka playing style, which had its golden era between 2005 and 2011. Even though some claim that the era has definitely come to the end, (perhaps more because of the aging of its players(?), the point that many of them have won the all, several key injuries, fatigue due to playing over 60 matches per season plus international caps from the prominent first XI in additional to rapid change of managers after Josep Guardiola stepped down, than actually bad results), Barcelona under Luis Enrique is on a whooping 70.5 average possession spell so far this season (2014-2015), something that makes me assure the football philosophy are still valid … and in evolution of course. Personally, I will always look up to it as ‘the best way’ of keeping and dominating possession … especially in Football Manager.
Throughout this tactical analysis of the Barcelona tiki taka playing style and of Pep Guardiolas tactical masterclass, I like to show you what it’s based and founded on – its pillars. Here I will dig deeper into the Tiki Taka system showing you how Barcelona acted in the different phases of play, the different positional systems used by Josep Guardiola and other important aspects of the football philosophy, which brought the club massive success. The aim is to merge real football with Football Manager, letting you get a closer view on the tactical aspect of the extreme possession style of play.
Hopefully it will make it easier for you to re-create a tiki taka tactic in Football Manager 2015 or perhaps even better, give you some ideas to revolutionize it for the next decade by bringing your own vision of the tiki taka playing style to a new era of success.
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The tiqui-taca or tiki-taka was first used, as far as I know, in a live commentary in 2006 World Cup, when Andres Montes used the phrase “Estamos tocando tiki-taka tiki-taka” to describe Spains way of playing against Tunisia.
What Montes tried to describe was the quick short passes, flicks and one-twos who could make any opposition team dazzle from the speed of the player movements and the ball circulation. At its best tiki taka was something like an advanced pig in the middle were the amount of short burst movements created the most intricate paths increasing the amount of passing options for the man with the ball. By working the ball through various channels, Barcelona wanted to play beautiful and entertaining attacking football, where the aim was to put their opponents under extensive pressure which finally made them buckle.
Josep Guardiola has described his playing principle like this;
Everything starts with the ball and finish with the ball. The game is 11 versus 11 with ONE ball. We try to keep the ball, we try to play with the ball, we try to make everything with the ball.
Josep Guardiola, FutbollTV.com
Literally the football philosophy of Josep Guardiola can be summarized as “pass, take the ball – pass, take the ball“.
The term Tiki Taka itself can be described as a media term popularized and loved by the masses, but is a term the manager himself hates as he feels the description is wrong.
I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal. It’s not about passing for the sake of it.
Don’t believe what people say. Barca didn’t do tiki-taka! It’s completely made up! Don’t believe a word of it!
Josep Guardiola, Pep Confidential
The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich, 2014
What is true, is that tiqui-taca can be described as the evolved system of totalvoetbal – an extreme possession football which differ to Total Football as it focuses heavily on quick short passes. Throughout the history we have witnessed that one specific point of a style becomes the term used to describe the style of football. This was the case with Tabelinha or the Danubian Whirl, where one significant feature (the most notably) becomes the term to describe it. In the case with the tiki-taka playing style the words can both be accurate or too small – not giving you the complete picture – what is definite is the wide resort of passing types the Barcelona players dazzled the world with.
Continue reading and let me show you my vision of tiqui-taca – as I try to find the truth about it – dissecting it into minor parts.
One of the most significant elements of the clubs football philosophy since the 70’s, when Vic Buckingham and later on Rinus Michels implemented their ideas and vision on how to play good football at FC Barcelona, is the trust given to the positional system of the 4-3-3. For over 40 years, with the main influence of Johan Cruyff and the successful Total Football philosophy of course, the 4-3-3 formation or a variation of it (3-4-3 / 3-1-3-3) has generally been in the helm. It was a direct answer to the system of 4-2-4 / 4-4-2 formations in order to pack and overload the midfield without sacrificing width or depth, and of course maintain the amount of opportunities the formation could transit to. If we think about it, a 4-3-3 formation can quickly be changed to a 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1, 5-3-2 formation or an 4-4-2 formation – some more asymmetric than others but generally provides a good foundation for passing and pressing play.
