Thursday, July 06, 2006

Let the Surrender Jokes Begin

It's somehow fitting that a World Cup contested in Germany has produced a final between a country that the Germans conquered in three weeks in May 1940 and a country that the Germans had to invade in 1943, despite the fact that it was an ostensible ally of the Germans. (Funny how everything in European soccer ends up relating back to WWII, or at least it does when reflected through my slightly jaded prism.) And in contrast to their performances during that era, France and Italy have progressed to Berlin on the strength of impregnable defenses, having conceded a grand total of three goals in their 12 matches leading up to the Final. Take out the penalty awarded to Spain and the own goal conceded by Italy and opponents have scored exactly one goal against France or Italy from open play. All this points to a relatively uninteresting Final for those of us who like lots of scoring chances and end-to-end play. France and Italy are both full of skilled offensive players, but as the knock-out games have demonstrated, great defenses usually conquer great offenses and both France and Italy have great defenses.

It's fitting that a tournament dominated by defense in the knock-out phases will ultimately be won by the two stoutest defenses present. However, despite the attractive technical skill on display in Germany, The Guardian's Rob Smyth points out a problem with the knock-out stages of Germany '06: an absence of goals. Unfortunately, he's absolutely right. There have been an underwhelming 24 goals in 14 knock-out games, which will hardly set anyone's heart aflutter. Compare that to 44 goals scored at the same stage of USA '94 or 39 goals scored at France '98 at this stage. The classic games from those tournaments don't seem possible now that defenses have completely taken over. The Brazil-Holland 3-2 masterpiece from '94 is a distant memory. Italy played three outstanding knock-out games en route to the '94 Final and all of them finished 2-1, two of them including some late drama (although Spaniards might choose a different word than "drama" to describe a game that they lost in large part because the ref and linesman contrived to miss a Mauro Tassotti elbow into Luis Enrique's face, in the box no less). France's dramatic win over Croatia, marked by Lilian Thuram's first two goals for France to bring the hosts from behind, is one of the defining memories of '98, not surprisingly because it involves goals.

And the World Cup isn't the only place in which offense is suffering. The last Champions League, for instance, featured two teams in the Final who got there by winning semifinals 1-0 over two legs. How in the world did Rijkaard's Barcelona and Ancelotti's Milan produce one goal over 180 minutes? (Actually, there was that strike by Shevchenko where Puyol fell over and...ah, the joys of selective memory.) And then, let's go back to Euro '04, which was won by a Greek side that created one chance per game and kept progressing with 1-0 wins.

The last time that offense was so hard to come by was the uninspiring 1990 World Cup. That one was more dour than the present tournament because in 1990, just about every game was decided in penalties and Argentina made it to the Final using penalties as a preferred end-game. There has been more action in this World Cup and less reliance on playing for penalties. Indeed, between Italy's dreadful record in penalties and France's still-inexplicable decision to start Fabien Barthez between the sticks, our finalists would have been nuts to employ such a strategy. Still, FIFA needs to take some concrete steps to counter the defensive cycle that currently weighs the game down. After 1990, FIFA took the wise steps of: (1) banning keepers from handling the ball when it's played back to them by their teammates; and (2) awarding three points for a win instead of two. The '94 World Cup was much improved as a result. So what should FIFA do this time to increase offense without resorting to gimmicks like bigger goals? A couple thoughts:

1. Allow additional substitutions in extra time. This wouldn't necessarily affect the number of goals in 90 minutes, but it would make extra time more compelling as teams would throw on fresh players to run at tired defenders.

2. Award indirect free kicks in the box. This has always been a pet issue of mine. Refs currently allow a lot of contact in the box that they would never allow in the midfield because they (quite rightly) don't want to give penalty kicks for anything other than fouls denying clear scoring chances. The problem now is that it's very difficult to score in the box, especially on corner kicks, because defenders can bump and grab offensive players with impunity. The solution would be to create a second class of fouls. Fouls that deprive clear scoring chances will still merit penalty kicks. Fouls that are less severe would result in free kicks from the edge of the 18-yard box. This would have the dual effect of creating more free kicks, which are always crowd-pleasers, and cleaning up the box so offensive players have a chance to get their heads on set pieces.

