Analyzing The Tiki Taka Playing Style in Possession
On the previous page I looked at the different formations and systems used by Josep Guardiola and the importance of those formations. I also gave you a brief description of what the tiqui-taca is, but left you with many unanswered questions.
To continue my tactical analysis of the Barcelona tiki taka playing style it’s time to delve deeper into the philosophy looking at its most significant features and how the system were in the four phases of play. I will start by looking at Barcelona in possession; from the different types of passes utilized to how the team acted in the attacking third (page 3). Then I will continue my tiki taka tactical analysis by looking at how Guardiola utilized pressing to regain possession (page 4) and how the team acted in the defensive phase (page 5) (coming soon).
Barcelona in Possession of the Ball; Ball Circulation & Movements
Barcelona’s dominance of possession have resulted in a steady average possession of above 60% possession the last decade. While it was not uncommon to see the team possess the ball over 70% in some matches under Josep Guardiola, that number has slightly decreased as some opponents have become more familiar with how to counter tiki-taka the recent seasons.
But why was the Barcelona team of 2011 so superior to Real Madrid or Manchester United? How did the team utilize possession to succeed?
A common phrase is that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Opta statistics proves that the more possession a team may have, the more games will they win. But in order to win matches you must take advantage of the ball when in possession; be more effective, play smarter passes which creates spaces to exploit – meaning playing purposefully. While José Mourinho states that the team in possession is more likely and afraid to commit errors, one truth is that the team with the ball is in command. Playing possession football can both be a defensive and an attacking measure – but again, it all depends on how the team uses the ball in the (few) moments of keeping possession and their skills to do so.
For me possession football is all about controlling the opponent; by deciding the tempo of the match for example – meaning football is being played on my terms – on my team strengths.
The philosophy behind possession football can be as easy as the statement; “if your team have the ball, the other team can’t score”. This philosophy is also shared by the genius Josep Guardiola. With possession, you can rest with the ball or you can force the opposition to move more – forcing them to make many high-intensity bursts over short periods of time which will eventually decrease their ability to concentrate.
As I see it, there are more benefits of having possession than not, and in order to win the possession battle you need plans to retain possession and get the ball forward. Let us now look on how Barcelona retained possession from the build-up play to the final third.
If you play on possession, you don’t have to defend, because there’s only one ball!
Passing Types: Ball Circulation
One of the most significant features of the tiqui-taca is the quick short passes utilized in order to retain possession. Barcelona actually used a wide resort of passing types depending on the situation. There were mainly four different passing types used:
- the horizontal short pass (aka first line of pass) was used to maintain possession moving the ball from left to right or right to left in order to make the opposite markers move. The horizontal pass could be used to reduce the tempo of the game or simply get the ball into a more dangerous area of the pitch, as the ball is played to a supporting player in the same line of play. By changing the point of attack, the team could retain the ball purposefully.
In Football Manager 2015 it is equal to telling players to pass shorter with fewer risky passes attempted. Player preferred moves which increases the probability of retaining possession are; Play a simple passing game, looks for the pass rather than the shot or the more unorthodox choice for this playing style avoid attempting through balls…
- the mig-toc or the half touch is what the players practice on each day when doing ‘the rondo’ training exercise. The half touch; were the ball is directed quickly (without stopping the ball to get control of it) to another teammate (normally rather close), lets the team keep or increase the tempo of the match and were used frequently to relieve pressure after ‘longer’ vertical passes which lets the opposition team time to see the ball lane and close the player down. The rapid transfer of the ball to another player opens up the passing options for the second player, depending on the team cohesion to regain possession effectively, as he may be better positioned for a vertical pass / through ball or simply has better perspective of play.
This pass is often described as a lay off at whoscored.com.
The mig toc is one of the essential features of one-twos as the player flicks on and redirect the ball path. It’s important that the players are close connected in order to utilize flick ons and half touches. In Football Manager 2015 mig tocs can be utilized mainly by player preferred movements plays one twos or shorter passing coupled with an higher tempo, but there aren’t any specific PPM’s or player instructions to encourage it as it relies more on players vision and technique.
