The essential logic behind Pep Guardiola’s football philosophy remains beautiful in its simplicity: When your team has the ball, the other side doesn’t. Without the ball, opponents cannot score, they tire and drift out of position chasing after it, and that opens gaps which your quick-thinking, passing and moving players should exploit.
The dizzying Spirograph of Guardiola’s game, executed by players who lived and breathed it and, most importantly, not only kept but made devastating use of the ball, made him the most successful coach in Barcelona’s history.
Because he is smart and because his philosophy is still sound, Guardiola will make it work again at Bayern Munich. The ghost of “tiki-taka” possession-driven football will come back to haunt those who read it last rites when Real Madrid unpicked Guardiola’s team this week on its way to the Champions League final. Twitter wits circulated a photo of a tombstone engraved “RIP Tiki Taka 2008-2014.” As Mark Twain might have said, that was greatly exaggerated.
Perhaps Guardiola even did too well in this, his first season at the German club that won the Champions League last year. Winning the Bundesliga in record time, nearly two months early and with seven games to spare, acted like Kryptonite. Guardiola and his team went de-mob happy and lost some of their super powers. The defense that gave away just 13 goals in 27 league games then shipped nine in the next five. Against Real, Bayern looked like someone who after too long on the couch gets up to discover that their legs have fallen asleep.
Possession-driven teams don’t lose simply because they have too much of the ball. They lose when they don’t put the ball into the opponent’s net enough times. It is the execution of the philosophy, not the philosophy itself, that’s faulty.
At Barcelona, the possession game that won Guardiola an unprecedented 13 trophies in four seasons had the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, on the end of it. Bayern, in contrast, failed to turn 64-percent possession against Real into prizes. Not one of its 24 corners over two legs of the semifinal, for example, resulted in a Bayern goal.
At Barcelona, get the ball, pass the ball was drilled into the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Messi since their days at the club’s La Masia youth academy, one reason why its style of play isn’t transplantable everywhere or easily. Against Real, Bayern players looked like they’re still thinking, not feeling, what Guardiola expects. Attacks were methodical, not surprising.
Back in his laboratory this summer, expect Guardiola to keep experimenting. The arrival from Borussia Dortmund of striker Robert Lewandowski will give him a new ingredient to play with. Guardiola will weigh whether his philosophy can become second-nature for the players he has or if it – or they – will need tweaking.
Competing systems aren’t simply right or wrong, but they can be right or wrong for any given set of players. And players must get the fundamentals right. Bayern’s undoing was atrocious defending, giving Sergio Ramos space to head two first-half goals in five minutes in Munich, not because smart-suited men on touchlines cook up magical tactical formulas or get them disastrously wrong.
Too much credit can go to managers, when it should go to players who do the actual sweating on the pitch. Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti may be a tactical wiz. His record supports that. But Ancelotti’s brains alone didn’t put away Madrid’s third or fourth goals in Munich.
The combined speed of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the two most expensive footballers ever, was key for the third, proving that you do sometimes get what you pay for. The fourth wasn’t because of any uber-plan but because Ronaldo is a wily football fox who cleverly wriggled his free kick under, not over, Bayern’s wall.
Perhaps tiki-taka’s grim reapers want to steer Guardiola away from possession-driven football because they fear how potent Bayern could become if – when? – he gets it to function like clockwork against Europe’s very best teams.
It is true that, eventually, even watching Barcelona became dull because Messi and Co. were so selfish with the ball. Contests became too one-sided, and success always breeds enemies. That could explain some of the instant glee over Madrid’s aggregate 5-0 humbling of Guardiola’s new project.
But those declaring his game dead are wrong if they expect Guardiola, himself a La Masia graduate, will be the one to dig its grave. Nor should we want him to.
If there was one single, foolproof philosophy for winning football games, we’d know by now. Everyone would have adopted it. And we would all long ago have switched channels to another, more varied sport.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester