Monday, June 28, 2010

Time for FIFA to embrace technology

It’s hard to imagine that the result of Germany’s and England’s round of 16 encounter would have been any different had Frank Lampard’s effort on goal been allowed to stand, as it rightfully should have been. But it certainly served as further vindication of why FIFA must embrace goal-line technology.

In spite of vehement opposition from several quarters, led by its President Sepp Blatter, FIFA has been dogged in its resistance towards the use of technology. Its basis for the rejection of technology has primarily been two fold. At the first level, Blatter argues that the rules need to be applied uniformly across the globe and since many matches, even at the highest level aren’t televised, it’s impossible to achieve the desired consistency. Secondly, Blatter contends that the introduction of technology to determine whether the ball has crossed the goal-line will lead to an inevitable clamour for technology to be used to resolve disputable calls in other areas of the game and as ultimately the decision needs to be made by a human mind, this may prove a self-defeating exercise.

The arguments, it must be said, are entirely fallacious. FIFA is without question affluent enough to provide the required technology to bodies around the world so as to ensure that any rules involving the use of technology are universally applied, a point that is accentuated by the fact that FIFA is set to generate a whopping $ 3.2 billion in revenue from the current World Cup cycle. Paul Hawkins, the Managing Director of Hawk-Eye, explains in an article in today’s Times that the issue of Hawk-Eye being too expensive does not arise as the experience of using the said technology in tennis shows. In tennis, the authorities make money by selling the sponsorship of Hawk-Eye for an amount in excess of what Hawk-Eye is paid to provide the service and therefore any financial concerns for applying the technology are comprehensively countered.

As far as the accuracy of Hawk-Eye is concerned, I must admit that I have my reservations, particularly in its application to LBW decisions in cricket. But the calculations required in determining whether a football has crossed the goal-line are far more straightforward and is therefore bound to be predominantly precise. Hawk-Eye is said to have been tested both by the Barclays Premier League and the International Football Association Board and has apparently proved accurate in all instances of testing. Further, as added by Hawkins, “goal-line decisions are the only decisions which are entirely definitive and the answer can be provided to the referee within 0.5 seconds of the incident happening”, which means that any concerns that the game will be slowed by the use of the technology are wholly offset.

There will undoubtedly be a call for introduction of technology at various levels of the game, as proved by the further embarrassment caused to FIFA when a blatantly offside Carlos Tevez opened the scoring in Argentina’s victory against Mexico. But the fact that technology can never definitively rule on such decisions, means that the introduction of goal-line technology is unlikely to open a Pandora’s Box, as feared by FIFA.

It is understood that as a consequence of the decision to disallow Lampard’s goal, two additional assistant referees, one behind each of the goals, as was seen in last season’s Europa League games, are likely to be introduced. Although it lacked a definitive moment, UEFA’s experiment last season proved laregly successful and it is fair to believe that the presence of such an official would have ensured that the correct decision would have been made yesterday. However, whilst such an introduction would be welcome, the fact that a ball often crosses the goal-line for only a fraction of a second, as elucidated by Hawkins means that the use of technology would be a more foolproof solution to the issue. But sadly, such an introduction is unlikely to be forthcoming so long as FIFA and Blatter fail to change their inanely derisive stance towards science.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fabregas should start ahead of Xavi

Spain bounced back from the shock of suffering defeat to Switzerland in their opening game by outclassing Honduras in a performance that was as eye-catching as it was efficient. That they won only by a two goal margin had much to do with the profligacy of their finishing, a deficiency which requires to be redressed if they are to have a chance of winning the World Cup. While David Villa, cutting in from the left wing was mostly ruthless and was denied a hat-trick only due to a misplaced penalty, his strike partner Fernando Torres, although showcasing good movement, was unusually mediocre with his finishing. No doubt, a lot of Spain’s football was dazzling; the neat triangles between Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets were as good as anything we have seen so far this World Cup, but there was a definite sense that the cutting edge required of a champion side was lacking.

This view is bound to face opposition, but I firmly believe that Cesc Fabregas must start for Spain ahead of Xavi, as he may well hold the answer to their shortcomings. Although Xavi comes into the World Cup finals on the back of a magnificent season in which his reputation has once again been tremendously augmented, Spain may need the myriad talents of Fabregas to succeed in South Africa. He may not yet be as ingenious a passer of the football as Xavi, but he gets into better positions in the penalty box and is indisputably a more accomplished finisher.