While the default 4-3-3 formation has been generally used, different coaches has influenced the positional system and the shape of the formation in defensive, attacking or the transition phase under their managerial periods, in order to give their own vision on how to keep possession, regain possession and create chances even better. While the positional system is “locked” to the formation template outlined, new managers have got the license to evolve it. What has often been the case is different managers vision on;
- Where the width shall come from – which positions shall provide the width – the wingers or the wing backs, fullbacks or wide midfielders?
- The positional movements (between lines) in order to create and deny space in order to defend / pressurize or attack as a unit and the general off the ball movements required to create as many passing lines as possible.
- How to use the diamond midfield; how narrow or wide the diamond shall be (something that some managers even changed according to opponents).
- which position shall be considered as the spare men – giving him license to either roam around or support the other players in all phases of play?
- their vision on how to control the opposition through possession and ball circulation meaning that the passing style can differ in terms of average passing length: short passing (Pep Guardiola) versus more direct (Tata Martino).
In the illustration above I have tried to outline the positional template available in Football Manager. I’ve selected a 2-3-2-3 formation with wing backs (in DM-strata); replicating the average positioning system used by Josep Guardiola in order to create as many passing lines, triangles and rhombus’ as possible.
- The yellow zone is the defensive minded players including the DM (HB).
- The blue zone is the supporting players who will provide passing alternatives in the transition and attacking zone including the ST (F9). Here you may normally find a holding midfielder (the deep controller), the second controller (primary playmaker) and an advanced creative player (a more attacking minded player who supports the attacking trio). The 2 to 3 midfielders (playmakers) are the backbone of the diamond shape and are important figures to all phases of play.
- the red area is the attacking minded players who provide the main width of the formation.
- The cyan area is the attacking minded forwards and their positioning according to how wide or narrow they are positioned (wingers versus inside forwards)
- Note that the border of the areas are far more transparent than outlined as players can roam out from their positional area (drop deeper, attack space, sit narrower or stay wider)
When I started to look closer on Josep Guardiolas system of play around 2 years ago (before the release of my FM13 Barcelona Tiki Taka Domination Extreme tactic) it came apparent that he wasn’t a stranger to experiment with different systems, looking to constantly evolve them (which is one of his biggest strengths as manager) and trying out new formations (most notably for the latter part of his tenure), and change the playing system according to the opponent and the players at his disposal.
Under Pep Guardiolas managerial period at Barcelona there were three different systems I would like to highlight. Here I’ve set up the main frameworks of the three different systems used between 2010 – 2013 showing you briefly some of the most significant movements and shapes.
A) Barcelona Asymmetric 4-3-3 Formation Used Primarily 2010-2011
The asymmetric 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 formation were primarily used in the 2010-2011 season1 with a setup where Daniel Alves pushed up the right wing and could be regarded more as an attacking wide midfielder than a traditional fullback. By pushing forward he overlapped with the right inside forward (Pedro), who cut inside moving in to the vacant space left by Messi, who dropped deep (false nine).
Literally it caused a chain reaction where the players took over the space left by others. For example when Alves pushed up, the right central defender would push wide when the team attacked down that flank and the DCL would follow his movement. Occasionally the defensive midfielder would drop deep forming yet again a back four.
While Alves provided the main width of the formation on the right, David Villa did the same on the left hand side by hugging the touchline (Winger-attack). This meant that Abidal would stay in line with the central defenders more often and would not push as far up as Alves, as he provided a defensive cover for the attacking runs of the left winger (Villa) and left central midfielder (Iniesta).
Busquets would occasionally drop deep, depending on the amount of opposite strikers, forming a back four when Alves surged forward.
