Perhaps we should have seen this coming.
Casillas hasn’t been a full time starter in more than two seasons. Xavi, now 34, suffered through his worst Club season since first establishing himself under Pep. Worse yet, we were treated to a sneak peak of this summer blockbuster just eleven months ago, when upstart Brazil – full of youth, athleticism and bravado – thrashed this Spanish side 3-0.
But who could have predicted the reigning World Cup champions crashing out in the group stage? Well, anyone who watched in 2010 as then-World Cup holders Italy suffered a spectacular group exit finishing bottom of Group F with just two points (beneath Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand).
Were we simply blinded by the gleam of the trophies that accompanied so many of their past accomplishments?
Following Spain’s 5-1 and 2-0 losses to Netherlands and Chile, have we seen the end of tiki-taka? Not to mention, the shocking defeats suffered by Barcelona in 2013 (to Jupp’s Bayern) and by Pep’s Bayern in April (to Ancelotti’s Madrid). It’s tempting to make sweeping generalizations in the immediate aftermath of such losses, but what do you with more than a year of such results?
Perhaps instead of asking if tiki-taka has reached its end, we should be asking if tiki-taka has always been a system predicated more on players than the system itself. If so, has Spain finally failed simply because they had the wrong players at the wrong time? Is a system that required a team wide press, with never ending off the ball movement to blame for the demise of a team with aging (and in fact, already old) players who are no longer capable of playing in that manner? Is it really all that surprising that a midfield pairing of Xavi and Xabi (with a combined age of 66) struggled to control the ball or the tempo against faster and younger teams? Should Iniesta (himself at 30) really be playing ninety minutes a game in front of players like Isco or Mata? And how good of a squad is it really, when the manager is forced to turn to Fernando Torres to find a goal – or in this case, three.
Spain’s play against Chile tonight, while obviously not resulting in a goal, improved instantly following Koke’s introduction. And lest we forget, Spain were very nearly 2-0 up with 44 minutes played in the first match against Holland – hard to say where they’d be now if Silva’s chip hadn’t been saved by Jasper Cillessen.
While it’s certainly the end of an era – and a shocking end, at that – it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of tiki-taka. Barcelona and Bayern Munich will continue to see twice as much possession as their opponent and there will still be times when the short, triangular passing mesmerizes us (and the defender) for just long enough to release Messi or Goetze or Mueller into the space conceded behind.
But the aura of invincibility has now surely gone. It took five years for the blueprint to be laid; five full years of embarrassing defeats at the hands (feet, really) of these little giants, before teams finally understand exactly how to defend, and in turn, attack, this Spanish philosophy. And even still, the Spanish will be back – if one golden generation has reached their end, another might now be springing up: players like David De Gea, Isco, Koke, Jese, Deulofeu, and Morata seem to be primed to pick up where their predecessors left off.
It’s been said that international football often follows in the footsteps of Club football – and if that’s true, perhaps it’s only fitting that Spain has now finally suffered the same fate as Barcelona and Bayern Munich.