Fitness, Matches

The Secret to Beating the Spanish ‘Tika-Taka’

Neymar

Hello and welcome to the Soccer Fitness Gols Blog!

For my very first blog post, I thought I’d share something that has been on my mind for the past year – pretty much ever since the final match of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.  As a soccer fitness coach, I have always tried to figure out how to get players to perform at their best during games.  One thing that has always fascinated me is the way that the Spanish National team – and Spanish club Barcelona – have become experts at conserving energy by becoming masters of keeping possession of the ball.  This style of play, often called “Tika-Taka” (named after the sounds the ball makes as it bounces quickly from player-to-player with fast one-touch passing) is predicated on forcing the opponent to spend much of the game defending, often in their own defensive 1/3rd of the field.  A lot of the goals scored by Spain and Barcelona happen very quickly after they lose possession of the ball.  Because they are able to “rest” while they have the ball, if and when they lose it, the players have a lot of energy available to explode into a high pressing defense (typically in the opponent’s 1/3rd of the pitch), win the ball quickly while the opponent is off balance and key players are slightly out of position, then quickly counter-attack with a penetrating through ball and score. It sounds easy, but unfortunately, this style of play is not always realistic for teams (especially North American teams), because keeping a lot of possession of the ball often requires having 11 players on the field with the technical abilities of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, etc..which a lot of North American teams do not have.  Thus, I believe it may be more realistic for teams to try to figure out how to play against “Tika-Taka”, rather than to try to copy it. 

All of this brings me back to the 2013 Confederations Cup final in Brazil.  The hosts were playing Spain, the reigning World champions and 2-time European champions, and also the authors of “Tika-Taka” and possession-oriented soccer.  In this particular match, however, Brazil seemed to be able to prevent Spain from establishing rhythm in the game, in spite of their slightly higher ball possession (53% to Brazil’s 47%).  In defense, the Brazilian players did a lot of running off the ball, and were able to stuff out a lot of Spanish attacking moves before they became too dangerous.  If there is one statistic that really stands out at the end of the game, it is fouls committed (which I typically think of as a measure of intensity of play and work-rate – the higher the number of fouls committed, the higher the work-rate).  Brazil clearly took the lead in this category with 26 to Spain’s 16, although in spite of all these fouls, no Brazilian player received even a yellow card.  What this says to me as a fitness coach is that the Brazilians (in a very disciplined way) simply out-worked the Spanish in this game, and it is precisely the ability to out-work opponents that I believe is the key to beating teams that have more technical players and keep more possession of the ball. 

In soccer, out-working the opponent has everything to do with improving aerobic fitness levels.  A team that likes to keep possession will thrive on keeping possession because, as I mentioned earlier, the more they have the ball, the more they can rest, and save energy to pounce when they do lose possession.  If you are playing against a team that likes to keep possession, you need to make sure you are aerobically fitter than they are.  If you do that, you will be able to run more when defending, and get players into situations where they can outnumber the opponent when the opponent is in possession of the ball.  This will frustrate a possession-oriented team, because they will not be able to establish a rhythm and will not always be able to rest while in possession, thus limiting the number and effectiveness of the dangerous counter-attacks they like to use.   In the Confederations Cup final, Brazil really did look like the fitter team.  Even the fifa.com game summary reads: “Brazil harried and chased Spain all over the pitch, with the home crowd cheering them on.”

I don’t know how the Brazilians did their fitness training leading up to this tournament, but it must have involved a significant amount of high intensity aerobic interval training, and probably a lot of this work was done on the field in defending practices.  The results speak for themselves, and I can’t wait to see how the Brazilians do in this year’s World Cup!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started!

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