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Spain: A timely and necessary goodbye to tiki-taka

In the end, Spain will benefit from the loss to Russia on Sunday, which ended their World Cup hopes at the last 16 stage. It was a necessary, albeit harsh, swan-song for Spain’s passing style of play, as every one of its flaws were exposed. If the Russia game hadn’t happened, Spain might have ended up playing that same match over and over again as though caught up in some analytical simulation - except with real live footballers and real life spectators.

When the word first appeared, it was exotic and alliterative. Tiki-Taka. It rolled off the tongue and was so easy to use that it ended up being overused. It was used to describe any team who had the good sense to want to keep the ball away from their opponents. It started out as just a term used to describe Spain’s clockwork like passing, then it was celebratory, before coming full circle to being used mostly in the negative sense again. An onomatopoeic term, in that it sounds like a clock, if you listened hard enough, you could hear the seconds tick by at the Luzhniki Stadium as Spain passed their way from one to 120 minutes in what felt like a black hole of sideways passing.

On Sunday, it became a pantomime sketch. Every time you thought Spain might move it forward, we got a nod of the finger from the villain, before a pass backwards and a repeat. The suspense rose a little, then it waned, before rising again and then disappearing altogether. There would be no passing their way out of this one as Russia and Spain jerseys caused traffic jams in passing lanes and there were tailbacks as far as the eye could see.

Likely tiki-taka’s final farewell then, and we got to say goodbye in the saddest way possible. It didn’t burn out like a firecracker, nor did it go out with dignity. Instead, tiki-taka stumbled to the end of the road, fighting to survive but without any real idea of why. In fact, the game against Russia could have been a game devised by someone who had never seen a game of football but had been briefed in endless detail about what tiki-taka was and how teams tended to defend against it.

Hierro and Ramos walk off the field after the loss to Russia.

Of course, there were issues that happened off the field that conditioned this defeat too. But what happened between kick-off and when Igor Akinfeev managed to clip Iago Aspas’ penalty with his airborne leg is everything that has been used to criticise this Spain side’s approach: a lack of goals, a lack of directness, an over reliance on the tick, and the tock of midfield passing.

The hope now has to be that this loss will help turn them into the team they have been threatening, and indeed needing, to become for the last couple of years. Saul Niguez will likely feature more prominently in the new set-up as will Thiago Alcantara and Marco Asensio, who should be liberated in a system that doesn’t handcuff him.

It’s true that despite the dreadful hurt they are suffering right now, Spain won’t suffer too much from this change, given the talent they have coming through - provided the right decisions are made in its wake. But the shock of the exit to a far weaker side in footballing terms will leave a bitter taste and deepen divides in Spanish football as to who was truly to blame. If this was a funeral for tiki-taka, it was a send-off filled with what ifs. What if Spain could have managed to blend their ability to keep the ball with even a modicum of movement up front. A fake run or pass in behind. You can’t say it died four years earlier because Netherlands and Chile disembowelled Spain before they could get a chance to set themselves up properly to pass their way into oblivion. Maybe it was then that the symptoms started to show but tiki-taka was still alive.

The term can be put in a box now and sent to the mausoleum, brought out occasionally for documentaries with sepia-toned filters remembering the halcyon days of South Africa.

There will be blame spread to all four corners of Spain and into every nook and cranny of the Spanish federation’s offices. There will be headlines trying to capture the mood and whatever version of 'root and branch review' they use in Spain. Spain’s dominance might return but it is undoubtedly the end of an era and with that comes a chance for change and with change comes reinvention. And reinvention is one of the purest and freshest forms of hope.

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