The Three Halves and Halves Nots

A few months ago the media was awash with reports that FIFA was toying with the idea of introducing three halves of thirty minutes each in the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Though I couldn’t find any official statement from FIFA confirming this (in fact they had swiftly moved to refute the rumours), I can’t wait for this strategy to be introduced. It may turn out to be one of the most important innovations in football, comparable to the banning of snoods and booking players for taking off their shirt.

For starters, the term “three halves” is path breaking in itself. It can potentially change the entire footballing paradigm where every match, in fact, becomes a match and a half. It is straight out of the Kevin Keegan world of football expressions where there is no bigger honour than being the second best team in the world, where there isn’t anyone bigger or smaller than Maradona. With it, FIFA can scale the marketing heights of Woolworth or Sainsbury’s by offering three matches at the price of two tickets. Besides, with two half time breaks, they must come up with appropriate names for them too. Taking a cue from cricket, the breaks could be named tea and high tea, or supper and dinner depending on when the game is played, and embellished with appropriate sponsorships.

Beyond these obvious marketing and promotional opportunities, there are other ways to leverage the third half to make the beautiful game even more beautiful. The basic game of football has not changed since it started. It has always been played in two halves where two teams, comprising 11 players, fight for a ball. Tournaments like Moretti were a whole new ball game though. Now with three halves, FIFA will be well-equipped to introduce three-way match ups, much like the three-way elimination matches so widespread and popular in professional wrestling. Let us try to understand how it will work. In a match between Team A, B and C – Team A plays Team B, Team B plays Team C while Team C plays Team A in the first, second and third halves respectively. The goal difference for each team over the three halves is computed and the team with the highest goal difference declared the winner. If there is more than one team with the highest goal difference, the points are split. In case of knock-out matches without a clear winner, there are two or three-way penalty shootouts as necessary. Three-way penalty shootouts work in exactly the same way as the three-way match.

The question is what is in it for FIFA, apart from revenue, that is. Well, with three-way match ups of 90 minutes split in three halves, FIFA will be able to increase the number of participating teams from 32 to 48 with zero overhead. This is likely to reduce the chances of global favourites such as England missing the tournament by bowing out in the qualifiers.  Besides, with more teams participating, TV revenue will also surge.

However, in the mundane world of domestic and continental football, it will not be justifiable to have three-way matches for the simple reason that to maintain the traditional home and away format, the number of matches will increase beyond control and the schedule will become unmanageable. Nevertheless, an idea as radical and path-breaking as a game of three halves has its advantages. The domestic and continental competitions can continue to be held between two teams, but introduction of the extra half will add value to the player and spectator experience, as well as introduce avenues for new tactical thinking. In the following paragraphs I shall explain how.

One aspect football has not been able to market is the toss. It is such a trivial affair in the game that nobody but the referee is usually bothered about it. However, this third half might just give the toss a new lease of life. Journalists can spend column inches on which way the wind will blow, while broadcasters can perhaps slip in a weather report into the match preview. We may also have a full-fledged pitch report where the venerable experts will pick up blades of grass and blow them in the air, measure the hardness of the soil in various areas, especially the penalty box and provide expert comments. Captains will be interrogated on their decision and blasted or commended on it, and the armchair fan will have another topic to ruminate on. Of course, all the while the camera will silently follow them around to seize every moment that can enhance the drawing room-audience experience. What’s more, it will positively contribute to the employment scenario as meteorologists and geologists will now be added to the entourage of coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, dietitians, nutritionists, psychologists, philosophers and the likes.

Most football fans will agree that time added on due to injuries and substitutions, is fast becoming one of the most intriguing topics of discussion. From waiting for the fourth referee to flash the number of minutes to be added, to anticipating when the referee will decide that enough time has been added and blow the whistle, to Manchester United inevitably scoring a goal well beyond the anticipated end of the half, time added on continues to enthral the football fanatics and divide opinion. What happens during half time is also occupying increased mindshare with pizza fights, handbags and accusations of referees visiting opponent dressing rooms bandied about with increased regularity. The additional half time break will obviously enhance these simple but nonetheless essential appendages to the football experience. Certain managers will also no doubt be delighted to find another window for unleashing the hairdryer to make sure that everyone is on their toes.

