During the Euros the Spanish seemed to reach a pinnacle for the short passing game. So content were they in possession of the ball they could afford to drop a recognised centre forward from their starting eleven and still hammer a sturdy Italian defence four nil in the final. It was impressive stuff and, at it’s finest, the art of possession football and high intensity pressure appears to be the blueprint for the beautiful game. It’s a blueprint that many appear to want to follow.
During the close season we’ve already seen Liverpool shamelessly axe an Anfield legend for the silky passing triangles favoured by Brendan Roger’s Swansea. Spurs didn’t think twice about showing Harry Redknapp the door and bringing in AVB, a keen follower of the ‘high line’ and a student of the cultured attacking approach. It’s pretty clear that the pursuit of Tika-Taka by clubs owners, giddy from watching the passing carousel of Barcelona, has been in full force. It’s also a trend that can also be noticed closer to home in how our preseason business has panned out.
So far we’ve made four summer signings – Eden and Thorgan Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin, who have joined the promising winter signing Kevin De Bruyne in the ranks. All of these players are young and, à la the Barca forward line, not the biggest units. These are players signed to be comfortable receiving the ball in tight areas, to have a turn of pace and an eye for a defence splitting pass.
Granted some of the signings will be more gifted players than others but it appears that the blueprint to Tika-Taka hasn’t gone unnoticed at Stamford Bridge either. Mata’s success last season appears to have laid the foundation for our recruitment drive – small, nimble, clever and creative players who can open up a stubborn defence. As the Premier League has evolved so too have the sides lower down the table. Last season we saw the newly promoted clubs, such as Swansea and Norwich, play the game on the floor. They didn’t try to exert influence on the game by being overly physical. The days of lumping it forward to a target man and kicking lumps out of superior opposition are in decline for the top division. The referring, the contact rules and the level the Spanish have taken the game have all helped to see to that. These days the artisan, creative player can make more of an impact without being kicked out of the game.
Our midfield and forward line may well look very different to the ones we’ve seen in recent years. The likes of Ballack, Lampard, Essien, Drogba and Mikel are formidable athletics and powerhouses in their positions. These are players that can stand toe-to-toe with the most physical of sides, to give as good as they get, and still have enough class to outplay them. Over the coming seasons we might see something very different – the clever deftness of passing from Oscar and McEachran perhaps, the nimble creators of Mata and Hazard and the physical grit provided by the speedy Ramires and Torres. It’s a team that looks to be set up to have the ball and to keep it for long periods. It’s a team that could dazzle and delight. It just might not be a side to battle to a hard fought one nil on a freezing night in Lancashire. Although the final performance from Spain was superb we’ve also seen when Tika-Taka goes wrong, when the endless passing is more a self-hindrance than anything conducive. We’ve seen sides sit and soak up pressure around the eighteen yard box and then counter with pace to damaging effect. It may well be that we have now also seen the blueprint to stop a side being able to Tika-Taka you to death.
It’s exciting to see how the new players and perhaps the new approach, will come together over the next couple of weeks. It was promising to hear from Robbie Di Matteo about the need to find balance in his side – it’s not just making sure the midfield isn’t too open and attacking, it’s also making sure that we retain a physical edge to our play – because for all of the evolution of the passing game we’ve seen in England the last four or five years there’ll always be a Sam Allaydyce type to contend with.