Thursday, June 17, 2010

Adaptation, Finesse, and Jabulani. Also: Did Maradona Just Save World Cup 2010? Controversy Explained.

This is long, and wonky. If you want the Reader's Digest/ADD/Cliff Notes version, Felipe Melo's got you covered.

- The Great Jabulani Controversy
I'm not here to convince you that the ball sucks and is the main reason for the low scoring, shots, and chances. I was barking that from the beginning and was just frustrated that so many people weren't seeing the obvious and calling a spade a spade- vuvuzelas do not affect the flight of the ball, and neither does altitude when the flight change is from spinning to knuckleballs. If you've watched any significant amount of professional soccer during, I don't know, say the last 10 years, then you know this: players have ridiculous control of the ball, and a huge chunk of beautiful goals are the result of players bending the ball by hitting it with power with the inside of the foot to make it curve and/or dip, sometimes as much as 10 feet and from as far out as 40 yards from goal. In other words, this is what we are used to seeing week in and week out from the world best players at club level:

You remember when TH14 was admired by neutrals don't you? It wasn't that long ago, really.

The best example of this I could find is Robert Pires' powerful bending goal away to Liverpool during Arsenal's famous "Invincibles" undefeated season in 2003-2004. Watch each replay of this goal, especially the last one, but more importantly listen to the commentary clearly explain that the key to this goal is hitting it with the inside of the foot and bending it with power. While you are watching it think about how many times you see this goal each week in say the EPL, La Liga, or any other professional league, and how through 18 games to date with the best players on the planet, we have yet to see it once.

"he bends it with power; that's the thing that beats the goalkeeper"

And it's not just Bend It Like Beckham; it's Bend It Like Any Moderately Talented Pro Footballer. In other words, it's commonplace and seen multiple times in any given match. So when the best players in the world play 16 games in a row without a single powerful shot from range spinning in this manner, let alone being on target or going into the goal, it's pretty simple to see that this ball simply DOES NOT SPIN. Any shot with power is flat and/or knuckles out of control, and takes off like an F-14 off the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Moving On
But now I'm less interested in convincing others of my world view and more interested in trying to figure out what will happen next: will players adapt, or is the angry juju of this ball untameable? And if they do adapt, how will they do it? Can this ball be mastered or will the players only get marginally better, leaving us with the lowest scoring and most disappointing World Cup in history?

I think the answer is becoming apparent, and it is good news for the billion or so of us humans caught up in this so far disappointing affair.

Finesse Will Set You Free
The players in this tournament have been striking the ball the same way to spin it with power to score amazing goals and put in pinpoint crosses for years if not decades, so their brains & bodies are hard wired for this. Change is not intuitive; rather, it is quite difficult to achieve with a simple wave of the note to self magic wand. But it has become readily apparent in the last 24 hours that just such a change is happening right before our eyes.

{damnit, now I remember why I hated your blog back in the day you longwinded bastard- get to the point... /half of audience leaves room}

OK, here's the dope: the way to get Jabulani to spin is to hit it not with power but with finesse, and we've seen a massive shift since yesterday morning. I first noticed it yesterday during Uruguay-SouthAfrica, especially from Diego Forlan. His dipping rocket shot goal thanks to a head deflection aside, I noticed that "holy shit he's spinning the ball on crosses better than anyone else I've seen", but didn't immediately see that he was doing this by taking a little power off of his kicks. But it really got me thinking about this question of adaptation to the ball.

Did El Diego Save The World Cup?
Then yesterday afternoon I saw this from Moin and immediately thought: holy shit this ball can be bent from distance. Eureka!


Made even better by the soundtrack: "Queremos Paz" by Gotan Project

Later yesterday afternoon I thought "man, I wonder if, given the instant viral nature of youtube, and the worldwide takeover of social networking by the World Cup, if this will make it's way to any player/coach/team advisor, because one look at it and you can see the secret to unlock the mystery", but didn't really take my thought seriously.

Then I woke up today and watched Argentina 4-1 South Korea and man it seemed as if the secret was out. The game was certainly joint most enjoyable to watch with Germany 4-0 Australia {more on that in a minute} and it seemed like the players control on shots, crosses, and touches was significantly better. I started connecting the dots but immediately checked myself for being on some phony Dan Brown novel nonsense. But the thought lingered...

Then I watched Greece 2-1 Nigeria, and lo and behold the Nigerian goal was a free kick from 30 yards that spun like a 'regular' ball, and it was clearly hit softer than the default setting power bend shots that had universally failed in the 1st 16 games. Suddenly I'm Keanu Reeves: Whoa.

The rest of the match was more of the same, and if freaking Greece and 10 man Nigeria playing a cracking game with lots of chances and much better technical play can't convince me, then nothing will.