The move is also expected to have social and economic impact reaching far beyond the perimeters of the football field. With two half time breaks, the sales of hamburgers, baguettes and sandwiches in the stadium are sure to skyrocket, thus substantially boosting the stadium refreshments business, and creating more employment opportunities. Back home, we can expect a marginal increase in domestic harmony as during the extra break the football fan will perhaps spend a bit more time with his family during the hectic Saturday and Sunday evenings.

However, the question remains, what is in it for the players. There certainly is something. It is not apparent because we, the unforgiving audience, treat them like Roman gladiators and do not spend a moment to consider the trials they undergo on the field. We pulverize them for making simple mistakes without considering that they may be in obvious physical discomfort, the likes of which we seldom need to face. Have we considered that some of the misplaced passes, fluffed clearances, scuffed shots and flapped corners, inability to track back or mark the opponent could have a physiological reason? In other words, have we considered that not every player may be blessed with the industry of Jens Lehmann? So, the three halves will obviously give that additional opportunity to answer nature’s calls, both proactively and reactively, that may have been inhibiting them from playing to their potential. Given that, I must say, every professional footballer will be flushed with delight if FIFA’s new move is implemented.

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Saumyajit Ray can be reached at saumyajit.ray@gmail.com

Title courtesy: Anustup Basu

Maximus Tacticus – Chelsea

Induction

Chelsea are fast changing. Even by the fast paced standards set by Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of the London club, there is a buzz around that things are changing fast at Chelsea. There is a new coach at the helm of things, Andre Villas-Boas(AVB). AVB, is only a year or two older than the old custodians like John Terry or Frank Lampard, but that has not intimidated AVB from stamping his authority at Stamford Bridge. Here is a look at how things are shaping up at Chelsea on the field.

History Beckons

Jose Mourinho, as the boss of Chelsea did two noteworthy things – he led them to their first league title for over 50 years; and he did not bother to change his boring but effective ways of winning 1-0. The famous 4-3-3 formation had 3 spines in the form of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Times have changed. Old war-horses are no more spring chickens. Many a famous manager has come and gone after the “Special One” but have failed to replicate the same level of success. However, it seems like history is repeating itself as another Portuguese has won 4 titles with Porto and was promptly snapped up by Roman for the managerial post of Chelsea, although he lacks exoerience and is only 33! Incidently he was the understudy to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and then at Inter Milan – and hold on – the 4-3-3 is back.

Each coach has his own interpretation of the system and AVB is no exception. His mentor, Mourinho, used a 4-3-3 formation with classic wingers and asked the wide players to track back forming more of a 4-5-1 without the ball. Villas-Boas is more inclined to use modern-day wingers, or wide forwards, who would drift inside as a major goal scoring threat, themselves. Defensively, Chelsea are set for a more pressing game this season. They have bought in new players, who are younger, and they have the energy to press higher up the pitch. AVB has openly expressed his admiration for Pep Guardiola and it is not strange that he has strong influence of his pressing game, but under this new system, John Terry, the centre half, has been too vulnerable for his own good – the slip leading to Robin van Persie’s 2nd goal during the 3-5 defeat to Chelsea can have a paramount impact on Chelsea’ title claims. Hence, Alex and Ivanovic have a chance to step up and lay claim for that spot. It will be nice selection dilemma for the coach. The pivotal point in attack remains Fernando Torres. Many believe the old system did not suit him as Torres cherishes through balls played along the ground in front of him (a certain Steven Gerrard will second that). Torres thinks it is the lack of pace in Chelsea’s passing that has augmented his poor form.  To counter this problem, AVB has Raul Meireles and Ramires holding the central midfield together along with the ageing (and sloth, some may say) Frank Lampard. Meireles is preferred to guard the ship sitting back, Ramires is seen as the engine of the team bursting forward on every opportunity, while Lampard tries to have telling contribution playing between these two younger players. It is a fluid midfield where anyone can stay back and the other two can advance forward. In the wing, AVB has bought in fresh players – Juan Mata from Valencia (transfer) and Daniel Sturridge from Bolton, after having finished his successful loan stint there. Ashley Cole from the left and Jose Bosingwa from the right flank would burst forward to drag away the opposition full backs. Combine all of these in a short, quick triangle of passes in the final third of the pitch and Everton will validate their ruthlessness in their recent 3-1 defeat.

