STICK WITH THE STATS OR TWIST THE TACTICS: THE VAGARIES OF INTERNATIONAL TOURNAMENT FOOTBALL  

 

** This was penned as a preview to the round of 16 matches by @nanu759

“Stats are misleading.”

Honestly they are; and even more so during tournament football.

I’m not a huge fan of stats-based reports because they tend to be ambiguous. The best way to view a game is to watch it and no amount of statistics can give you an honest picture of what happens in a game. Football games by their nature are played by human beings (we don’t know about Messi) and human beings have emotions.

If you trawl through Stats Zone after a game you didn’t see, to view patterns you might have missed, you have a one in two chance of being misled by assuming your team had a great day in the crossing stakes. Only if you had actually seen the game might you have noticed that the opposing fullback let crosses come in from deep rather than deal with a pacy winger who could get to the byline.

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Apps such as statszone have made it easier to forget what you witnessed [Stats Zone]

Little things such as an early hack that went unpunished by the ref might prevent a player from going down a channel that could have led to an opening and such quirks punctuate many a football match.

Having made note of this, we can now delve into the world of international tournament football and the dreaded word: TACTICS!

It’s a known that competition in tournament level and especially international football is vastly different from weekly club games. The simple reason is that over a shorter period of time and with more intense mental pressure, players tend to react differently. Some players are turned on by the opportunity while others wilt. It’s not uncommon to see a player in razor sharp league form for his club arrive at major international tournament and look bereft of ideas, motivation and luck. Players such as Zidane lived for the big stage and were most successful in many high pressure games. Others are famed for not being able to handle it.

This is where the issue of tactics comes in. A good/successful coach in international competition has great ones in his arsenal and must utilize them wisely for his team to be successful whilst hoping that his opponent neither has one that matches his nor gets the benefit of luck. If two teams adopt similar tactical styles from their coaches, the chances of a draw are more likely. For this reason, It’s no surprise that 4 of the last 5 European cup finals between teams from the same national federation have gone to extra time (Bayern x Dortmund that didn’t was settled in the 90th minute) and three of the four that did go to extra time went to penalties

Rui Costa of AC Milan challenges Edgar Davids of Juventus

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Knowing me knowing you! ’03 UCL final is a prime example of a clash of analogous tactics [Goal]

I don’t like using examples (at the risk of using what might be an exception to justify my arguments) but here’s another one… attempt.

Belgium versus Italy on paper looks like a difficult but winnable game for the red devils but the azzurri had one tactical advantage over the Belgians before the game even began; the expectation was heavily on the minds of the Belgians. Combined with the act that there was a lot more cohesion in the Italian unit and a dogmatic message/presence for their coach Antonio Conte, it was rather surprising how little was expected of the Italians. Without playing exceptionally and without any marquee player to lump with responsibilities, the Italians waltzed through much of the game with consummate ease. Much is made of the abilities of players such as Pirlo and Verratti who were missing in the team but a simple direct over the top pass from Leo Bonucci was all it took to destroy the Belgian façade. This breakdown might sound overly simplistic but in truth there was really nothing else to Italy’s game. Players such as Candreva, Parolo and Giacherrinini stretched the game and forced Belgium to spend the entire game trying to recover the ball.

Mental fatigue sets in a lot quicker and although the stats showed that Belgium were getting closer to the Italian goal with big chances at the end, the tactical battle was already lost and the scoreline could have been worse with the Italian breakaway chances being as clear as they were. Wilmots also played into Italian hands by taking off Nainggolan (a player who offered something different to what the Italians were effectively dealing with by cutting off Lukaku and preventing hazard and De bruyne from combining) to bring on Carrasco instead of taking of Fellaini. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say but the idea of leaving Fellaini on paid no dividends as despite his height, he was unable to trouble Italy’s BBC – physicality is their forte. Surely an alternate approach was needed. At the end of the day, the Belgian forward line looked like a unit that had never trained together before. In their final two games, Fellaini was decidedly DROPPED and Belgium subsequently won both.

