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Friday, July 09, 2010

The World Cup Final and leTour hits the Alps

A preview of a massive sporting weekend

62 games down, 2 to go.  And the final game, on Sunday night, will see a first-time world champion crowned when either the Spanish or Dutch claim the World Cup.

Gladiators in a Colosseum

It will be an incredible match at an incredible venue.  I was fortunate enough to watch World Cup matches at Loftus in Pretoria (39,000 attendance that night), in Cape Town's Green Point stadium (about 65,000 at each of the matches I watched) and a match at Soccer City between Brazil and the Ivory Coast, where 85,000 people attended (picture right).  Cape Town is an amazing setting, certainly the most beautiful location for a stadium in the world, but Soccer City, well, it's just a breath-taking, hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-standing-up stadium for its size and atmosphere.  If the Cape Town stadium hosts football matches, then Soccer City hosts gladiators in conquests, and anyone fortunate enough to be there on Sunday night is in for an unforgettable experience.

The match-up between Spain and the Netherlands brings together two of the world's pedigreed footballing sides, remarkable for the fact that neither has won a World Cup.  The Dutch have featured in two finals, during the "total football" days of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff in 1974 and 1978.  On those occasions, they fell short at the final hurdle. Spain meanwhile, had never even reached a semi-final, despite being home to two of the great club sides in world football (Barcelona and Madrid), and despite producing some of its great players. 

The Spanish have been solid and compact this year - they've only conceded two goals, the fewest in the competition, but have been less than incisive and spectacular at the other end of the pitch.  David Villa is their big threat, with 5 of their 7 goals to date.  However, as they have shown before, they have the ability to score from anywhere and a player in Fernando Torres who is only a second away from a return to goal-scoring form.  He may come off the bench, but it may be with impact.  If Vicente del Bosque chooses to stick with Pedro in his starting 11, it gives Spain more width and incision.  And with seven of the starting line-up likely to come from Barcelona, they have understanding too. 

The Dutch have been professional and clinical, and with on-form players everywhere, as well as two match-winners in Robben and Sneijder, they will be difficult to contain.  As has been the case all tournament, a lot will depend on who controls the midfield, which is a function of players, space and press.  Spain's pressing against Germany was brilliant, and rendered the German midfield largely anonymous by denying them space and time on the ball.  However, an interesting stat that I came across is that 47% of Holland's passes have been inside their own half, the lowest of the tournament, and a sign that they are happy to play deep and patiently.

It should make for an intriguing tactical contest, as well as a technical spectacle, with some of the finest technicians in the game on show in Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso, Robben and Sneijder.  The Spain v Germany semi-final had only 16 fouls in it, a clean, open match with none of the drama of some other matches, or the play-acting that has come to characterize football.  The Dutch have (in my opinion) been one of the worse offenders in this regard, and indeed Spain have also been accused of the same in the past, but I hope that the final produces the kind of attitude that both the semi-finals did, and we see a good clean contest (which makes it sound more like a boxing match, but anyway)

A link for the analysts among you

The technical analysis of the match is of course a fascinating area for me, and while I have more thoughts on how this match will unfold, I think it best to defer to what I think is the best site for football analysis that I've ever read.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this website is the best sports analysis site I have read, because it is accurate, technically detailed, but somehow retains simplicity at the same time, which is a rare combination.   I have friends who know little of the sport, but they are 'experts' in five minutes having read this.  The mark of great thinking is to take the complex and simplify it to make yourself look simple!  And this website does it brilliantly.   It's called Zonal Marking, and you can check it out here.

For an example of a brilliant post-game analysis, check out this post analyzing the German demolition of Argentina.  The comments are equally informative and high in quality.  And check in over the next day or two for his preview of the Spain v Holland final - the previews are accurate and they'll certainly enhance your appreciation of the match.

The altitude - Spain's familiarity may give a pacing advantage

The other factor that I do think may have a bearing is the altitude.  The only reason I point this out is because I noted today that Spain have played half of their six matches at altitude, whereas the Dutch have played at altitude only once.  That match was their 2-1 win over Denmark, and after the game, both teams really complained about the altitude.  The Dutch were quoted as saying that they struggled, both with breathing (dry mouth, shortness of breath) and the flight of the ball.