The mig toc were mainly used to relieve pressure, for example if a player was closed down, as shown frequently throughout the video footage below.
- the vertical pass or the through ball is the most ideal pass as it is played between the opposite markers to a teammate behind. The sharp executed pass lets the team advance further up the pitch moving the ball into the final third or into more dangerous areas of the pitch. It is a great way to play through the lines relieving pressure by playing laterally. Vertical passes should be played with precision and strength as it increases the risk of loosing the ball often in vulnerable situations/zones.
In Football Manager 2015 through balls can be instructed by default player role behavior, for example from the playmakers who will play risky passes more often, by player instructions direct passes or by team instructions pass into space
Player preferred movements to consider is: tries killer balls often.
- The back pass was mainly used to maintain possession in order to change the point of attack. It let players move into the correct shapes after intensive pressure or after an unsuccessful attempt to reach the final third as the opposition has ‘locked’ the playing area. It could also be an important way to unsettle the opposition team by heavy change of tempo switch. In my point of view, back passes served a purpose as it aimed to tease the opposition to close down and move out, which evidently created space behind. To use Guardiolas own words; “a back pass is the beginning of another better play“.
- Long balls were very rarely used. This is also why I have not taken it into account, but it could be executed by Victor Valdes, who launched long balls into the midfield area to relieve pressure when opponents played with a high block, or by Andres Iniesta, who tended to switch the ball to the other flank, in order to change the point of attack, if it was numerical inferiority and few real passing alternatives due to wrong positioning. For the goalkeeper it equals to choosing a sweeper keeper support or attack, as he will look to play counter balls far often, something we don’t want to replicate for tiki taka per se. FM15 Player preferred moves to consider is: switch ball to the other flank or play out of trouble.
In regard to the tiki-taka name, we can describe the quick short passes, the lay offs and flick ons as tiqui, while taca refers to the more direct passes which splits open the opposite defense or are played to the feet of a teammate in the next line (read: third line passes). This is perhaps a valuable point to notice. Barcelona favored to play to each others feet – no matter the passing distance. This is also evident in the high passing accuracy of over 88%
When the players should use a first line pass, third line pass or half a touch depends on the decision making of the individual, how the player analyze the current situation and the organization of the team according to the phase. What is apparent is that all players must be capable to use any of the passing types mentioned above in order to create a fluid passing philosophy as possible. It was not as rigid as Football Manager 2015 where Xavi would make more risky passes (role: deep-lying playmaker) no matter where on the pitch he is, or that Pique would never try through balls (role: central defender defend). It was always about the situation according to the phase, but some had more creative freedom than others.
The approach of passing must be build on patience, on urgency, on movements of the pressure relievers and supporting players, the depth created by the covering players, on sensibility and each players unique vision.
We favor ball possession games, played in a small area because we like to play our matches in the opponents half of the field. This means less space and time, and if you are better in ball possession in these restricted areas you have an advantage.
Frank Rijkaard, Coaching the Tiki Tak Style of Play by Jed C. Davies
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona wanted to control the opposition team in all phases of play, dictating how the opposition should act and react no matter if Barcelona were in possession or not. Controlling the opposition depended on which passing types specific players used to move the opposition, how they changed the tempo of the game within the different thirds, how the positional template transformed from one phase to another, how and where the team wanted to regain possession and finally how they wanted to control the opposition when the team were out of possession. It could be everything from favorable zones the Barcelona players enticed the opposition to play in, in order to win the ball back, to how they could create spaces so specific players could flourish. The build up play were one of the steps the team looked to favor from in order to dictate how they wanted to attack.
Barcelona favored to play their way out of defense rather than counter immediately. By playing their way out from the back, they kept control of the ball taking few risks while being defensive solid – gaining ground meters by meters through passing play and intelligent movements within team cohesion. All players were involved in this phase as Barcelona opted to prove the opposition team using the full width of the pitch. This meant that goalkeepers and defenders were capable with the ball at their feet and technical proficient to utilize passing play.