Good Old Days of 4-3-3

I Have a Plan B

The above system has its fair share of blemishes. Without an able holding midfielder – Michael Essien is on injury list for a while and he is not getting any younger, John Obi Mikel is good at playing square passes only and thus slowing down the pace of the game, Josh McEachran is too young to pitch in a solid performance week in week out – at his disposal, AVB has deployed Meireles at a deeper role. The recruit from Liverpool likes a more advanced role which is occupied by Lampard. Can he be eased out by the new kid, err boss? Early signs suggest that yes, he can. Lampard can be seen more of an impact player, come the business end of the season. FlorentMalouda can be swapped with the young Sturridge if  need be. Didier Drogba – yes, he still is registered with Chelsea – or Nicolas Anelka, can be seen in a fringe role in what seems to be their swansong season. Also, Chelsea traditionally like to play a high defensive line when in possession. With ageing stalwart Terry at the back, it can backfire against teams having a pacy counter attacking option.

Hybrid 3 Forward

That is where AVB would look to reshuffle the pack, as he had done at times in the Champions league game against Valencia. He has a wealth of strikers at his disposal and none better than Drogba to partner Torres up front if Chelsea go with two up front. The midfield will shape up like a standard diamond with the wide players providing the width. The striking feature with this attacking diamond formation is that, both Drogba and Torres can start upfront. A defensive shield is provided in the form of Mikel in front of the defensive duo. AVB likes to play a short, quick and central passing game near the penalty area of opposition box,hence he will be tempted to feature all of Mata, Meireles and Ramires in the first team, even at the cost of earning the wrath of the Lampard faithfuls. Both the “wide” players would look to drift in and cause problem for their markers. The fullbacks will overlap and draw the opposition fullbacks away, thus creating the space. One of Torres and Drogba will time and again sway like a pendulum, drawing one of the centrehalfs towards the sideline while the other will act as the focal point of attack. To break away from shackles, Chelsea can change to a hybrid three man forward line with the likes of Mata, or Sturridge pushing up considerably.

Man to Watch (1) – Juan Mata

Juan Mata, summer recruit from Valencia, is a typical new breed attacking midfield player. He starts on the left hand side of the midfield as suggested in the team sheet, but rarely chalks down the sideline like traditional wingers. He is more prudent in dropping to the “hole”, shifting position with the overlapping sideback, switching to the other flank seamlessly. He is a perfect replacement for the ageing FrankLampard, though they are as similar players as chalk and cheese!Lampard made his mark as a box-to-box industrious midfield player who can contribute 20 goals a season. More importantly, he turned up in almost every game of the season. Mata is more of a creative force, and like every other creative player, is not so eager in tracking back. He loves to create goals and AVB’s short-n-slick passing game perfectly suits this Spanish playmaker. It is like a breath of fresh air – the creativity which Chelsea lacked so dearly for the last 2 seasons.

Mata Settling into England quickly

Man to Watch (2) – David Luiz

David Luiz, 24 year old Brazilian centre half who arrived at Chelsea in the summer of 2011 from Benfica. Assured with the ball at his feet, he is a very good passer of the ball. Besides, he reads the game very well and is an ideal ballplayer at the back to kick-start any attack. Often he is instrumental in making bursting runs through the middle and can provide an additional attacking edge. Hailed as the future Chelsea captain, he is slowly but surely taking it over from the old war-horse John Terry. What has been impressive is his link up play. Andre Villas-Boas prefers a short passing game, but Luiz brings in a bit of variety to the attack. Just look at the graphic below – how often he has tried to play a traditional English long ball to the overlapping fullback. Although he has a very poor success rate at that but don’t forget it is his first season and it is a newish set up at Chelsea. With time, he is bound to improve. He has already shown his mettle with the assist to Daniel Sturridge against Bolton. Another glaring feature is that barring these long balls, he has not put a foot wrong – almost 100% accuracy in passing is awesome for a centre half.