Fabregas’ goal scoring may not be the shining aspect of his game, but it has improved significantly enough over the course of the last few campaigns to be considered as a genuine talent. While Xavi has scored only 35 goals in 352 league appearances for Barcelona, Fabregas has notched up a remarkable tally of 15 goals in just 27 league outings for Arsenal last season. With Vicente Del Bosque intent on playing a system that incorporates two holding midfielders, it is imperative that the third central midfielder plays closer to the centre forward, something which Fabregas is more adept at, than Xavi. The Arsenal captain’s passing, which although not yet as skilled as Xavi, is not unduly inferior and I believe the intelligence of his movement in and around the box could prove crucial if Spain are to live up to their billing as favourites.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Chile's tactics thrill as expected

The outstanding Zonalmarking website’s prediction prior to the World Cup finals that Chile would be the most tactically exciting side was justified in style by the South American side in their 1-0 defeat of Honduras yesterday. Marcelo Bielsa, Chile’s Argentinean coach, likes to have a spare centre-back at all times and knowing that Honduras would begin the game with a lone centre forward, he tweaked his customary 3-3-1-3 to a more conventional 4-2-1-3 (or 4-2-3-1, depending on how the wide players are to be viewed), thereby pitting two central defenders against Honduras’ sole striker and giving license to the full backs to maraud forward.

Having gone into half time a goal down, Honduras moved Edgard Alvarez alongside Carlos Pavon up front, a change that saw Chile revert to the 3-3-1-3 that had served them exceptionally throughout qualifying. By replacing central midfielder Rodrigo Millar with central defender Gonzalo Jara and by allowing Mauricio Isla and Arturo Vidal to act as wing backs, Chile ensured that they possessed a spare centre back at all times. In the eyes of many this would be a purely reactive change, but by keeping his tactical options open, Biesla ensured that his side maintained the right defensive shape to balance their superb attacking options. (A more comprehensive tactical analysis of the game is provided here in the Zonalmarking website)

The tactical aspects apart, it must be said that it was great to watch a team play with wit, flair and imagination in a World Cup finals that has hitherto been largely colourless in attack. With the brilliant Matias Fernandez, deployed as a traditional playmaker, pulling the strings, and the front three of Jean Beausejour (to whom the first goal was credited), Jorge Valdivia and Alexis Sanchez pressing from the top, Chile were at times irrepressible. Sanchez’s pace and skill, in particular was a constant menace, with the Udinese forward creating numerous chances that would have seen Chile win by a more comfortable margin, if not for the profligacy of Beausejour and Valdivia in front of goal. The full backs Isla and Vidal, who were later deployed as wing backs must also be commended, for their verve and energy, which helped Chile successfully use the full width of the pitch.

With Switzerland having upset Spain by adopting the Jose Mourinho model of defensive design, Group H is now beautifully poised. The Swiss, who next fact Chile, will be expected to retain their dogged approach to the game, but Biesla’ tactics, eccentric to some, but mostly thoughtful, will hopefully continue to thrill.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Özil and co impressive in opener

Germany tore Australia to shreds last night in a performance brimming with astounding flair. Admittedly, they were hardly tested by a pedestrian and dreadfully defensive Socceroos outfit, but the movement of their front players was wonderful to behold. Mesut Özil, who was constantly drifting in an out of the hole behind Miroslav Klose, particularly impressed with his touch and movement throughout the game. His magnificent pass through to Thomas Müller en route to the first goal scored by Lukas Podolski was preceded by a turn of intelligence that belied his age and experience. Bayern Munich’s Müller, a year younger than Özil at 20, is also a wonderfully versatile footballer, blessed with pristine technique and crucially with an icy composure that he displayed with his finish for Germany’s third goal.

Having now won their opening game of the past six World Cup finals, Germany once again proved why they are a team that must never be written off. The side may be lacking in renowned stars, with Michael Ballack also having been ruled out of the tournament, but on the evidence of their showing last night, the present group of youngsters seem to possess the acuity to go with their undoubted flair, which makes them genuine title contenders.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mexico's and Uruguay's Three Centre Backs

As has been well documented in recent times, the ploy of teams around the world in playing a lone striker has made tactical systems incorporating three centre backs all but redundant. The deficiencies of such a system were in ample evidence in Mexico’s 1-1 draw with South Africa in the opening game of the World Cup finals yesterday. Although it was believed prior to the kick-off that Rafael Marquez would start the game as a front sweeper, he was found dovetailing for most of the match alongside fellow centre-backs Ricardo Osorio and Francisco Javier Rodriguez, with Paul Aguilar and Carlos Salcido, plying as wingbacks.

The danger in such an arrangement is that by utilising three defenders to counter a single centre-forward, the opposition is certain to find space in other areas of the pitch. And in this case, South Africa found the extra space in the middle of midfield, from where Teko Modise played an excellent ball through to Siphiwe Tshabalala, who finished with aplomb, having cut in from the left wing. It was no doubt a fine through-ball followed by an outstanding finish, but it was clearly a result of the advantage derived by South Africa from Mexico’s decision to deploy a three member central defence against a team employing a sole centre forward.


