Tiki-taka might be the term widely used to describe Pep Guardiola’s preferred style as a manager, but, as the man who is recognised as its prime endorser has attested to in the past, he hates it. To him, it means passing the ball around without intention – and from an attacking point of view, why bother having the ball if you aren’t trying to go anywhere with it?
Whether its use is down to a misunderstanding (or different translations) of the term or some form of ignorance towards how both Barcelona and Bayern Munich have played under him is up for debate, but Guardiola’s point is true regardless. His teams don’t keep the ball just for the sake of it. Instead, the emphasis on possession is nothing more than a tool to unbalance opposition defences. Create overloads in one area of the pitch, force the opponents over to deal with the perceived threat on that side, and then switch it to expose the other now drastically weakened side.
It’s a vital feature of how his teams play which, for a variety of reasons, has gradually become more noticed during his time in Munich. The presence of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben in particular though has especially helped that to happen, and their explosiveness out wide has been a vital factor in quickly initiating the crucial transition from possession to penetration during the Spaniard’s reign there.
The absence of that pair (amongst a number of other players) in the latter stages of last season however, unsurprisingly, played a significant part in the collapse of their treble-chase. Bayern’s spells of possession often became exactly what Guardiola loathes: sterile, pointless tiki-taka. Play was too largely centralised, there was no outlet from their ball circulation, and there was no threat to create space for and suddenly release. They were, in comparison to the majority of the campaign before that point, a shadow of themselves.
With Ribéry (32) and Robben (31) both heading towards the final years of their careers and experiencing a growing amount of time on the side-lines, placing reliance on them to consistently be in proper match condition is simply not an option anymore. So Guardiola went out and did the logical thing in the recent transfer window – he bought another wide player. And, in Douglas Costa, he appears to have found a near flawless option.
A few questions were raised over Costa’s consistently average end-product throughout his time at Shakhtar Donetsk, and rightly so, but as a mould of player he has everything that his new manager could possibly have wanted at this time from a raw talent. He’s devastatingly fast. Like, ridiculously quick. He’s brilliant on a technical level with his feet too. In short he’s exactly the kind of footballer who defenders don’t want to be stuck in one-on-ones against; if Thiago is the prime example of Guardiola’s preferred mould of a control player at Bayern, Costa is the definition of a pure chaos player.
It’s obviously a small sample size right now, but some of the concerns over his output look to have been a bit unnecessary too. A goal and two assists in his first three league games is very promising, whilst his high shot volume (4 shots per game) and key passes (2.3 per game) show potential for this short-term performance to grow into real longevity. Again, far from a large sample, but the individual actions and his showings as a whole are all the early hallmarks of a superb signing.
Take the goal he scored against Hamburg, when he picked up the ball from just outside the box and curled it into the bottom corner of the far side with his left foot. Or the trivela cross he provided for Thomas Müller to score earlier in the same game. Or the ease at which he burst past Roberto Hilbert before giving Müller another easy finish in the game against Bayer Leverkusen. There are loads of moments already, and you can bet there are going to be a hell of a lot more.
Part of the reason for that is quite simply that he’s an excellent player. The other reason, which is just as important, is that his new club are set up in a way which perfectly suits the Brazilian international. He fits Bayern, and Bayern fits him. Guardiola’s had no need to significantly amend things to get the best out of Costa. If you’re going to spend big money (€30 million in this case) on a player, this is the way to do it.
So how have they helped to get the best out of each other so far? Well, that comes back to how Guardiola instructs his players to use the ball to manipulate the opposition – and how that enables Bayern to have superiority over them.
Without going into too much detail, there are three main types of superiority: positional superiority, numerical superiority, and qualitative superiority. They’re all pretty much how they sound. Positional relates to getting free men between the lines of the opposition through the staggering of positions, often around various reference points, and the creation of numerous passing lanes. Numerical involves having a spare man already, and the methods which are used to try and find him in an advantageous position. The final one, qualitative, is to do with trying to generate one-on-ones (or similar small-numbered situations) with your better players against your opponent’s lower quality ones.
