In Spain they talk of revolution; in the broader world they proclaim the death of tiki-taka.
Both are overreactions, although in light of Spain’s 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands at the World Cup last week they are, if even only slightly, defendable positions.
If the Spanish public has its way, Wednesday’s Group B clash with Chile will see the introductions of Javi Martinez, Koke and Pedro, as a recent survey conducted by sports daily AS found the majority of the blame for the Dutch drubbing lies at the feet of Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Xavi Hernandez.
Xavi, in particular, has come in for criticism, what with La Roja’s stylistic philosophy so much a projection of his ideals, his abilities. An "exposed" philosophy, according to Diego Maradona, who in a Times of India column criticized Spain manager Vicente del Bosque for failing to take into account the Champions League defeats of Barcelona and Bayern Munich last season.
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"A fast-paced policy based on counterattacks has worked well against them," he wrote. "Spain have refused to change despite critics repeatedly pointing out that their style has been exposed."
But, the Argentina icon added—and this is crucial, "That the Spanish team has been ageing became evident when they lined up for their opening Group B clash."
Now, it could be pointed out that the likes of Busquets, Pique, David Silva and Jordi Alba were all under 28-years of age upon kickoff against the Netherlands, but what Maradona is getting at is that the key influences—the thought leaders—have declined since Euro 2012.
He means Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and he’s spot on.
It was because of the pair of them, after all, that former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola so effectively installed tiki-taka as the prevailing philosophy at Camp Nou in 2008. It was not the first time (and certainly not the last) that the style had been put into practise, but that it came to so thoroughly define a team was down to the once-in-a-generation types who masterminded it.
There was Xavi, the maestro, orchestrating his teammates’ every action, and Iniesta, the first violinist, taking what was conducted and moving with it.
But just as a sound can grow tiresome after a time, so too can the musicians become tired, worn out, and even old.
Xavi will turn 35 next season—a campaign he may well be spending at Qatari outfit Al-Sadd. The midfielder was on the bench as Barcelona looked to chase down the Primera Division title in mid-May, and beIN Sports has reported he could be set to depart the club following talks with incoming manager Luis Enrique.
Iniesta, too, is over 30 and coming off a mostly disappointing nine months in the Catalan capital. An iconic player in his own right, he has noticeably slowed a step—a reality that wasn’t at all helped against the Netherlands by Del Bosque, who deployed him on the left-hand side of the attack rather than alongside Xavi.
The two of them have typically worked in lockstep at Barcelona, and there’s a case to be made that their effectiveness wanes when space is put between them.
In tandem, they do the trigonometry and statistics exercises that make the taka tick. In separation, the math becomes rather more difficult, the numbers less willing to add up.
If football, as the cliche goes, is cyclical, the changeover at both Barcelona and the Spanish national team will be necessitated by the players who started the cycle in the first place. Or, to put it bluntly, by their declines.
But don’t expect a full-fledged revamp at this World Cup.
If anything, Spain will play even more within themselves than ever before. Diego Costa will likely be dropped in favour of a "false 9;" the whole arrangement will be tailored to accommodate Xavi and Iniesta one last time.
It’s hardly a revolution, and it’s certainly not the death of a philosophy. What we’re seeing is the end of an era, and what an era it’s been.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.