The ball, negative tactics and the World Cup

Wrapping up a couple of Twitter discussions here:

Through two games — not exactly a large sample size — it appears the second game for each team in the World Cup will be a bit livelier than the first time through.

And so the question being posed to me is this: Does this disprove your concerns about the ball and negative tactics as you watched the first 16 games?

The short answer: No.

Frankly, I’m in a no-lose situation in this argument, and I don’t say that to be arrogant. If teams are indeed adjusting for the second 16 games, that bodes well, but it proves that the concerns I had over the first 16 — which surely tried the patience of soccer fans around the world — were valid. If teams fail to adjust even when they’re facing elimination, the debate is surely over.

Here’s why:

Tactics, macro level. I’ve been reading Inverting the Pyramid, and it has left me quite gloomy. From the historical point of view, it seems like we’ve been heading down a path toward overly cautious soccer for a long time, and I don’t see how it’s going to change.

To give an example: Some of the best attacking soccer we see these days is actually on counterattacks, particularly after corner kicks. What happens when coaches start to figure it’s not worth sending players forward on corner kicks? Suppose the risk of giving up a counterattacking goal is perceived to be too great?

Tactics, World Cup microcosm. “But it makes sense to play for a draw in the first game and then play for a win.” Is that what we’ve come to now? You get to the world’s biggest stage and immediately try to kill the game? Perhaps it makes sense, but isn’t that sad?

The ball. Overblown? Slightly, but it’s a legitimate issue. Can anyone remember seeing so many odd flights of the ball, misjudged crosses and flat-out bad passes at this level? It’s worth asking whether FIFA should reconsider introducing such a radical redesign so close to a major tournament. It’s a bit like showing up for The Masters and having Augusta National hand out balls that fly all over the place.

If the intent is to create more goals, it clearly backfires. For every goal that slipped through the fingers of Robert Green, we saw plenty of overhit passes and misjudged crosses, all to the detriment of the attack.

And several of the goals we’ve seen so far have been atrocious defensive misplays, not brilliant attacking plays. Is that what we want?

If teams are adjusting to it by Game 2, great. But doesn’t that prove the point that the ball was indeed an issue?

And the ball feeds into the tactical question. Would you play more cautiously if you’re concerned about the flight of the ball?

One observation from the first 16 games: I saw very little direct play. Some might say that’s a good thing — teams that rely exclusively on the longball can be dreadfully dull. But good teams mix up their play from time to time, and it creates more attacking options, particularly when play is bogged down in midfield. I may have zoned out and missed a few bits here and there, but I haven’t seen many long passes at all in this Cup.

Not all of the early games have been dreadful. South Africa-Mexico and USA-England weren’t bad. Germany and the Netherlands showed some attacking class in winning their games. And Group H — Honduras, Chile, Switzerland and the unfortunate Spain — produced better games than the 1-0 scores would indicate.

But it’s too soon to tell about the second time through. South Korea and Argentina, who just played a terrific game, were among the more positive teams in their first outings.

We can hope that Argentina and South Korea prove to be the rule rather than the exception for the rest of the tournament, and we can hope the knockout stages have little of the overcaution we often see in those games. But the long-term concerns will be valid no matter what. Negativity threatens the game. And FIFA should quit tinkering with the danged ball. What next — a ball that splits in half on the way to the goal? (Coaches would surely counter with the “sweeper-keeper” system, stationing a defender on the goal line.)


  1. Beau – nice blog.

    I think you’ve probably seen some of the discussion on BigSoccer so I won’t repeat it all here, but some of my main ideas are:
    1) lines similar in location to hockey’s blue lines to define an offensive/defensive zone
    2) a two-line over-and-back rule similar to basketball but it’s only a violation if your team takes the ball over the midfield line and then brings it back over both the midfield line AND your defensive zone line. It’s a rule to discourage playing “keep-away” while recognizing that maintaining possession cleanly is much harder in soccer than in basketball
    3) On direct free kicks in the offensive zone, the defense has to position one defender outside the zone (The number may change with experience and experimentation but I think two is too many for free kicks in really dangerous areas like right outside the penalty area)
    4) “Close corner kicks” – on CKs earned when the ball goes out from the penalty area, the CK can be taken from the 10 yard mark — i.e. 10 yards in from the corner. In line with the principle that restarts take place approximately where the ball became dead and makes CKs more dangerous when the attack had brought the play closer to goal.
    5) some yet to be worked out revision of the offside rule to deal with situations like the one I call the Attacker’s Dilemma. This is potentially the most far-reaching change & I can’t summarize it in a sentence or two.

    The important thing with making direct freekicks and CKs (at least some of them) more dangerous – it rewards teams that are attacking and that threaten in the offensive zone. It makes it harder to succeed with a bunker. Hopefully it will start tilting the balance from trying to “protect” a one-goal lead to playing for a 2-goal lead.

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