"I Loathe All That Passing–That Tiquitaca" - Exploring Indirect Possession
*Credit The Telegraph
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It's so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition's goal. It's not about passing for the sake of it.” – Pep Guardiola to The Telegraph
Though many coaches, players, and fans have encountered that quote, it’s sure to catch some by surprise. I remember feeling surprised when first encountering it.
Yet, at the same time, I agreed.
One of my unpopular takes on the last Pep Guardiola Barcelona teams is that they had become stagnant in possession. Watching them swing the infamous U-shaped attack around the opposition’s parked bus was monotonous. It wasn’t fun to watch. His move to Bayern Munich was much needed.
With a different soccer culture, a new set of players, and fresh tactical demands, he went back to the drawing board. Fortunately for the soccer-loving public (you and I), Marti Perarnau was right beside Guardiola, documenting his first season with the Bavarian giants in Pep Confidential.
Chapter 22 was my first exposure to a distinction in indirect possession. The chapter title? ‘I Loathe All That Passing – That Tiquitaca.’
That outburst made me a better coach.
Because until then, I assumed indirect possession was a one-size-fits-all approach. You either have the ball or you don’t. Teams that utilize an indirect possession approach were ultra-safe, rarely took chances in the attacking half, and ultimately used possession as a defensive tactic. At least that’s how I interpreted it.
The philosophy was in vogue at the American youth ranks, at least theoretically. Teams prioritized building out of the back, we started emphasizing recycling play, playing the way you face, and 5v2 rondos were now common practice.
Later, I came to find that “tiki taka” is an insult in Spain, demarcating possession without penetration. 'El Toque' (the touch) was the term the Spanish used to describe Pep’s Barcelona. Shortly afterwards, I came across Adin Osmanbašić’s Juego de Posición under Pep Guardiola article on Spielverlagerung.
I was hooked.
So much so the article is required reading for each team I coach (get ready P******* University…announcement coming soon). Adin, if you read this, know your work has had a lasting impact on me and countless youth soccer players in the USA.
Let’s talk about a few variations of indirect possessions.
Indirect Possession/Tiki Taka
Moving from direct possession in the last blog post to indirect possession, which some call tiki taka, the major differences between the two are the tempo of the game, use of width, and the incorporation of deeper players, like marauding outside-backs or centerbacks and #6s taking on deep-lying playmaker responsibilities. Building out of the back and connecting the lines is central to the team’s play as they get up and down the pitch together. They’ll look to unbalance the opposition’s defense through possession, gradually creating the spaces they want to attack.
By overloading near the ball, which you’ll recall means they’re committing more numbers near the ball, the plan is to draw opponents away from desired attacking spaces, as well as enable a quick counterpress. Once opponents are unbalanced, leaving large gaps in their defensive structure, that cues the next stage of the attack, often a line-breaking pass. Regardless of the attacking phase, these teams move up and down the pitch together.
While it’s a stretch to call any form of indirect play “possession for the sake of possession,” this is as close as it gets. Steering away from the implied insult, it’s better termed “possession until progression.” Wide circulation forces defenses to move along the X and Y-axis. As they move, gaps emerge, cueing progression. Movements inside of the press are important, but it’s the players outside of the opposition’s defensive structure that determine the “when.”
Indirect Build-Out to Direct Attack
A hybrid of indirect and direct possession, the indirect build-out to direct attack is seen amongst teams that heavily emphasize building out of the back. Building out of the back is their means of widening the gaps in the opponent’s defensive structure.
As the attacking team passes the ball near their own goal, they’re trying to coax the defending team to commit more numbers higher up the field. Once the defending team is vertically unbalanced, leaving large gaps between the lines in their formation, the attacking team quickly plays the ball forward, initiating a lightning-quick attack to goal.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward style. The goalkeeper, defenders, and midfielders must be especially proficient with the ball, or this style of play backfires. High overloads, much like Chelsea’s 3-4-3 or Inter Milan’s 3-5-2, are critical.
When that transition from “preparing to attack the opponents” to “attacking the opponents” occurs, network connectivity and numerical equality or superiority factor heavily into the attack’s success. In cases of qualitative superiority, numeric equality will suffice. For example, if Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martínez, and Nicolò Barella are connected centrally against the opposition’s 4, 5, and 6, they’re likely feeling great about their odds of a successful attack.
While positional play can at times look like tiki taka, there’s more of an emphasis on what’s happening off the ball, particularly in the way a team manages space in pursuit of superiorities. Tiki taka often gives the impression of a passive approach to attacking, simply waiting for gaps to emerge. In contrast, positional play actively constructs and searches for superiorities, particularly in attacking the spaces between the lines and creating opportunities for the free man.
A central theme in positional play is the strategic starting points of the players within the system with X number of players in each vertical channel, X in the horizontal lines as determined by the coach. Maximizing the space a team occupies is the key, but it’s vital to stretch the height and width of the pitch with as few players as possible. One sign that the pitch occupation is on point is that a team will have enough players to overload near the ball and have outlets just outside of that cluster, especially if one of those players can hold his position between the opposition’s lines.
The superiorities (numerical, positional, qualitative, and socio-affective) all play a role in unlocking the opposition. Ball-near numerical and qualitative superiorities help teams wrestle positional superiorities away from opponents. Managers often look to link players who give the side a socio-affective superiority as well. I suppose the point here is that positional play looks to establish multiple superiorities rather than simply emphasizing one or the other.
Tempo, zonal occupation, and personnel density near the ball are all variables, but those are the fluid aspects of the philosophy, each serving the greater purpose of generating superiorities that produce decisive action. Once the superiorities are established, the possessing team launches the offensive.
Don’t Stop Here
As much as I hate to say it, my blog posts are not designed for exhaustive coverage on topics. In fact, my writing for Total Football Analysis, as well as the content in Revitalizing Real Madrid, are much more in-depth.
These posts are 1-1.5k by design. They’re a means of addressing topics of interest, drawing out key points, and facilitating a conversation or further reading. If positional play sparks your interest, go read Adin’s blog post (linked above). It’s phenomenal and is a must-read for coaches, players, and super fans. Look for video analysis, additional articles, or even books on the topic. Feed that curiosity.
The other hope is that readers walk away with a better understanding of the tactics at play in the pro levels. It took me years of study to grasp how Pep Guardiola approached the game. Adin’s post offered the guidance I needed. I’m still learning the ins and outs of the game’s top systems, as well as how to implement them with my own teams and where diversion leads to innovation, but that’s where a community of learners delivers value. There are so many great resources available that we can continue to advance the conversation of philosophies, tactics, and coaching methodology. Many are free, so it’s merely a matter of making the time to study.
If you’re the bookish type (guilty), check out my Book Recommendations page. If you have book recommendations for me, feel free to send them my way. As my wife can confirm, I’m pretty big on supporting fellow writers through book purchases. Even books outside of the soccer genre, like Sun-Tzu's Art of War, have tactical themes that readily convert to soccer philosophies of play and tactics. Chess books and blogs are other great resources.
Whatever your preferred means of studying the game, engage. The knowledge you acquire benefits your soccer communities, players, and kids. When we study the game, we’re indirectly developing soccer culture within nations and local communities. Even more importantly, we’re committing to a life of learning, a value all parents would do well to pass along to their children. Feed that passion, keep the flame alive.