Uruguay who held France to a goalless draw yesterday also utilised a tactical system involving three centre backs against a team deploying a single centre forward, but with diverse effect. France’s 4-3-3, on paper should have caused Uruguay plentiful problems. But Frank Ribery’s tendency to drift in from the left wing and Sidney Govou’s ineptitude at this level coupled with Domenech’s decision to play him closer to Nicolas Anelka as opposed to using him on the right wing meant that none of Uruguay’s centre backs were rendered superfluous.

France also found their three players stationed in central midfield cancelled by Uruguay’s three in the middle of the pitch, which meant that they were forced to rely on their fullbacks for attacking width, a threat which was competently countered by the Uruguayan wing backs. This meant that even though France did have the odd chance, for most of the game, their tactics were skilfully nullified by Uruguay. It was certainly a commendable result for the South Americans, but the perils of their system, especially against sides using a single centre forward together with two wide players up front is bound to be exposed by teams possessing greater tactical acumen than France, even if not the flair.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

More brilliance from Tamim Iqbal

Tamim Iqbal followed up his dauntless effort at Lords with another century, the fourth of his short but burgeoning career, in the second test match between England and Bangladesh, yesterday at Old Trafford. Batting first, England aided by a cultured century from Ian Bell posted 419 runs in their first innings, a total, which seemed merely modest when Tamim was flaying away, but proved commendable at the end of the second day due to a combination of fine bowling from Graeme Swann and pitiful batting by the rest of the Bangladeshi line-up.

Having elected to bat first in unusually bright Mancunian conditions, England saw a lot of their batsmen get starts, but only the perennially maligned Bell, reached three figures. A splendid knock, it was too, as it always seems to be, when Bell makes runs. An innings compiled with patience and grace was undone on 128, only courtesy a superb delivery from the Bangladeshi skipper, Shakib Al Hasan. Shakib, a left arm orthodox spinner, normally tends to reply on drift and craft and not so much turn, as he displayed with the dismissal of Pieterson, earlier in the innings, when the latter was beaten in the flight and stumped on 64, but the delivery to rid Bell, having drifted inwards, spun viciously past the outside edge to hit the top of the off stump. Bell’s ousting, trailed by Prior’s ill-chosen reverse sweep, when he was on 93, brought England’s innings to a quick close, with Shakib picking up the seventh five wicket haul of his career.

Bangladesh’s openers Tamim and Imrul Kayes strode out confidently and once again provided their team with a solid start. The new ball was wasted by a mixture of needless short-pitched bowling and overly defensive fields set by England, which Tamim in particular, exploited with typical rigour. This hundred in my eyes was even better than the one that he scored at Lords, for it required a greater sense of application. The swashbuckling cuts and pulls were no doubt in evidence, but England’s decision to pepper him with bouncers, with three men out on the leg side boundary and a forward short leg, meant that Tamim needed to show greater judiciousness in his stroke-play. Choosing to duck under the bouncers, rather than play the hook shot, which had him dismissed at Lords in the second innings, Tamim certainly exhibited the required prudence, without compromising on his natural run scoring ability by sending the loose deliveries with an overbearing sense of authority to the boundary boards.

The hundred was also not quite brought about in the cavalier manner with which it was attained at Lords. Although he did indulge in a few swipes in the 90s, for the most part, a sense of calm seemed to prevail. Having shown the necessary patience, the ton was finally reached with a powerful cut shot for four off a wide delivery from Swann. After reaching the three figure mark, Tamim, much like he did in the first test, seemed to lose his focus and an array of infelicitous strokes followed, leading to him finally being caught behind off James Anderson on 108. There is much to be admired in the southpaw’s batting, particularly in the ferociousness of his hitting, which is made to look ridiculously easy at times. However, it is crucial that he finds the ability to convert his scores into big hundreds, much like Virender Sehwag has, whose relentlessly destructive batting has seen him notch up several scores in excess of 150.

Once Tamim was dismissed, Bangladesh crumbled without a hint of a struggle. Such a crying shame, for Tamim’s heroics certainly deserved greater support from the rest of the batting line-up who proved toothless, in spite of possessing the talent. Swann who had gone wicket-less in the first test match and who had seemed suitably tame when bowling to Tamim, returned to his match winning elements that was abundantly in evidence in the series’ preceding the ongoing one, getting good purchase and spin out of a dry surface and ending up with figures of 5/76. Ajmal Shahzad, making his England debut, suffered from nerves when bowling to Tamim, but returned to bowl with pace and purpose, first having Ashraful caught off a wide delivery and then bowling Mahmadullah and Shafiul Islam with fast and full deliveries.

England have the option of asking Bangladesh to bat again, a choice which they would have had a night to ponder over. With their bowlers well rested, it is likely that they will enforce the follow-on, which certainly suits me fine, for Tamim will once again be at the crease come 10:00 GMT.