Moscow: A shootout in the World Cup is always dramatic with one team mandated to spill copious amount of tears at the end of it. Sunday was no different as Russia edged out Spain on penalties in front of their delirious fans at the Luzhniki Stadium to reach the quarterfinals.
The climax was exciting all right but the movie was, otherwise, soporific. Russia were at least unpretentious about their goal: a shootout. And, they did what they had to do — defend as a team — to achieve their objective.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov defended his strategy after the match. A team of limited abilities like his had no option other than defending deep and trying to hit on the counter. Igor Akinfeev, Russia’s captain and the star of the shootout, also had no qualms about admitting his team’s negative tactics.
What should not be lost sight of is Spain’s handsome contribution to the battle of attrition in open play. They were equally culpable as Russia, if not more, for putting fans to sleep. Russia’s style could be justified but there was no excuse for the lack of urgency from the Spaniards. The 2010 champions played a stellar role in the bad advertisement for football.
While Spain’s tiki-taka from 2008 to 2012 was all about passing the ball around to gain space, the style of play of their most recent incarnation is keep moving the ball to go nowhere. The jam-packed Luzhniki crowd started a Mexican wave within 10 minutes, more in response to Spain’s series of square passes than in exasperation of Russia’s inability to attack.
Tiki-taka is delightful when it is played by the best but can be detrimental to a limited team, as Spain learned on Sunday. The purpose of playing football is not keeping possession but scoring goals. Watching Spain was painful indeed at the Luzhniki.
Spain’s lone forward Diego Costa spent the match in so much isolation that he could well have been in Siberia the whole evening.
The biggest problem with tiki-taka in a 4-2-3-1 formation is all five midfielders tend to play through the middle, robbing the team of width. Unless the full-backs overlap, there is no attack through the wings at all. Tiki-taka precludes a Plan ‘B’ by design. A penchant for moving the ball around on the ground means the services of a fantastic header like Sergio Ramos remains unutilised even in set-pieces.
Andres Iniesta could have threaded a couple of goal-scoring assists at his peak, but he is now long in the tooth and short on confidence. Isco would be the main man for Spain at least until the next World Cup but he is not yet an Iniesta or a Xavi.
And, Spain’s opponents have found a way to tackle tiki-taka after being passed to death for four to five years. The failure of Barcelona to win the Champions League in recent times is instructive. Unless Spain fuse the intricate passing style of Barcelona and the direct counter-attacking method of Real Madrid, they may not be able to challenge for the title in Euro and the World Cup again.