And I don't mean that I am convinced that it because of El Diego. It very well may be that in the days between their 1st & 2nd matches, teams figured this out by application of observation and adaptation by practice. After all, we're talking about the most talented people on this planet at the discipline of controlling a soccer ball. I'm just convinced that the finesse secret to unlock Jabulani is being applied in front of our very eyes; the reason behind it is secondary.

But as I sit here exhausted after watching two games from 4.30am this morning, this much seems indisputably clear:
1. Scoring in the first 16 games was 1.5 goals per game.

2. Scoring thusfar in 3 2nd round matches is 3.7 goals per game.

3. The level of play and thus enjoyment factor for fans/viewers has significantly increased from the 16 1st round games to the 3 (and counting) 2nd round matches.

And of the 4 "best" or "most enjoyable for neutrals to watch" games of the 19 played thusfar, 3 of those four are the last 3, all in the 2nd round and all in the last 24 hours. And this is the key: it's ultimately not about getting into a mathematical argument about comparing the goals scored per game, as that is the science of the game. The key is the art of the game: watch how players start to adapt their shooting, crossing, and lobbed passes by taking a little power off their kicks and using a little more finesse to get this ball to bend and submit to their will. Certainly not as much as any 'normal' ball that came before, but definitely more than what we saw in the first set of games.

Something is clearly happening. Whether or not it's practice, a viral video of Maradona giving every gamer the cheat code, or something else is not the important bit.

The important bit is that things are changing right before our eyes, in real time, and it's win win win win- the players, the fans, the haters, the world, are all the better for it. Have they mastered it? Of course not, there's still the rocket shot field goals into row Z, and there will be more. But I feel a corner has been turned, and I cannot wait to see Mexico-France and the games tomorrow to apply my theory with an increased sample size.

Watch Germany
Universally hailed as the only truly great technical performance of the 32 teams in the 1st set of games was Germany's 4-0 romp over hapless Australia. During the match I was thinking, "damn, Germany are playing like Adidas secretly gave them this Jabulani ball to practice with 2 years ago". We later found out that this is true, except the secret part- the German Bundesliga teams all used the Adidas Jabulani ball last season, and most players on the German national team play on German clubs, so the German players have been using it day in and day our since at least last September. This article has an outstanding and thorough breakdown of who had access to Jabulani & when they had it- a must read for anyone with any passing interest in the Jabulani issue.

Having had this Jabulani eureka moment, I am looking forward to seeing their next match, but what I'd like even more is to go back and watch their first match and see if their play jives with my finesse theory. Given my schedule that might not happen for a few days, but if you're home with mono or otherwise bored off your ass today, go check it out.

Now it could be that I am way off and in desperate need of a full night's sleep (which is true regardless). But I really think we're witnessing the key going into the Jabulani lock, and I'm here to tell you first so you can be the rock star who points it out first to your mates, cause that's the guy who gets the girl's number at the sportsbar from the casually interested in soccer but ridiculously hot expat from an exotic country who's there to support her homeland, not the douche who waits for something to take hold and then acts like they knew it all along.

That said, either you're welcome or I'm sorry.

Small sample size I know, but what do you think? Am I observant or baked?

Jabulani Update with objective goals per match facts here.

*Please don't come at me in the comments about opening matches being cautious, cagey affairs. They are, but I am talking about physical evidence regarding the flight & spin of the ball, not emotional states & conservative tactics.

**Updated with video evidence to support my theory 21 June 2010


moinllieon said...

Quite simply, the ball isn't lighter than regular balls, it doesn't bounce higher, it isn't smaller:

If anything, the Jabulani is on the heavier side of footballs. The only difference is in the flight. And I think there are 2 significant contributing factors.

First of all, counter-intuitively, heavier balls flies further through the air (at the same launching speed: more mass = more momentum = more resistance to drag). So it is very possible that players, feeling that the ball is on the heavier side, feels they need more oomph to achieve the same speed/distance and it only compounds the problem.

Secondly, the dimples on the ball function much like the dimples on a golf-ball, helping the ball stay true-er and further still.

All ball talk aside (heh, he said balls), a huge part of the story of this world cup, for me, is the re-emergence of the importance of wing play. The recent focus on wingers who are wrong footed that cut into the middle (Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Robben, Arshavin, to name a few) along with the emergence of the Barca style have greatly influenced defensive tactics. Teams now seems to pack the middle of the field just in front of the defense to choke supply and options. They are perfectly willing to let the ball trickle up to the shoulder areas of the pitch (think top of the circle in hockey) because they know that all attacking options are taken care of:
1) if the winger is on the ball, he would prefer to make a move and cut inside, right into the teeth of the defense
2) if the full back/wing back is on the ball, he'll be most reluctant to bomb even further forward, exposing his team's flank for the dreaded counter, so he'll most probably pass it back sideways to the center line.