Pep Guardiola actually favored the team to get the ball to the midfield line as quickly as possible, as he believed the best players were found in the midfield. They were tactical, technical and physical stronger than the rest.
This was also part of the reason why he opted to use Mascherano as central defender rather than a ball winning midfielder as the central defenders would be part of the ball circulation.
According to the historical statistics from 2010-2011, Xavi (110), Busquets 86.1), Iniesta (78.4) and Alves (72.4) (‘midfield’ quadruple) all completed over 72 passes in average per match that season, where few of these could be considered long balls. Coupling that with the high passing success percentage of around 91%(1) for these players it clearly shows how good and technical proficient the ‘midfield playmakers’ were at retaining possession within an attacking purpose.
A team that passes the ball around in its own defense is doomed. You must pass the ball to midfield, as soon as possible because that’s where your best players are, and then the whole defense will be behind the ball.
Build-Up Phase – Playing Out from the Back
In the build-up play Barcelona retained possession as a way to try to discover/create weaknesses in the oppositions’ shapes and systems. As horizontal passes and back passes were often the case at this phase, some people claimed the football philosophy was rather defensive as it seemed they just looked to hold onto the ball without a purpose, instead it was the essential part of its success, and quite the opposite in my point of view.
The build-up was categorized by a slower tempo in order to utilize the full width of the pitch giving the wing backs time to get forward and create a numerical superiority in the midfield line. According to the book Pep Confidential where Martí Perarnau has been given an unique opportunity to get behind the scenes of Bayerns first season with Pep Guardiola in charge and reveal some of his football philosophy and secrets, Guardiola had a 15 pass rule in the build-up phase, which was categorized by fast, tight focused passes within the units, making sure they kept their shape as well as disorganize the opposition, before trying to play it into final third. These 15 passes should make sure the wingbacks should get time to get forward as well as getting players in the correct positions (4-3-3 to 2-1-4-3 / 2-3-5)
If you loose the ball, if they get it off you, then the player who takes it will probably be alone and surrounded by your players, who will then get it back easily or, at the very least, ensure that rival team can’t manoeuvere quickly. It’s these 15 passs that prevent your rival from making any kind of co-ordinated transition.
Josep Guardiola, Pep Confidential; The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First season at Bayern Munich, 2014
By utilizing the full pitch, each players had to cover a lot of ground in order to aid the team cohesion in the build up phase, but this were merely done by subtle movements from a few players (first and foremost the movements of the (right) wingbacks and the false nine. By utilizing the full pitch it looked to stretch and open up space between the opposite players.
The team focused on ‘keeping its shape’ in the build up phase maximizing the amount of passing options for the player in possession. This meant that the players were rather disciplined following the match plan of Guardiola in order to get the ball into the desired location, or to move the opposition in a specific way in order to enter the final third from a specific angle.
In the match against Real Madrid 29.11.2010 there were mainly two systems used when building out from the back;
1.A) The 3-3-1-3 formation which might look like an asymmetric 3-2-3-2 formation. What you should notice in this illustration is the distinct wide diamond structure at the back, which gives the central defender (DCL) complete vision of the pitch. He can quickly change the point of attack from one side to the other. This is also the player Xavi (MCR) directs the ball to, who have already dropped deep between lines playing behind DM (Busquets), who takes up Xavi’s normal positioning.
1.B) The 3-2-3-2 formation where central defender right and DL pushes wide leaving only one player in the center of the pitch, but is supported by two midfielders (DM and MCR) who drops deep and into the yellow area. Notice how this stretches Real Madrids defensive block, the covering duty of DCL and how quickly Barcelona can get the ball into final third – passing to DCL and DM as the center strata is wide open.
Here is another similar example, where the formation can be resembled to a 3-4-3 formation featuring a strong square in the middle, while DL and DCR pushes wide to utilize the full width.
