By Paul Gardner
I suppose I ought to take the FIFA Technical Study Group seriously. It is, after all an assembly of “18 experts from all around the world who have gained experience as players, national team coaches or football analysts.” Their task is to “document developments and trends in international” soccer.
Worthy people, no doubt, and a worthy aim. What a pity that their end product is such a laughable effort that it is quite impossible to take it seriously.
I’m talking of their contribution to the recently published report on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The three relevant sections are headed “Technical and Tactical Analysis,” “Trends,” and “Key to Success.”
For starters, one of the trends that the TSG has documented is that there is now a new law of physics in operation, which allows an object in flight to suddenly gain speed. The ball -- the notorious Jabulani -- in fact “picked up incredible speed.” Victims of this sneaky Newtonian revision were, of course, the poor goalkeepers, who sometimes failed “to get their body fully behind the ball, and in doing so they risked seeing the ball gather speed and slip out of their grasp.”
After that flight of fancy, the report comes crashing back to earth a few pages later with the astonishing revelation that “All successful teams have excellent strikers who are capable of converting goalscoring opportunities that come their way.” Good heavens.
On page 48 we are told that “it is difficult to get in behind the opposition defense as teams are often very compact at the back with eight or nine players behind the ball." Five pages later, things have changed because “Balls played in behind the defense from the center created a significant number of goals (31) and chances …” To be fair, the TSG qualifies that statement with “mainly because the 'weaker' teams did not stagger their defense.” But being fair is a waste of time with these guys, because in the “Trends” section, they then tell us that “there are no longer any ‘small’ or ‘weak’ national teams.”
So much for gaffes, platitudes and contradictions. That brings us to the most irritating aspect of all, the omissions. It seems extraordinary that this bunch of luminaries, busy recording “developments and trends” can give us a 10-page report which contains no mention of the blight known as tactical fouling.
There was plenty of this during the World Cup -- inevitably, because such fouls have become a staple part of modern defensive play. The report’s failure to even acknowledge their existence is totally baffling -- particularly because they cannot be separated from some of the features that the report does mention.
For instance: the report gives as one of its Trends: “Early pressing and quick transitions to prevent quick counterattacks -- in other words ‘countering counterattacks.’” Most teams have discovered that the surest way to squelch a quick counterattack is to foul an opponent as the counter begins -- not a brutal foul, maybe obstruction, but a foul committed deep in the opponent’s half where the subsequent free kick presents no danger at all.
Such a foul is identified in the rules, and calls for a mandatory yellow card. But it rarely gets one. So it is well worth the risk for a player to commit the foul -- it allows his team time to assemble the very thing that the Report repeatedly mentions as a prominent feature of modern play: a compact defense.
Because it diminishes the risk of a defense being caught in a “non-compact” mode, the tactical foul must also be a key component in another of the Report’s Trends: Intelligent defending around the team’s own penalty area.
Successful teams, says the Report, “try to defend close to their own penalty area without conceding ‘stupid’ or ‘unnecessary’ fouls.” This is emphasized by quoting the German coach Joachim Loew’s pre-tournament training routines: “We will train hard to try to make sure we don’t give away unnecessary fouls around our penalty area. Intelligent tackling will therefore be an important part of your training.” The compact defense -- “with eight or nine players behind the ball” -- will significantly reduce the necessity for risky fouls.
Explanations do not feature strongly in the report. There are some interesting stats concerning the times at which goals are scored. When the World Cup games were broken down into six 15-minute segments, it turned out that most goals -- by quite a large margin -- were scored toward the end of the games: 27 between minutes 61 and 75, 35 between minutes 76 and 90. The highest total for any other 15-minute period was 23, with the opening period featuring the fewest goals, just 14.
One can conjecture why this should be so -- caution at the start of the game, tiredness toward the end, maybe -- but it would have been useful to have the experts’ analysis -- or even their comments -- on what the pattern means.
The Report’s biggest omission, one that really invalidates the whole thing, is that it says nothing about the quality of the games. Were they good or bad, exciting or dull, worth watching or not? The closest we get is an acknowledgment that “the opening group matches were characterized by cautious play.”
One is left to infer from the overall lack of a critical approach, that the TSG has no opinions at all about the state of the game, but simply accepts whatever is thrust before it as fodder for documentation, but not for evaluation.
The FIFA 2010 World Cup “Technical Report and Statistics” is available in PDF form HERE.