This is how Inter beat Barca, but you can see it in the Brazil-NK or the Spain-Swiss match. Robinho, Iniesta, David Silva, (and Messi for Barca) all had time on the ball, but couldn't create much of anything because everything they created was straight into the teeth of the defense. Smaller midfield creators like Xavi and maybe even Kaka can be crowded off the ball.

This really puts the onus on the fullbacks to bomb forward and opening themselves to the counter. Ramos was reluctant to do that against Switzerland, Maicon was too. But the one time Maicon went forward resulted in the opening goal. You can also see the better fluidity when wingers are brought on throughout the 1st round of matches: David Villa, Cameronesi, and Elia coming on made a huge difference in the space seen by their teams as they attacked.

The second round seems to feature the attacking response to this defensive philosophy: true wingers who don't cut inside to stretch the defense horizontally, midfield creators dropping VERY deep to get the ball to spray to these wingers. Uruguay came with Cavani and Suarez with Forlan dropping very deep to get the ball (I know I know, not a creator, but he still distributes), Argentina had Maxi Rodriguez+Di Maria on either side of Messi.

Anyways, that's just the pattern I'm seeing right now. Could be completely BS by this time tomorrow.

Kanu said...

Great stuff as usual Moin. Even with the 2 year layoff here, you manage to be on point as hell. Same as it ever was. Surely you have the best written and most insightful blog-within-a-comments-section-of-another-blog ever. I'm raising a glass in your general direction.

moinllieon said...

As that was completely what I was aiming for, you've now made my day. *Raises glass in response*

Kanu said...

I think it's less like a golf ball actually. I went to the store and touched/felt the official $125 game ball. All of the plastic & composite & different textures & that yellow rubber/plastic strip around the circular sections make it radically different than any preceding balls.

I didn't get to kick it, but it seems to me to the the opposite of a golf ball. Golf balls have those dimples precisely to provide spin that can be controlled. This seems to do the opposite, and maybe the result is the opposite thus the knuckleballing lack of spin.

It might have something to do with seams; seams in most prior balls v. these seams which are a bit different. Think of baseball if the seams of the ball were replaced with new seams that were not raised but more flush, and the resulting lack of control by pitchers and throwers (like the difference between the wiffle ball with holes all over it that you can control in the back yard, and the plastic wiffle ball with no holes that it really hard to control when thrown)

It's an ever developing story as far as analysis, but that's why I wanted to write this and get this out there for analysis/discussion/agreement/disagreement. Also trying to move past what has been established and figure out what will happen next, how it might adapt & morph as things go on.

moinllieon said...

Or when NBA went to that weird synthetic ball for half a season. I can see your point. Hope everyone will get used to it like you said and it'll turn into a non-issue. Hard to believe that nobody besides the Germans bothered to ask for them to practice with.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Great stuff from the both of you.

What I'm not sure about is how much impact the Jabulani actually has on the lack of quality shots, crosses, etc. What I am sure about is that the PLAYERS are convinced it's having an impact and trying to adjust to it. Unfortunately, the level of play is too high, the intensity too, uh, intense for those kinds of little mental adjustments to be made on the fly and still be successful. You can't be thinking about how to strike the ball and strike it correctly, if that makes sense. That the Germans are the only team who've been playing with the ball since the day it was released (and before) and were the only team to really shine on the attack seems to be too big of a coincidence.

I'm hoping desperately you're right about the three second-round games being a turning point. We'll see.

Kanu said...


Here a complete rundown of who had access to Jabulani & when. Others had it, but German players seemingly got to user it the most (every day with club and with national team matches as well)

moinllieon said...

This French-Mexico match is a demonstration of how not to play on the wing. French had 5 left side favoring players: Evra, Malouda, Govour, Ribery, and Anelka. They spent the entire second half passing and dribbling the ball down that left hand channel into a packed Mexican defense. Quite as to why Ribery refuses to go to the right and stretch the defense or give an option on that side is beyond me. Consider that Malouda and Evra are usually the left most options for their club teams and yet, Ribery INSISTED on being even further out left so he could cut inside onto his favored right foot. The only problem is that he would immediately drift into the Mexican defenders that were there to mark Malouda and Evra. On top of it all, neither of the midfielders (Toulalan and Diaby) tried to switch the flanks or force the issue.

This is why I can't really blame Domenech for who he brought on: Govou and Anelka had to be brought off for more neutral/right sided players. Maybe Cisse would've worked better than Gignac, but Henry would've only exacerbated the problem.

Disgusting. I've never been this frustrated watching players just not adapt. Even Spain was better.