The difficulty I have is creating some sort of subtle rule change that would encourage managers to play two strikers again. The 4-5-1 has become the preferred formation and it can be attractive if the offensive players (usually the offensive central midfielder and the two wingers) get forward to support the striker, but it's a very stout defensive formation because it typically leaves two defensive midfielders in place to shield the back four. England, France, and Portugal all use the formation and achieved excellent defensive results with it, but none of them have played especially exciting games, especially against one another. Two 4-5-1 teams are unlikely to create an exciting match because one striker and three supporting midfielders are going to be little match for four defenders and two screening Makeleles. (It's a real testament to little Claude that he has become the Platonic ideal for a defensive midfielder.) Who ever thought that Italy would contest a final and would be viewed as the more offensive team, at least in terms of its formation. Marcelo Lippi has also showed more willingness to roll the dice by putting on offensive players in the later stages of games, so score two for Fortress Italia. He's such an improvement over the hopelessly conservative Giovanni Trappatoni.

A few other random thoughts on the Semifinals:

1. I rooted for Portugal because I generally like the Iberian Peninsula and because I stood to win $150 if they beat Italy in the Final, but it was awfully hard to root for them yesterday. Their display against France was one of the most cynical collection of dives in recent memory. The game desperately needed Jorge Larrionda to issue a yellow card for diving to convince the Portuguese to actually try to score a goal. The diving got worse and worse as Portugal's desperation and realization that they couldn't score from the run of play increased. Cristiano Ronaldo was particularly bad in this regard, marring an otherwise excellent performance. I felt bad for him that bitter English fans were whistling him throughout the game (it's so much easier to invoke a scapegoat than to acknowledge that your team couldn't score and that your star young player fully deserved to be sent off), but the feelings of sympathy receded as he routinely went to ground.

2. Lost in the hosannas for Zidane (and those hosannas are well-deserved as he stamps himself as the best player since Maradonna) is acknowledgement of: (1) how good France's defense is; and (2) how boring the French are with a lead because they make little effort to kill a game off with a second goal. They created a nice three-man break yesterday in about minute 55 with Zidane, Ribery, and Henry all surging forward and then the game ground to a halt as France made little effort to score and Portugal was incapable of doing the deed themselves.

3. Fabien Barthez...uh, yeah. He did his best to mimic a bride tossing her bouquet to her bridesmaids on Ronaldo's free kick in the second half, only Luis Figo decided that he would prefer to remain a bridesmaid by lifting the bouquet over the goal when the goal was at his mercy. Oy vey all around. This is one area in which Italy will have a decided advantage on Sunday: they can be confident that when the ball is sent towards their goal, their keeper won't flap at it.

4. For a side not noted for their offensive prowess, Italy really put on a show in extra time, hitting the post twice and then scoring two great goals that involved significant teamwork. The Azzurri don't have very good strikers, but they have gotten offense from their midfield and outside defenders, even moreso than the 4-5-1 teams that are supposed to get their offense from those sources.

As for a prediction, 1-0 to France because I can't pick against Zidane at this stage and because this French core has already beaten Italy twice in major competitions ('98 World Cup quarters in penalties and Euro '00 Final in extra time). The chances are going to be few and far between, but I trust Zidane to create the better chances than Totti and I trust Henry to finish better than Luca Toni or Alberto Gilardino.

8 comments:

LD said...

Got a few bones to pick with you on this, but might have to write a full response. Quickly...

1) It wasn't just the English fans whistling Ronaldo. French, Dutch, Germans, Neutrals. Everyone has seen what a petulant whiner and diver he's been all tournament (and it's worked for him, unfortunately). Yesterday he was just at his worst, but it wasn't new. Also, I don't think the English consider him even reason #8 why they're out of the tournament. Sven Goran is the #1 scapegoat and nobody's really a close second. Also, how could you possibly have been rooting for Portugal after the shame of the match against the Dutch? Mind blowing.