What Costa does effectively revolves around the latter of these. His role, as a very dynamic footballer, is to be the player who gets into these one-on-ones and provides the sudden bursts of verticality to help Bayern be more damaging in the final third. The other two types of superiority, meanwhile, are the more interesting parts which form the basis of how they work the ball up the pitch and then distribute it to Costa in space in the first place.
More than any team in world football right now, and perhaps even more than Guardiola’s great Barcelona team of a few years ago, Bayern use an enormous assortment of ways to vary their build-up play. This varies from things like a midfielder dropping into the back-line and the full-backs pushing forward, to the staggering of lines in both a horizontal and vertical manner in order to open up passes into various zones. Having diversity in this, for the sake of creating unpredictability, is key.
These sorts of methods are how they create positional and numerical superiorities, and play a part in the following of Guardiola’s so-called ’15-pass rule’, as referenced in Martí Perarnau’s wonderful book, Pep Confidential. This theory talks about the necessity of having a period of possession to successfully carry out the transition from defence to attack, and vice versa, and crucially enables Bayern to organise themselves whilst simultaneously disorganising the opposition.
Moving from theory onto a more practical level, this basically means that they use the aforementioned procedure of overloading areas (often wide or in the half-spaces) and make fast, short passes to circulate the ball in a manner which can drag the other team out of position – whether that be in a vertical or horizontal sense.
From here, Bayern often have a number of choices of how to progress their attack. It all depends on the shape of the opponents at this time though. So if there are free men between the lines and beyond the next unstructured wave of pressure for example, the likes of Xabi Alonso, Philipp Lahm and Thiago can be trusted to pick them out. If there’s a player in space who can dribble forward with the ball to easily break a line, that can happen too. Or, if the opponents are very horizontally compact, a switch of play to a spare runner on the other side of the pitch can work wonders. And that’s where Costa comes in again.
Rather than having to try and play through a team which have this compactness or make constant ball-orientated shifts, the movements and positions which Costa takes up from wide offer a great alternative method to break them down. The switch of play – as long as the pass (or passes) is reasonably flat and quick – can take a lot of players out of the game, and then regularly creates situations where the opposition full-back is left isolated against the Brazilian.
That brings the best out of the winger’s abilities by getting him into a string of one-on-one situations, and, because of his extreme pace, strength and quick footwork, it’s fair to expect him to beat most players on the majority of occasions. The diversity in his game is particularly useful here too. He’s comfortable with either cutting inside or going down the line no matter which side he’s on, which not only makes it a nightmare for defenders to read but also leaves Bayern’s more central players to develop play in a variety of ways.
Costa has predominantly played on the left so far even with the in-game changes, although he moved definitively over to the right against Hamburg after Robben was subbed off. He grabbed one of his assists just four minutes after that swap, too, which goes to show just how threatening he can be wherever he plays.
One of the best examples of how this entire process links together was in the game against Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen side, who are renowned for their intense, highly ball-orientated pressing methods. As a number of sides have found out, playing through the middle of the pitch against such a team would be extremely difficult, if not somewhat suicidal. By having Costa out wide, however, Bayern had a route to bypass the press altogether.
Guardiola got the most out of this by employing Alonso to sit deeper than normal, which utilised his incredible distribution skills whilst also vitally protecting his lack of mobility and press-resistance from the Leverkusen players. Their method of pressing played right into Bayern’s hands, and a small adaption from Guardiola helped his team to effectively expose one of the best organised defensive units in Europe right now.
That’s all it’s had to be to fit Costa in, though: small adaptions. He seems to be a truly excellent addition for Bayern. It’s a bit far-stretched to call €30 million a bargain, especially so early on, but with the state of football's economy and the way things are going for him at the club so far, it looks to be damn good business. They're certainly getting the best out of each other.