2) The 1-3-3-3 formation which resembles how Ajax of the 70’s and their use of a sweeper.
What is common with all the different formations highlighted above is how the movements from primarily WBR, MCR and DM helps the team to build up from the back. While the MCR and DM would both drop into space and create support and cover for the player in possession, the WBR would take up position close to the halfway line. It was the movements from these 3, who literally influenced how the back three would position themselves.
Note how wide the central defender right pushes wide, while DCL position himself in the middle. This would be impossible to replicate in Football Manager 2015 without playing with a back 3.
As Barcelona played their way out of defence players used a less risky passing approach in the defensive third looking to constantly maximizing the amount of passing options for the player in possession. This was helped by;
- Busquets movements – the extra (spare) player of the central zone who looked to either give support to the ball carrier or balance the system by covering the space left by others. This meant that he could both move laterally and horizontally. Since he is the extra player of the team, he is not included in any of the units mentioned under “attacking down the flanks”).
- forwards dropping deep to give support and create superiority around the ball zone – normally Pedro who tucks inside and dropped slightly deeper and Messi who seeked both the ball and space.
- the intelligent movements by Iniesta (creative outlet) and Xavi (possession retainer) who roams into space – acting like a pivot, where one pushes forward while the other drops deep.
Passing their way out of trouble relied on good player positioning and high levels of team cohesion, especially from the players forming the center diamond. The team focused on keeping its shape in the build up phase maximizing the amount of passing options for the player in possession, which a 2-3-2-3 formation gives perfect foundations for.
But Barcelona were no strangers to break up play by launching more direct passes over the opponents defensive line on to a breaking player (inside forward) from deep. It could be done if the opposition left huge areas behind them to exploit – using an high block. The overhead spinned lob or curled direct pass served a purpose either the breaking player could get the ball under control and be clear on goal or not. It let the team move higher up the pitch as the opponents have to turn running backwards to pick up the ball / the breaking player. As the opponents may have had full control in the seconds before, the situation is now quite different for the opposite team, as the focus is now on the ball rather than their designated marker or marking zone.
The control misplaced pass or the direct ball gives back the control of the current match situation to Barcelona as it moves the opposition to a desired location of the pitch. It gives Barcelona time to get players higher up the pitch, but also in position to close down more effectively. The forced backwards runs of the opposition may also both create space vertically (between lines) and horizontally between players of same line as they may have different duties (covering / support) and state of mind (attacking / defending).
NOTE! If the opponents gets hold of the ball the circumstances of regaining possession is better and more ideal because the ball is now not only closer to the opponents goal, but also the players around the ball zone and the man in possession has no clear perspective of play as his ‘wrong’ body positioning limits his vision of who follows him and the other movements made by the Barcelona players in the immediate seconds after tracking back to recover the ball.
So what might seem like an inaccurate pass giving possession away might give better foundations to regain possession higher up the pitch which is more ideal to continue to the next step – entering the final third.
The Formations in The Attacking Transition Phase
- Example A); When Barcelona played with only one attacking wingbacks the formation changed from a classic 4-3-3 to a 3-3-4 or an assymetric 3-1-3-3 formation in possession – meaning that the right wing back will stay in line with the wide forwards (excluding Messi who dropped deep into midfield)
- Example B); When Barcelona played with two attacking wingbacks the formation changed from a classic 4-3-3 to a 2-1-4-3 formation in possession – meaning that both wingbacks would stay somewhat in same line as Xavi and Iniesta. But the formation could also be interpreted as a 2-5-3/2-6-2 formation depending on Busquets and Messi’s movements according to space for each specific scenario.
- Example C); When Barcelona played with Busquets as half back and two attacking wingbacks the formation changed from a 2-3-2-3 formation to a 3-4-3 formation in possession meaning that both wingbacks would stay in line with Xavi and Iniesta, but it could also mean the back line featured four players. Read more in the part about defending – page 5 (coming soon).