Also, I'm not sure I agree with you about the French making the game boring yesterday. The three subs brought on were all strikers (for two strikers and a defensive midfielder). If anyone was at fault for making the game boring, it's the Portuguese, since they're offense basically consisted of 25 yard shots or falling down.

ALso, I'm not sure the 98 or 00 matches are proper comparisons. The turnover on the Italy squad is considerable from then (especially up front). The French team also isn't the same from back then, especially on defense (though that might be for the better since Makalele and Gallas didn't play all that much back then).

Yes, the two teams left are great on defense. But I could see the final actually being more exciting than most of these other matches.

As for your anti-defense suggestions, I think they make a lot of sense. One more: no more kicking the ball out after supposed injuries. Play continues unless a player calls for the stretcher (the referee whistles play dead). Appearance of a stretcher means 5 minutes off the field unless substituted. That'll cut down on unnecessary interruptions. Of course, carding players for returning quickly after getting stretchered off could have a similar effect - and I don't know why that doesn't happen now.

Brian said...

I'm with both of you on the rule changes, though I think the five-minute TO for being stretchered off should only be when you're not fouled.

I also think:

1) The easiest way to deal with time wasting is to add stoppage time equivalent to whatever you've wasted.
2) Offsides should be slightly relaxed. Right now if your torso is even an inch past the last defender it's offsides. I think you should have to be entirely clear of the defender to prompt a flag. I also think I would like it if there was no offsides once the ball entered the box, but I'm not entirely sure.

Michael said...

1. The English have already started an "Ihateronaldo.com" web site, a tabloid printed Ronaldo dart boards, and an e-mail went around asking fans to vote against him on FIFA's web site for best young player in the tournament. I'd say they're fixating on him as a villain. Let's see if they run Rooney over the coals the way they did Beckham after '98.

2. France didn't create anything yesterday after about the 60th minute. They were quite content to sit on the lead and that was boring as hell. Portugal deserves some of the blame, but it's not their fault that they have a crap striker. France has attacking talent and didn't use any of it for the last half hour. Their subs were solely offense for offense (Ribery, Malouda, and Henry were the players pulled off). I really don't see an attractive final unless there is a great play or mistake to put a goal up early. Neither of these teams take chances. Italy plays with a little more verve than they did in '98, but France does not.

LD said...

Gags. Serious critics know that it wasn't Ronaldo, even in England.

I'd bet there are similar joke products in Holland now about Portugal.

The thing I'm trying to say is that Portugal represented the worst in this Cup. Flamboyant flopping, thuggish tackling and constant complaining. They led the entire tournament in yellow and red cards, and were third in fouls. Amazingly, Portugal's opponents led them in all three categories: add up their opponents' stats from Portugal's matches and you'll see that Portugal had 21 yellows, 2 reds and 106 fouls. Their opponents: 22 yellows, 4 reds, and 112 fouls (each would lead the tournament if it were one team). There has been a lot of ugly soccer played in this cup, and I think it's represented by this team more than any. Several other teams played much better soccer, including teams not normally known for it (like Germany and I'd even argue Italy, at least moreso than usual). Yes, it's nice to see a team that hasn't been there before advance, but I don't think the way Portugal advanced is good for soccer. I hope Germany beats them by 4 (and that wouldn't surprise me one bit).

England have only themselves to blame for losing, and the English I've spoken to have voiced the same concerns. The gags and websites and such is fluff. It's like Braves fans blaming Kent Hrbek's indiscretions for 1991, when most know that it was actually Jack Morris' accomplishments. You're using a broad brush to paint all English fans as irrational - and sure, they are - but the truth is that the English know who to blame but also who deserves criticism - and they can be correct in both.

The play of Ronaldo (and others too, like Henry and his out of character behavior) in this cup is worthy of criticism. It's not an exclusive argument to say that Ronaldo has been an embarassment to the game and that England's loss is their own fault. Both can be reasonable opinions and I think are held by most English fans.

Kanu said...

