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How to Play Like Barcelona – Tiki Taka Total Football

Written March 11th, 2013 by Mike Slatton

How to Play Like Barcelona

It seams like every soccer fan’s 2nd favorite team today is Barcelona (and in coming years, it’ll be Bayern Munich), and every team wants to play like Barcelona.  That’s because Spanish (meaning Spain) football has managed to dominate the universal spectrum of competitions & awards over the last few years due to their mastery of a system known as “Total Football” and it’s evolution into Tiki-taka.

*Total football is perfect for kids at every level, as a well implemented strategy accommodates the varying degrees of skill and energy that are prevalent in your average group of children.

Developed by Dutch powerhouse club Ajax, from 1969 to 1973, Total Football (Dutch: totaalvoetbal) is a system of play that focuses on tight possession of the ball within the midfield and explosive offensive endeavors. It’s not uncommon to see teams that have mastered this tactic dominate a match by possessing the ball as much as 80% of the game.  Tiki-taka is an  evolution of the Total Football system into the quick passing, highly possessive style of soccer that Barcelona plays today.

Their Game vs. Our Game

At every level, in every part of the world, soccer is a passing game.  Tiki-taka Total Football makes it a possession game.  Watch any Barcelona match on TV, and you’ll see that the team is passing the ball from one side of the field to the other, forward and backward.  The theory is that the team that possesses the ball the most will win the game. To really possess the ball though, it takes precise passing and trapping.

[one_half] [testimonial company=”The Soccer Mom Manual” author=”Mike Slatton”]

2 things happen when a player holds on to the ball:

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  • They lose the ball
  • They get hurt
  • Both

Pass the ball!

[/custom_list] [/testimonial] [/one_half] [one_half_last]Youth Soccer Development in the U. S.

The reason that the U.S. isn’t a world soccer powerhouse isn’t for lack of trying, but most youth soccer clubs have a misguided system of training that puts the primary focus on shooting and dribbling in the youngest age groups.  Go to any recreational soccer club practice of players 9 and younger and you’ll often witness players dribbling through cones and shooting on empty goals.  This is a common warm-up for games, and a staple of most practice sessions.  That isn’t to say that dribbling through cones doesn’t have a place in development, but it’s a lot like juggling: it should be performed at home to develop ball handling technique.

[quote type=”center”]Dribbling should be performed in games to get out of trouble – not get into it.[/quote]

The majority of our youth coaches don’t teach the very most basic fundamentals of the game, which are passing and trapping.  The order of the day at most games within these age groups is “Clear the ball!“, resulting in big kicks down-field to one player who will try to dribble close enough to shoot.

Dribbling through ConesThe first years of learning the game are the most formative.  If you spend the first 4 or 5 years teaching a child to dribble and shoot, how can you expect them to play with their head up and look for an open player to pass the ball when they’re older?  Most American soccer clubs are spending half of a child’s life teaching them to dribble and hold the ball, only to get frustrated with these same players later, because they hold the ball too long and play with their heads down.

Barcelona’s style of Total Football keeps the ball on the ground, moving from one SIDE of the field to the other.

How it Looks

If you watch Barcelona, Spain, Holland or Ajax play, you’ll notice that the majority of the game is controlled by the defense and midfield players in the middle of the field.  The ball moves from side to side as the team patiently waits for an opportunity to push the ball to a striker, who may touch the ball 2 times near the top of the box to get a shot off.

FC Barcelona FormationBarcelona’s team formation from the back-line is a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3, which kind of looks like a 3-1-3-3 from overhead.  The primary strategy is to build up from the back utilizing the goalkeeper as a pseudo-sweeper-type defender, who will be used as an outlet to ease pressure in the middle and switch the ball quickly from one side of the field to the other.  The idea is to not rush the attack and patiently wait for an opportunity to reveal itself, while the ball is passed around the middle of the field from one side to the other. If the pressure gets to be too much, bring the ball back and start the advance over.  Back passes are a key component to maintaining possession of the ball and “easing pressure” up front.

Notes & Resources

Books have been available on the subject of Total Football for nearly half a century. It’s success in Europe has been discussed for the last couple of decades, and the program is utilized in one form or another by nearly every club, of any sort, throughout the entire European continent.  Ultimately, the real secret to game success is accurate, powerful passing and tight, controlled trapping.  Subsequently, these should be the FIRST skills taught to young players.

In case you forgot any of the above, here’s the gist:

[learn_more caption=”Strategic Secrets to Playing Effective Tiki-taka (Barcelona style) Soccer”][custom_list type=”dot”]

  • Quick, strong, precise passes through the center of the field, moving the ball from one side of the field to the other
  • Controlled, precise trapping
  • Shielding of the ball from defenders and protecting/possessing the ball like a jealous boyfriend
  • Always look for an outlet BACK to ease pressure and restart the advance
  • Play what you see, the way you’re facing


Key Elements to Playing Like Barcelona, are:
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  • Strong defense (good ball-handling and vision across the back-line)
  • Strong middle (center of the field – visualize a T-shape formed by the defensive line, a midfielder and a forward)
  • Quick outside players (on recreational teams, weaker players can be very effective playing outside midfield/forward positions)
  • Play wide, to the lines, and be patient.
  • Play backward to ease pressure and restart the advance
Mike Slatton is a licensed 25+ year soccer coach, player developer and father of two young soccer players.

About Author

Mike Slatton is a 2nd generation American youth soccer coach since 1984, and the son of one of the nation's first female licensed youth soccer coaches (Anita Slatton, 1979). He's also a professional soccer scout, a player since 1977, and the father of three adult and teenage children who all play or have played the game. "My job as a youth soccer coach is to develop detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure. This relates to life - not just soccer."

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