Barca haters pounced gleefully on the Spanish club’s failure to prevail either in La Liga or the Champion’s League last season, declaring the death of the “tiki-taka,” Barcelona’s signature short-passing style that prioritizes possession and patient buildup play over using two or three lightning passes to get the ball from defense into a goal-scoring position. And when Spain, whose progressive-possession play is based on Barca’s style, started the tournament without a recognized striker on the field, it was greeted as the ultimate folly that would bury what critics saw as an approach based on passing the ball all the way into the net.
A symbolic refutation of those critics came 18 minutes into Spain’s quarterfinal clash with France. Spain was once again strikerless but hardly predictable. The ever brilliant Andrés Iniesta, against whom France had fielded two right backs, nonetheless freed his left back Jordi Alba with a brilliant through ball for the Spanish defender’s overlapping run. Alba brought the ball to the byline and sent a perfect cutback cross to the back post, where it would usually be met by a striker. Except in this instance, it was Xabi Alonso who provided the bullet-header finish. Alonso isn’t a striker, of course; he’s the defensive midfield anchor, although his passing range and game intelligence make him the best deep-lying playmaker in Europe. Spain’s attacks have been masterminded by Barcelona’s Xavi, but Alonso has provided a second level of playmaking with his ability to deliver penetrating passes from deep positions. Even if you shackle Xavi, you haven’t snuffed out Spain’s creativity, because it has more than one source.
Still, nobody expects Alonso to be the player making the late run into the box to apply the finishing touch to a far-post cross. But the number on his back says it all: 14. This was not simply a case of Spain playing without a recognized No. 9, the traditional number denoting the center forward, from the days when the number on a player’s back indicated the position he played. No. 14 was made iconic by the Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, in the first noticeable break from position-identifying numbers. Cruyff, one of the architects of “total football,” was hard to lock down to a single position. He was a forward, sure, but he played with unique positional freedom and also with a coach’s sense of how to organize his teammates in different phases of the game. And it was Cruyff who was instrumental in bringing the DNA of “total football” to Barcelona in the ’70s, planting the seeds of the modern Spanish game.
The arrival of No. 14 in the box to head home a ball intended for a nonexistent striker highlights the fluidity of the Spanish system, in which players rotate duties, always maintaining a coach’s sense of the overall shape of the team and the opposition. Alonso began his run into the area because France’s Florent Malouda wasn’t tracking him, perhaps assuming that Alonso’s defensive duties would preclude him from joining the attack — but in a system with six midfielders, you can’t make such assumptions.
No tactical system is static, of course, and they all depend on the ability of the players to make them operational. Most important, they have to adapt to the tactics and abilities of opponents. Teams with talented and motivated players and clever coaches will figure out ways to beat Spain and Barca. And just as certainly, Spain and Barca will develop counterstrategies — all of which they will learn from one another. That’s what keeps it interesting.