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Experience x Wit divided by Expectation x Fatigue = Italy Win. [Reuters]

Another issue in International tournaments is the stick or twist conundrum that all coaches face. It doesn’t matter what stage you find yourself in, it’s bound to come up. For some, changes are enforced due to injury or some other reason such as ill-discipline.  At other times, it’s technical factors such as your opponent identifying the dope in your side (before you do) that forces you to make a shift.  A typical example is your team’s fullback being targeted by two rapid wide players and facing an overload.

Deschamps faced it during France’s two games already at the tournament, and if anything he has learned that neither Coman and/or Martial provide a sufficient Plan B and that Les Bleues best hopes currently rest on the ambition of their prime forwards. The team went plan A to plan B in the first game and by full time in the second game had gone from B to A all over again! Pogba’s demotion was part disciplinary and not that he played that poorly or withered in the first game but the stats (sigh) didn’t make for good reading and if you ask me, I’d say that his reputation is overplayed slightly due to his physique and highlight-ability. Deschamps acknowledged those facts and humbled him but Martial’s terrible game and Coman’s inability to combine with Sagna ruined that experiment.

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Is the weight of legacy definition affecting his decisiveness? [France-24]

Evra and Matuidi were accused of patronizing each other too much as they regularly do in most French games and they subsequently toned it down vs Albania but it didn’t help the team going forward.

In Group B, the German and the Polish coaches faced the same issue when both their teams lined up. Germany were very open in defence and had to rely on super-heroics of Boateng and Manuel Neuer to bail them out while Poland were surprisingly profligate. Much of that owed to Northern Ireland marking the hell out of Lewandowski and leaving his less able but highly inventive partner Milik with most of the chances. Germany decided to play to their strengths and kept the Poles occupied in their territory (That last line was not a WWII pun). The game finished goalless. Gotze came up short again and Mario Gomez started and scored in the final game. Germany have been creating chances for fun but their lack of finishing is truly worrying.

The final group games were mainly bereft of major tactical changes in terms of style.  What we did see was personnel coming in either as part of rotation (see Italy and their 8 changes) and as acts of desperation. As evidenced by Hungary x Portugal, once multiple factors such as uncertainties in other simultaneous games are put in, you’re in for a crazy open game. Cristiano Ronaldo thrives on games such as these and it was no surprise to see him stand out with two exceptionally well taken goals and a peach of an assist for Nani. Joao Mario in this form is undroppable while Andre Gomes is a candidate for the bench in their upcoming game vs Croatia (Quaresma’s lack of fitness could mean he plays though) they might need a bit more control. Joao Moutinho was equally poor and has not performed the role of linking midfield. If they are both dropped, Danilo will definitely come on to pair with William Carvalho and a slight possibility of Renato Sanches off the bench. His ‘lack’ of discipline could help if Portugal decide to sit back as he can break away and combine with any of the front three.

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Three is a crowd? Magic combo for the men in Teal [Reuters]

In Group D, Spain on their part stuck to the same line-up that plucked away at the Czech Republic and put in a stellar performance against Turkey. Croatia made 5 changes in what was widely assumed to be a rotational side. The stats favored Croatia in the end but they were somewhat skewed by the fact that Spain missed a penalty at a point in the second half when they were in the ascendancy and that Croatia’s winner came from a pass after an Aduriz shot. One seemingly tactical error that can be pointed at Del Bosque was actually a technical one; bringing on Bruno Soriano for Nolito. It actually had the opposite effect and instead of shoring up Spain’s midfield as a defensive sub, it encouraged the Spanish defenders to push up, leaving the brunt of defensive work to Busquets and Bruno alone. Were Spain complacent? Probably. Expect a very tight game on Monday at the Stade de France vs Italy.

In summary, over a shorter period for a tournament as opposed to a 10-month league campaign, the stats tend to be somewhat distorted by a whole host of events. Technical decisions based on tactical readings of the player’s themselves are the best bet as games get tighter and the likelihood of conservatism takes over. Chances are often at a premium in deeply tactical games and that’s why the moments that define them tend to be very iconic.

These attitudes give major international tournaments their unique appeal and make them an enduring watch

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