As far as rule changes, how about making all free kicks direct? Much more of a chance of scoring from a direct kick than an indirect one. With the defenders in the wall ALWAYS cheating up before the ball is kicked, it is now damn near impossible for a goal to be scored when an opponent has to roll it to the shooter, whereas a direct kick outside the box is much, much more dangerous. Just a thought, seems like at a minimum it would make things more exciting and at a maximum it would increase scoring. Yellow carding members of walls who encroach onthe 10 yards before a ball is kicked might start to curb this rampant practice as well.

As far as France yesterday, I didn't get the impression that they closed up shop, so I was a little suprised to hear Bobbeh on Ticket TO GErmany criticize them for it. Later I watched the replay of the match with this in mind, and I can't really say that I agree with Bobbeh. The 1st 15 minutes of the 2nd half were even, and France made some good chances to kill the game. Then another 10 minutes of loggerheads, and then the last 20 minutes Portugal pressed forward for the equalizer as any team down 0-1 in a knockout game does - as a result the French midfield had to defend deeper, especially Vieira & Makelele, which naturally stifled their attacking prowess going forward when they got the ball. Unlike a classic catennacio "let's close up shop" job, Domenech used Wiltord, Govou, and Saha as his 3 subs: 2 strikers & an attacking winger. I'm not saying that the game wasn't disappointing from a viewer's standpoint, just that it still doesn't strike me that France closed up chop and then Portugal pressed, but rather that Portugal pressed in the last 25 minutes so France had to defend deeper and therefore didn't do much offensively.

I fear Italy will win the final - both teams are pretty much even at every position but one - goalkeeper, where Italy have about as massive an advantage as you can have.

To their credit and despite some diving and flailing around, they haven't played too much typical catennacio - especially with fullbakcs going forward (Grosso particularly) and that they now have had 10 different goalscorers, a World Cup record. Hopefully France can pull off something special.

I agree with you Michael, I think with these two amazing defenses we are looking at 0-0 and penalties or 1-0, as the defenses seem more than capable of cancelling out the offenses. The best thing for the game would be an early goal be either team, say in the first 15 minutes.

Lastly, don't be suprised if C Ronaldo is sold to Real Madrid.

Anonymous said...

The goal total gets even lower if you toss out the goals scored on penalties. At least three have been scored that way (Italy vs. Australia, Spain vs. France, France vs. Portugal), leaving us with 21 goals actually scored on offensive plays in 14 games . . . 1.5 per.

-Carc

Joel said...

Sorry Mike - off topic - but I was wondering if we could get your opinion (if any) on the latest goings on with the Hawks ownership crap.

I have tried to follow this situation, but with all the appeals, motions, injunctions, etc...well its safe to say you understand it better than I.

Honestly, I never really gave a shit about the whole situation, I thought Belkin was just playing hard business and wanted to make a profit when he was bought out. But now, reading that the Hawks/Thrashers can't sign anyone for more than 1 year seriously hurts these franchises in both the short and long term. Is their anything Commish Stern can do to remedy this situation? Hell at this point I'd take an Expos/Nats-type ownership over this mess.

Michael said...

LD, I might be taking a caricatured picture of England from the media, since I don't have a lot of contact with the average English fan. However, I always rate highly the ability of fans in general and fallen powers like the English in particular to find external enemies to explain their demise. Alabama fans are perhaps the archetype of this line of thinking.

As for Portugal, I think they play some smart football when they put their minds to it. They have some very good midfielders and their interplay is often fun to watch. Their goal against Holland was pure quality and I wasn't overly upset to see the Dutch lose to it, especially because it contrasted with the selfish Dutch play in the attacking third. The Portuguese do dive too much and their matches did get too contentious, so I can see your point on that subject, but how can you blame them for Wayne Rooney losing the plot? Or Khalid Bouhlarouz being as hard as he was in that match? (He could have received a straight red for his early tackle on Ronaldo.)

Kanu, we'll just have to agree to disagree on France's attacking merits. I was bored for most of the last half hour of the match with Portugal. France doesn't have much of an offensive tradition (or at least they don't in the last decade; I don't want to besmirch the Platini-Giresse-Tigana teams). And I completely agree that Ronaldo is headed for Real. There's no way he can play as Rooney's teammate if Rooney's feelings on the red card are accurate.