DOHA, Qatar — The Morocco players fell back on defense and patiently watched as Spain kept passing the ball around midfield during their round of 16 match at the World Cup. Side to side, from one Spanish player to another.
Pass after pass, Spain tried to find an opening through the Moroccan defense, but the Moroccans stayed committed, unwavering, patiently waiting with 11 men behind the ball in front of their goal.
The traditional “tiki-taka” ball-possession style allowed Spain to keep the ball during most of the match Tuesday, but not to get the goals it needed to keep its World Cup campaign alive, and it lost 3-0 in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw in regulation and extra time to end its World Cup campaign.
It was the third time Spain failed to make it past the last 16 at the World Cup after winning its lone title in 2010, when Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were the leaders of the ball-possession style that amazed the soccer world.
Spain’s “tiki-taka” clearly has not produced the results it once did, not in the international level or the club level with Barcelona, which was where it all started. Barcelona hasn’t won a Champions League since 2015, and was eliminated in the group stage of the top European club competition that last two seasons after Lionel Messi left and signed with Paris Saint-Germain.
The recent failures have led to some to question whether it’s time for a philosophical overhaul of Spanish soccer, or if it’s just a matter of adjusting the style to modern days or finding the right players to make it work again.
It’s been a while since Spain lost Xavi and Iniesta, key elements that made the “tiki-taka” thrive, and it hasn’t had a top-notch striker since Fernando Torres and David Villa, who were key to help transform ball possession into goals when La Roja won its back-to-back European Championships and the World Cup more than a decade ago. This year, Spain had only a true striker in its squad, Álvaro Morata, who is far from being considered a finisher like Torres and Villa.
It looked like Spain was going to make the “tiki-taka” work again in Qatar after youngsters Pedri and Gavi led the team to a resounding 7-0 opening win over Costa Rica, when La Roja completed a record 1,003 passes for a 90-minute game and finished with 75% of ball possession with 17 attempts against zero by Costa Rica.
But La Roja couldn’t win again after that, and it scored only two more goals in its next three matches. If left the tournament with the most passes completed, with an average of 847 per game.
It didn’t take long for the criticism to start pouring back home.
“A lot of possession and not enough shots,” the sports daily AS said in its front page.
“Spain clearly dominates but can’t get the goal to advance,” said the newspaper Sport.
Opponents have clearly found ways to keep the “tiki-taka” from working.
“We knew we were not going to have a lot of possession and we were not afraid of that,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said after his team’s win over Spain. “I looked at the last 20 games and Spain generally speaking had 70% of possession in those games. So I accepted that.”
Spain had 68% of possession and completed 967 passes Tuesday but made only one attempt on target, two fewer than Morocco with its strategy that relied solely on counterattacks.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” Regragui said. “We would have to be extremely well organized. The defense and our midfielders and attackers worked very hard to make sure that they didn’t have those angles for the passes.”
It worked to perfection.
One of the last times Spain tried to move away from the “tiki-taka” was with coach Julen Lopetegui ahead of the 2018 World Cup. Spain still tried to control possession, but it was more direct when attacking. The team went to Russia with an impressive unbeaten streak but Lopetegui was fired just days before the team’s debut after accepting a job with Real Madrid without telling federation officials. Spain was eliminated in a penalty shootout against the hosts in the round of 16.
Since 2010, Spain has won only three of its last 11 World Cup matches.
Whether there will be an overhaul to Spanish soccer or not will depend largely on whether Luis Enrique — the former Barcelona player and coach — will remain at the helm of La Roja. He said after the loss to Morocco he would rest before starting talks with the federation to decide about his future.
If he stays, there will be more “tiki-taka” coming, whether it works or not.
“We lacked goals, but I’m more than satisfied with what my team did,” he said. “The players executed my idea of football to perfection.”