The idea and main aim with playing from side to side through intricate patterns in order to seek opposite weaknesses were the trust that space would eventually open up as the opposite defensive block would eventually make ‘mistakes’. For example in the illustration above, the DCR with the ball has one possession keeper option in the other DCL plus two more advanced options in DR and MCR, since the DM is in passing shadow from the zonal marking ST. Here we have to remember the covering duty of the goalkeeper which he can pass to to retain possession and change the point of attack via. This is also what the opposite team might prefer as he is facing his own goal.
As the players marked as 1 tries to close down the man in possession, the second playmaker relieves pressure by redirecting the ball with a lay off to the now unmarked DM. With only two passes three opposite players are out of position.
If we imagine the same scenario when building out from the back against a low block, the players with possession without pressure (normally the deepest one of the triangle) would look to entice the opposite markers to close him down by holding on the ball – reducing the passing tempo to extremely low. Sooner or later the forwards will get impatience and look to move closer to him creating holes in the defensive block. This ensures that ball circulation can yet again progress (as new space behind the tracker opens up for the third player).
No matter which player who are in possession of the ball in the illustration above, he has at least two passing options. The player facing the opposite half will be the primarily executive to let the team gain more ground, normally by spraying vertical passes to more advanced players. Then it will be the fellow teammates task to aid him, creating space either by moving away from him or move closer to him in order to relieve pressure for the man with the ball.
Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do; look for spaces. All day. […] It’s like being on the PlayStation. I think shit, the defender’s here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That’s what I do.
Xavi, “I’m a Romantic”, says Xavi, heartbeat of Barcelona and Spain, by Sid Lowe (2011)
In order to move the ball into the final third, Barcelona opted to break down the opposite unit in a number of ways, or because of a number of circumstances and reasons;
- be patience and wait until one player is out of position or makes the wrong decision as he tries to close down at the wrong time. Here Barcelona used many tricks to entice the marker to move closer to them / close them down in order to create holes in the defensive block. A loss of concentration as he is tired of being in a defensive mentality level would aid Barcelona to move into final third as well.
- the focus on numerical superiority, creating perfect triangles and rhombus’ with as little movement as possible. With a perfect triangle the man in possession will have at least 2 passing options. With a rhombus? 3.
- the importance of depth is also apparent. It could be a matter of horizontal or vertical depth. In possession, Barcelona had to have players covering as the deepest players or the player furthest away from the ball zone have the best perspective of play (This player will always be available for a pass offering security in the build up play). Here we can mention the importance of Valdes in the defensive third, Busquets in the middle third and Villa who stays wide in the attacking third
- the level of the oppositions defensive block influenced the passing tempo, length of passing and the narrowing of the triangles. A high block (illustration 2) narrowed the triangles and shape, and forced the team to play their way out of trouble at an higher tempo; rapid ball movement focusing on mig tocs, while a low block widen the shapes and reduced the tempo to very slow as players looked to hold onto the ball more in order to entice the opponents to push out creating holes in the defensive block.
- the knowing that if a player are marked or closed down, another will be available for a pass. I refer to him as the spare player. This was the player Barcelona seeked to in order to move the ball into the final third, and it was often a player who looked to play between the lines. This is also directly related to the next postulate.
- the essential part of seeking to move into the final third is the tendency to build up on players who has their back against the opposite goal often man-marked and quickly closed down. By doing so the player would shield the ball or move with the ball a few meters back if no clear passing options are available. He would then hold onto the ball until the pressure reliever is free, or simply look to turn with it in a bid to increase the amount of passing options again. (Superiority in 1 versus 1 scenarios).
- When the first possession keeper holds up the ball and draws his marker closer to him, he actually creates space for a third player in an more advanced line, which the ball will be eventually played to with a third line of pass. This happened frequently providing the system the intricate pattern play we refers to as tiki taka.