David Luiz trying for perfection in Long Balls

Blue Line – Successful Pass

Red Line – Unsuccessful Pass

White Line – Assist

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Debojyoti Chakraborty is a follower of English Premier League and European football. You can reach him at debojyoti.chakraborty@gmail.com

Attack Wins Games, Defence Wins Titles

The concept of sound defense winning titles is preached in almost every sport, from the junior game right up to the professional level and one which can help mould a style of football on the pitch. However, with the likes of Barcelona creating ‘a new breed of football’, can the foundations of defence over attack be applied in today’s game?
The principles of defending haven’t changed since the sport became what it is today, but what has changed is the game itself. The modern game is visibly quicker, more fatiguing (an average of 32% more games played now than 15 years ago) and some argue, more psychological. What this implies is that traditional tactics are changing, and with that, the type of players who fulfil various roles.
Is defending the sacred ground for winning championships? The statistics would have you believe they are. If you look at the last three years of clubs winning in their respective countries of England, Spain, Italy and France, you will note a ringing truth, fewer and fewer goals are being conceded.
So what’s the cause for this? If we were to look at the tactics, then the answer is not so simple. The traditional 4 – 4 – 2 required little to no attacking play from the centre backs. Attacking if any, from the back would come from corners, where a defender’s general height and strong heading ability would come into play. Movement was mainly lateral with only the wing backs bringing play forwards directly from the keeper.Today however, a defender has to be as versatile as a Swiss army knife. Comfortable with the ball at his feet, he needs athletic ability to bring the game forward, quickly and consistently from the keeper. Fullbacks are used more frequently providing runs, crosses and overlaps, and centre backs are no longer the nose bleeding sufferers if they venture past the 30 yard mark. Possessed with greater physical and technical ability they are makeshift playmakers on counter attacks.The partnership of the Milan centreback duo last season was a pleasure to watch. Both Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva contributed to this level of play. In the final Milan Derby last season, they played a high line to nullify the threats at ease and to launch easy counter attacks.
What about goalkeepers? They are after all the ‘extreme defender’. Gone are the days of ‘vanilla’ goalkeepers, now you have to be a ‘sweeper’ goalkeeper. Distribution is the key and releasing the ball quickly and accurately, both with hands and feet is even more important today than when the back pass rule was introduced. A good release and you allow the team to quickly build momentum, retain possession and expose space. A late or misplaced pass can come back to bite you. One may consider Víctor Valdés, Edwin Van der Sar or Iker Casillas as the best exponents of the quick pass.
To conclude, the modern game leaves gaping holes in defensive capacity rather than add to them.
The Bigger Picture
Defense doesn’t end or rather begin with the players nearest the keeper; if you analyse any match in the modern game, the defence begins in the middle of the park. If you don’t believe me, think of the space between midfield and defence, and ask yourself, why are midfielders more exposed to overloading defensive duties?
The modern approach to allow the full backs full freedom to go up and down the pitch as much as possible requires that you have at least one midfielder providing suitable cover that opens up when either central defender goes to cover the full back, effectively creating a fifth defender, but one that evens the playing field when faced with a counter attack.
So the conclusion is defending has become something of a united focus rather than a single tactical instrument in a match. The question then remains, ‘does a good defence really win you leagues?’
If we go back to my earlier example of all the teams in those 4 leagues, yes, they all had a low number of goals conceded, but they also had very high goals scored. So strikers, creative midfielders and yes, even defenders are earning their money in getting the goals to win the coveted titles at the end of the season.
But this is where the beauty of the modern game lies. No longer are talented defenders limited to clearing attacks. They are becoming responsible for them. They can dictate rhythm, pace and orchestrate movement throughout the game. The technically able can provide passes through the middle of the park. The physical defenders can provide further attacking options whilst possessing the ability to track back and stop play from building and the tactically minded ones can read the game from the back and implement changes.
So does defence win leagues? Yes, a disciplined defence can win you leagues, but by being better in attack….if that makes sense!

Gino de Blasio studiously analyses Italian and English football. He has recently become a qualified coach and talks tactics until the cows come home. You can follow him on twitter @ginodb