The shape made sure that the short quick passing combinations were far better at the right flank than the left meaning that the team would often overload (attack) down the right, which increased the amount of space to the left for substantially David Villa, and partially Andres Iniesta, to benefit from.
B) Barcelona’s 4-3-3 Formation With Attacking Wing Backs
This system might be one of the most familiar systems used by Barcelona in their most successful era and is still used today under Luis Enrique if we look at the general movements and formation lines of shape. This minor tweak from system A is more symmetric (which I favor) as both wingbacks overlaps the wide forwards who drops inside and sit narrower. By letting both wing backs provide the main width Barcelona could attack down both wings with even more width as opponents often dropped deep, literally parking the bus with narrow formations both vertically and horizontally, playing something like anti-possession football.
By using the full pitch they could attack from all over the pitch equally as the system let players cover more zones than before. It opened up more spaces between the players to exploit, but kept the amount of passing options and shapes which is vital for good ball circulation.
This formation was most often used against opponents who favored one forward. For example against a 4-1-4-1 / 4-5-1 formation creating 2 against 1 in defense and 3 versus 2 in midfield.
C) Barcelona 3-4-3 Formation With Halfback
This system was quite often used against opponents who favored 2 forwards, who worked along each other, as Busquets would drop deep between the central defenders making them push to the sides and cover the space left by the attacking wingbacks. The system can be compared to, or seen as a direct improvement to the occasionally used narrow 3-1-3-3 formation of 2010-2011 – a system Louis van Gaal used at times at both Barcelona and Ajax, or a similar system to the famous system of Marcelo Bielsa. One important difference is that the DM didn’t need to push in to space from deep (libero) but would drop deep if needed, which gave more space for Xavi and Iniesta to utilize in possession.
This system provides even more width which helps the team to increase the available space if the opposition team played very compact. The extra cover from the defensive midfielder to the central defenders can be changed without destroying the shapes of the passing triangles and other movements important to overload the opposition in the attacking phase. The movements from what we know as the halfback in Football Manager, lets the team build up play on an wider area of the field – normally down the flanks.
As the halfback becomes the third defender, the wingbacks can push forward without worrying about their defensive duties as the two central defenders splits wide covering the default zone of the WB’s. The halfback will also be the ‘playmaker’ of the defensive third as he orchestrate how the team will play out of defense.
Barcelona played with what I would call an extremely high defensive block – looking to push their central defenders up to around the half-way line – congesting play to the middle third.
The high defensive block was essential to the style in order to make it function successfully in my point of view. Despite it left huge areas behind the d-line, which the opposition could counter in. But it was a risk Barcelona was willing to take as it laid the foundation for improved ball circulation and an enhanced opportunity to regain possession quickly. The benefits I like to highlight by utilizing a high defensive block is that the system;
- provides depth in ball circulation (in the attacking phase)
- decreases each players workload as the playing area is smaller
- while the Total Football of Ajax looked to utilize the full pitch with approximately one player in each zone, Barcelona played narrower. The focus on less position shifting and roaming players meant that the running distance of the team was less – hoping to win the battle of higher match fitness.
- it minifies the transition phase from defense to attack or attack to defense letting the players constantly press higher up the pitch
- it provides a solid foundation to reach a numerical superiority and utilize the short passing play as the distance between each player was decreased
By playing with an high defensive line the team were very compact with less spaces between the lines. This was also a result of using player roles which looked to play between the lines. Read more about the key attributes of the tiki taka player roles here. By squeezing play the match were played on Barcelonas terms, as they looked to dominate small areas of the pitch forcing the opponents to chase the ball. This way the terms of the match was diverted from a full pitch size of 105×68 meters to something resembling a small sided game replicating five-a-side football and its circumstances and match situations.
