What is the Tiki-Taka Style of Soccer? (and How to Play It)

While you’re watching soccer on TV, you'll almost certainly have heard the phrase “tiki-taka” used at some point.

This usually occurs after one team strings together consecutive precise passes, weaving the ball around their opponents and giving themselves a great goal-scoring opportunity.

Tiki-taka was largely made famous by Pep Guardiola's Barcelona team of 2008 - 2012, who wowed the world with their dazzling style of play and dominated every team they came across.

But its roots actually go back to the Dutch team of the 70’s who famously played Total Football.

It was their iconic player, Johan Cruyff, who brought this style of play to Barcelona when he managed the club in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Another famous proponent of tiki-taka was the Spanish national team that used the playing style to great effect as they won two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup.

Both teams were absolutely deadly playing tiki-taka, and it was almost impossible for their opponents to get anywhere near them, let alone gain possession of the ball and fashion out a goal-scoring opportunity themselves.

But what exactly is the tiki-taka style of soccer?

Let's take a look at the philosophy behind it and how a team can learn to play it.

But first...

Where Did the Term ‘Tiki-Taka’ Originate?

The term 'tiki-taka' was actually created by Andres Montes, a Spanish commentator who used it to describe the playing style's accurate and elegant passes.

In Basque it means “taking quick, light steps”.

His commentary popularised the term which is now used all around the world to describe the intricate style of soccer.

barcelona stadium camp nou

The Evolution and Philosophy of 'Tiki-Taka'

Before tiki-taka came along, the common consensus in soccer was that you need big, strong players who could physically dominate your opponents to win.

Overwhelming opposition teams with sheer power.

But the tiki-taka style of play quickly changed many people’s view.

Using space, quick movement, and teamwork allowed teams to work around the man-monsters, leaving these giants behind as nimble and skilful players players danced rings around them.

1930’s...

Earlier forms of tiki-taka were even around in the 1930’s as FC Schalke 04 dominated Germany and won six championships in a row playing a beautiful brand of soccer that focused on a pass and move style of play…

1970’s...

But tiki-taka really is synonymous with both Barcelona and the Spanish national team who won many trophies using it, and both of them adopted it in large part due to Johan Cruyff.

His Dutch team of the 1974 World Cup set the world alight with their electric brand of soccer that focussed on keeping possession of the ball, quick passing, and off-the-ball movement.

Cruyff and his teammates all seemed to be on exactly the same wave-length as they buzzed around their opponents and overwhelmed them with quick movement and thinking, relying on team unity rather than muscle and brawn.

Total Football (as it was known) was nothing like the world had seen before.

1980’s...

And when Johan Cruyff was installed as manager of Barcelona in 1986, he brought elements of it with him, encouraging his players to keep the ball and use their incredible technical skills to produce beautiful soccer.

Two other Dutch managers followed in his footsteps. Both Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard helped Barcelona develop the attractive style of soccer for which they are renowned today.

1990’s and 2000’s...

In the 90’s and 00’s a lot of focus was placed on using youth players who had grown up playing that particular brand of soccer in Barcelona's famous La Masia academy.

Players such as Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, and of course Lionel Messi, all graduated to the first team after a thorough apprenticeship in La Masia where they developed their excellent first touch, incredible vision, and accurate passing.

All of which help them to retain possession of the ball, even in the tightest of spaces.

While Barcelona was already famous for its beautiful style of play, it was under Pep Guardiola that the tiki-taka style of play really flourished.

Guardiola’s Influence...

His teams of 2008 - 2012 are undoubtedly among the greatest to have ever played as they swept all before them, winning inumerable trophies while sticking to their playing philosophy.

While Guardiola's coaching and tactical philosophy certainly had a large role to play, he was also very lucky in terms of the incredible array of world-class players that he had at his disposal.

All of them had the talent to pull off intricate passages of play and keep the ball wherever they were on the pitch.

What started off with Johan Cruyff's Dutch team of the 70’s evolved under Guardiola.

And while there are lots of similarities between Total Football and tiki-taka, there are also a number of important differences…

Starting off with the similarities:

They both relied on a high defensive line and focussed on retaining possession to dominate the opposition and control the game.

To keep control of the ball, players had to frequently switch position and move about the pitch to create scenarios where they outnumbered their opponents and could pass their way around more rigidly set up teams.

Now, the differences:

The main difference was that Guardiola favoured retaining possession above all else.

He even got rid of the traditional centre-forward and replaced them with a false-nine midfielder, reasoning that their superior passing abilities would help the team to keep the ball and therefore control the game.

Midfielders such as Yaya Toure and Javier Mascherano were also played in defence for their passing abilities and Barcelona's goalkeepers were instructed to always pass the ball out if possible, only punting it clear or kicking it long if they really had to.

Midfielders would drop back and create passing angles and due to their incredible technique and vision, the Barcelona team would almost always be able to break the opposition's press.

While Guardiola rigorously coached his team on how to keep possession and outnumber their opponents in various parts of the pitch…

In the final third his talented players had creative freedom to play as they saw fit, creating chances out of nothing with their amazing vision and fantastic dribbling skills and accurate passing in small spaces.

barcelona soccer emblem on grass

Characteristics of Tiki-Taka Soccer

There’s a lot more to tiki-taka than simply just keeping the ball and prioritising possession.

Team unity and understanding how space works out on the pitch are equally important as is chemistry between the players.

