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May 29, 2017

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Is Spain's elimination from the World Cup the end for tiki-taka?

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Spain's elimination from the World Cup by Chile not only spelt the end for one of the greatest national teams, but also threatened the demise of an entire soccer playing philosophy.

Spain's intricate passing style, dubbed "tiki-taka," swept all before it for the best part of six years, but the sight of Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso being harried out of their stride by Jorge Sampaoli's hard-working Chile at the Maracana on Wednesday felt like the end of an era.

Argentina legend Diego Maradona is among those who believe that tiki-taka has become a tactical relic, but can an approach that has become so widespread be invalidated by the result of just one game?

As Spain midfielder David Silva asked British newspaper The Independent before the tournament: "Why would we change? We've done very well with this style. There's no need to change it."

Where Spain led with tiki-taka, winning Euro 2008, so Barcelona followed, dominating the European club game between 2008 and 2011 under Pep Guardiola, who subsequently installed the same playing philosophy at Bayern Munich.

Carlo Ancelotti's counter-attacking Real Madrid got the better of both teams last season, however, routing Bayern 5-0 in the Champions League semi-finals and edging Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey.

Bayern's loss to Madrid was particularly illustrative, with the Spanish side procuring a 1-0 first-leg lead despite enjoying only 36 percent of possession at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Counter-punchers Arrive

Indeed, all over Europe, teams have been relinquishing the ball and still enjoying success, with Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea in the vanguard of the new wave of counter-punching sides.

Rather than endlessly circulating possession in a manner that prompted some critics of tiki-taka to brand it "boring," the counter-punchers rely on breathless industry and water-tight defensive organization.

It is on their opponents' mistakes that they prey and in the tika-taka era, with teams falling over themselves to ape the Spanish style by taking more and more risks in possession, it is an increasingly effective approach.

Against such tactics, tiki-taka can seem naive in its steadfast commitment to conserving possession, but its impact already reaches so deep that it would prove impossible to fully uproot.

It was Barcelona, with Lionel Messi, who first brought the "false nine" tactic to a wider audience, while it is now commonplace to see goalkeepers methodically practicing first-time passes during their pre-match warm-ups.

The cult of possession has forced players in every position to sharpen up their technique and has made the scrutiny of passing completion statistics an early port of call in any after-match post-mortem.

Its legacy can also be seen in the ubiquitousness of small, Spanish midfielders at Europe's leading clubs, from Silva at Manchester City and Santi Cazorla at Arsenal to Thiago Alcantara at Bayern and Juan Mata at Manchester United.

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