Against an high defensive block it was not uncommon to see Barcelona deny space for the opposite markers to close them down by using the body positioning and the triangle as a way to shield the ball with their body. As they have their body between the marker and the ball they can simply narrow the triangle, which will make it ‘impossible’ for the markers to move between them. As the diamond shape is extremely narrow and tight it gives the opposite team less chances to regain the ball without making fouls, but more chances for Barcelona to come out victorious because of their excellent mastering of congested areas (rehearsed play because of the rondo training exercise).
In tight spaces it was not uncommon to see rapid ball circulation between the 3 players in the triangle before redirecting it to a pressure reliever (in this example the GK), or actually make a third line pass onto a moving player (WBR moves up into space (yellow) or ball is directed via AMR to the desired location – point 1). These pass and move combinations happened frequently in order to unsettle the opposite trackers. Another less risky scenario was to switch the point of attack to the other flank where it definitely would be space, since much of the opposite team was pushed over to one side. It all depended on the circumstances, how organized the opposition team was and how deep they were.
While the idea of getting marked / closed down is bi-folded, as it is both advantages and disadvantages with that approach, the player in possession would often look to be closed down by making a false touch; making it seem he has not 100% control of the ball which triggers the opposite marker to close him down or move towards him. This little trick often created space behind the player which another could move into and exploit (also known as third man runs).
Utilizing false touches is not a default Football Manager player instructions, but happens frequently in the current ME because of minor issues with the strength of pass according to the ball movement and its impact on quality of first touches (patches up to 15.2.1.
One of the tools Barcelona used frequently to both relieve pressure and move into final third was the use of a number of pass and move combinations. It ensures that the player in possession would get support after passing the ball and maintain the desired triangles and shapes which ensures ball circulation. In this brief illustration one player passes, moves from his marker or into new found space, gets the ball back and can change the point of attack or move the ball into final third in a moment. As you may have discovered, the players made more minor movements in order to maintain fitness level as it increases the possibility to get the ball back if he sticks to his position rather than running 50 meters a head.
Here the passes and movement have to be coordinated and fluid, not letting teammates come under extensive pressure and played in a flow which lets the team control the match.
You make space, you come into space. If the ball doesn’t come, you leave this place and another will come into it. This movement flows down the sides of the team and also in the middle.
Barry Hulshoff about Total voetbal, Brilliant Orange; The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer by David Winner, 2008
The minor movements forming triangles and rhombus’ ensures that passing tempo can be kept, while the player in possession gets space and time to pick out his next pass as the opposite marker has to make a judgement to close down or continue to mark the player who is moving – perhaps out of dangerous zone (for example Messi or Pedro dropping deep).
Barcelona would often use rehearsed passing combinations which was helped by the movement of a third player, who could be on the blind side of the markers and were not involved with play before his run starts, in order to move the ball into the next third, either it is from defensive third to middle or middle to attacking third.
The final result was the intricate pattern play tiring the opposite out with precise short passing play at high tempo. The pass and move combinations were used between all players of team, but far more between Alves, Pedro and Messi, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta or Iniesta, Villa and Messi – in that order. This is something I will discuss at greater length in the section about attacking play – see one twos and overlaps.
A lot of trainers say, ‘Pass the ball and run’, but what I say is the complete opposite
‘Pass the ball and stay’, ‘Pass the ball and find the right pass’, ‘Pass the ball and be ready’.
“Don’t expend too much energy running because if you have to run a lot you are more tired and if you are more tired you’re more likely to lose the ball.
Albert Capellas, “How to Play Possession Football”, FourFourTwo Performance
To conclude, Barcelona changed the rhythm and tempo of the play depending on the amount of pressure and when it was favorable to move into the final third. The players opted to slow down play in order to lure the markers up on them before passing the ball at speed of light into a new area of the pitch. The idea according to Pep Guardiola “was not to move the ball, but to move the opposition. You invite them to press, gaps starts to open up and it’s only then a forward pass is favorable“. In reality you draw them out of shape purely by short passing play.