This was in my point of view a stroke of genius by Josep Guardiola, because he somehow changed the concepts of spatial football breaking up play into smaller areas. The match were no longer a 11 versus 11 situation but 3vs3, 3vs2, 4vs3 or whatever the circumstances would be playing against a specific opponent. As the illustration above suggest, playing against a 4-4-2 formation, Barcelona could easily create a numerical advantage. If we don’t consider movements and runs, the club always looked to buy / develop players who were superior to others in 1 on 1 situations – coming out victorious with acceleration, dribbling and superior technique and flair. This is perhaps illustrated best in the illustration above on the flanks, but here we can also take into account the one on ones that normally would happen in the center with the two MC’s.
With rehearsed movements of play, where everyone knew what their responsibilities were, Barcelona could dominate the small sided game.
What is significant to the different variants of 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 formations shown above are the clear diamond structures. It’s not only the midfield diamond which is apparent, but also the diamonds created in the defensive area with the sweeper keeper and the diamonds / rhombus shapes on the left and right flank. How compact the diamond is depends on the positioning and movements of the DM and the ST, which the system revolved around. How wide the diamonds are could depend on match scenarios, if the team were in attacking phase or defensive phase or the setup of roles.
The brilliancy and Pep Guardiolas tactical masterclass was not how each players used the ball in the different phases of play, but the positional template – the focus on correct player positioning, body positioning and overall team shape. In additional to the level of discipline the players showed to play as a unit, the focus on minor movements to deny and open up space is apparent – moving in and out of position at the correct moments of the play.
Football is not about players, or at least not just about players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment.
Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid; The History of Football Tactics (2009)
If we should take one thing with us from the tiki taka era, it’s the emphasize on player positioning to create as many lines of play as possible – making it both harder for the opposition team to regain and retain possession – as it’s harder to penetrate a block of 7 lines (see the positional template – image 1), which is compact and based on team unity, than to get through a two-dimensional formation (attack/defend) where there are only 2 to 3 lines of play.
The key to success for dominating possession were the importance put to players positioning to create the correct shapes. The positional system, from the last manager in the line, Josep Guardiola to its first Johan Cruyff, focused all on:
- to create as many triangles as possible in order to maximize the amount of passing options for all players.
Some managers looked at the 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 as the perfect formations to utilize possession football because of the many lines of play – which is important, as it creates a better environment for improved ball circulation because of the increased amount of passing options.
- to make the pitch as big as possible when in possession of the ball giving the team the ability to utilize / exploit spaces
- to make the pitch as small as possible to regain possession quicker by denying space to the opposition team in the defensive phase
- the importance set to reduce each players workload to maintain each players match fitness in order to keep concentration better and reduce the risk of making mistakes.
- the ability to overload as many areas of the pitch as possible
- to limit the amount of time spend on the transition phase – defending to attacking or attacking to defending.
In order to achieve the points above it was vital that the formation was compact – having players only a few meters between each other in order to both defend and attack as a unit. The foundation for a compact formation in Football Manager is team shape and selecting appropriate player roles. Read more about it in part 7 of the Mentality Ladder, 11 tips to improve your Football Manager tactics or at Football Manager Player Role Combinations and duty pairs updated for FM15. Appropriate player roles to replicate tiki-taka will be discussed at greater length in the post about the player roles of Tiki Taka.
What is interesting for me, and hopefully for you as well, is how a change of player role or duty can change the default formation and its effect on retaining / regaining possession in a bid to create numerical superiority according to, and depending on, the opposition teams formation and tactical plan. This was the case between system B and C in regard to the DM and A and B for the DL. This means that you will need to carefully plan your match strategy to counter the oppositions threats if it means altering the match tactic under different scenarios or have different tactics for different measures. Football Manager 2015 (patch 15.3) is all about reactive tactics in order to get success, which means that you will need to change duty first and foremost and perhaps roles to conquer the opposition.
To conclude before I kick-off my tactical analysis of the tiki taka philosophy you might say that the teams structure was the foundation for the beautiful attacking possession football utilized by Barcelona so successfully – in all phases of play.