Let's now take a deeper look at some of the key characteristics.

a. Style of Play

While some teams set up to counter-attack, tiki-taka is all about controlling possession and creating goal-scoring opportunities after a patient build up.

By pulling their opponents out of position by drawing them to a certain part of the pitch and playing around them, Barcelona would open up gaps in the opposition.

And then the trickery, creativity, and vision of their forwards would often result in a goal or at least a shot on target.

Barcelona's talented squad all had great ball control and could work in tiny pockets of space, seemingly keeping the ball at ease as they wove intricate passes together.

Although they could play out from the back, most of their attacks started from the midfield as their high defensive line kept their opponents penned in and meant that they usually controlled the lion's share of possession even in their opponent's half.

b. Passing Triangles

To keep possession, Barcelona's players kept forming triangles which helped them to pass their way around their opponents.

The key to this was creating situations where they outnumbered the opposition players.

If two opponents entered the triangle, the Barcelona players would often then rely on their incredible dribbling skills to get out of trouble, keep possession, and then pass the ball on to another teammate who could then create another triangle in another part of the pitch.

Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta were often involved, moving about the pitch where they saw fit and creating small passing triangles wherever they went.

Of the more defensive minded players, it was usually Sergio Busquets in defensive midfield who created passing triangles with the two centre backs behind him, alleviating pressure through his fantastic movement and deft one touch passes.

These triangles were key to Barcelona's playing style as it helped them to keep possession and move up the pitch towards their opponent's goal.

c. Team Positions

While players had the flexibility to move about the pitch and create these little triangles, creating space in which to play was just as important.

Which is why the positions that the players took up on the pitch were often designed to maximise the space and stretch the opposition, drawing them in before dancing around them and creating gaps in their defensive line up.

As such, the two wide forwards were instructed to stay out wide and hug the touchline while the defenders had to push up high and ideally hover around the halfway line, hemming in the opponent and constricting the space in which they had to play in their own half.

This made it harder for the opponent to retain possession and also helped Barcelona defend and restrict the opposition's goal-scoring opportunities due to the fact that they were so far away from the goal.

As you can see, the tiki-taka style helped them to both attack and defend at the same time.

As soon as they lost the ball they immediately put a lot of pressure on the opposition so that they could win it back, capitalise on the opposition now presumably being out of position, and also make it as hard for the opponents to actually keep the ball and string any passes together.

At times Barcelona's 4-3-3 formation didn't even include a traditional number nine.

They instead used a false-nine whose job it was to also retain possession, link up play, and create space for the wide forwards to exploit.

Like all of the players on the team, this player was adept at keeping the ball in tight spaces and was creative enough to play a dangerous ball in behind the defence and also get in the box to finish off any chances that came their way.

d. Flair and Creativity

While Guardiola was very strict in terms of how Barcelona should play and what positions the players should take up…

In the final third he let the team express themselves how they saw fit, relying on their creativity and vision to fashion chances and get in behind the opposition's defence.

With players like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, Barcelona fashioned an incredible amount of goal-scoring opportunities each match, with each of them having an astounding eye for a pass and finding their teammates with almost impossible passes.

They often scored late goals as the opposition -- exhausted from chasing the ball the whole match -- could no longer keep up and were worn out from closing down Barcelona players and not getting near to them at all.

barcelona soccer game

How to Play Tiki-Taka Soccer

Tiki-taka is a very hard style of soccer to replicate, obviously.

Barcelona's team of 2008 – 2012 was possibly the greatest team the world has ever seen as each player was so comfortable on the ball and had such incredible close control.

Having said that, with lots of training and practice, your team can certainly improve by studying what these great teams did on the pitch.

The trick is to get your players as comfortable on the ball as possible and make sure that they can retain possession even when under pressure.

Coaching them which positions to take up and what moves to make is just as important, as this will help each player create more space for each other and help the team retain possession by moving into space and always showing for the ball.

They should feel comfortable playing the ball around in the defensive third, which requires the whole team to move as one and know where each teammate will be.

To do this, your team obviously needs to be fit and able to run all day.

This will not only help them to retain the ball and fashion out goal-scoring chances, but also help them to keep focused and not misplace passes.

Next…

Players need to understand exactly what is expected of them in different situations, like when to show for the ball, when to press the opposition, and how to help relieve any pressure they or their teammates are under.

They need to have a good understanding of the tactics the team is using and also their role.

With this style of soccer, the players need to have a great first touch.

Work on this in training, making sure that each player knows how to receive the ball under pressure and understands where to take it into space with their first touch.

One-twos are also very important and are a great way to get around your opponent.

The little triangles that Barcelona created are a great example of how to do it as they intricately passed between themselves, even in the tiniest of spaces as they advanced up the pitch.

While tiki-taka is certainly difficult to pull off, by helping your players to improve their first touch, duress under pressure and technique, you'll certainly create a better team.

Conclusion

Barcelona's team of 2008 – 2012 and the Spanish national team's World Cup winning squad wowed the world with a brand of soccer that was easy on the eye and highlighted their incredible technique and skill at the beautiful game.

While tiki-taka is currently out of vogue at the moment, teams such as Barcelona still draw on elements of the soccer style and use it to great effect every week…

Weaving intricate passes together and dominating possession against their opponents.

Although it is certainly hard to replicate the mesmerising passages of play that these great teams put together…

With practice, any team can improve the way they play and develop a tiki-taka style that leaves their opponents chasing shadows as they pass their way around the pitch.

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