Of course, that match was three weeks ago, and they've had time to adapt, but I do think it is relevant that they've played five matches at sea-level since that, whereas Spain have played three at altitude over the same period.  Purely in terms of familiarity, this could become important.  I'm not sure where the Dutch have been based between games - their base was in Johannesburg, but teams travel to match venues up to 3 days before kick off, so it is possible that they've spent maybe 5 days out of 27 at altitude, compared to 20 for Spain. 

I posted earlier in the week that the altitude is certainly having an effect on the tempo of the matches, lowering total distance, high intensity distance and the number of sprints completed by each team, and I do feel that a crucial part of improving performance at altitude is learning how to pace the efforts.  And I believe Spain has an edge in this regard.

The crystal ball comes out

So for a bit of fun and because we're fans after all, I figure why not whip out the Science of Sport's crystal ball and throw out a prediction.  A tight game, as finals always are, will produce a goalless first half.  Spain will control possession, by pressing up on Holland, whereas Holland will be content to sit deep and rely on Kuyt and Robben to find space wide. 

So 0-0 at half-time, but Spain to score in the second half, with maybe 25 minutes to play.  Then Holland will throw players forward and be exposed in defence, and the final score will be 2-0 to Spain.  Torres to seal the win with a counter-attack goal at the 84 minute mark.  The Dutch will simply lack the sharpness at the end as a result of the altitude and Spain's relentless control of space and possession!  Also, I believe the experience counts for a great deal and given that Spain played in and won a 2008 Euro final with many of the same players, their familiarity will help them through.

And that's the crystal ball.  Don't worry, it's hardly ever correct, except for once in the London Marathon!  Whatever happens, let's hope for an open, positive and fair match, where the best team wins without the controversy and bad-taste of previous finals.  And please, no penalties!

The cycling hits a big rendezvous

As for the other massive sports event this weekend, the Tour de France hits the Alps tomorrow, and on Sunday, sees its first big mountain top finish in Morzine.  The stage profile is below:

With such a mountainous Tour still to come in the Pyrenees, this stage may well not produce the decisive moments in the Tour, but it is the first big rendezvous among the GC contenders.  The first week of the Tour produced plenty of nervous moments, eliminated two GC contenders and challenged all the others at various times, but the stage is set for the battle in the mountains.

Once the World Cup is finished, this becomes our big focus, so tune in for some thoughts next week!

Enjoy the World Cup final!



PRAWN said...


Huge fan of what you are doing and what you represent. Objective scientific perspective that allows the reader to draw the conclusions...awesome!
Anyway, I am an endurance athlete who has read your book (great stuff), and I was wondering what your thoughts were on this:


It's an article about race nutrition, hydration, and electrolyte intake. After reading your book, I don't know what's true anymore!


Simon said...

Why is it that every preview of the fianl considers "everything" from altitutde to injury, to skill levels and tactics, you name it - but ignores one of the biggest influences on the game?

On all games at this level, for that matter. I'm talking about the referee and the linesmen.

We've seen some appalling ref decisions or non-decisions during the World Cup showing some officials' lack of experience (maybe). We've also seen refs who are way too handy with the yellow and red cards. We've seen others who are clearly unable to tell - Ross being one of those, even if he isn't a referee! - when a player is diving and when he has been tripped, and when a handball is a deliberate "professional foul" and when it is a reflex.

Why this matters is that some teams clearly favour a more "robust" approach to challenges than others, and most players know they have to modify their approach if the ref is a known "carder".

Spain were extraordinarily lucky in the semi-final against Germany that the day's referee - the Hungarian Victor Kassai - was barely noticeable. He rarely blew for a foul (not even when Ramos tripped Ozil just outside the penalty area as he was running in on goal). No yellow cards, no reds.

That said, Netherlands have accumulated the most yellow cards of any team in the world cup - and this seems to be a function of their "brick wall" defence. The Dutch have two players who have received two yellow cards during the tournament - the Spanish none; 11 or more (I lost count) on one booking; the Spanish just 3.

You could say that Spain don't rountinely accumulate cards like Holland, but occasionally "lose it" , which with a stricter ref could lead to them losing a player.

And with all that said - the World Cup final is being refereed by British police officer Howard Webb.
And Webb is of the "tough but fair" mold: although he has not givena red card, he is joint top of the league for the number of yellow cards issued.

My reading of this is that the style of referring combined with the style of play gives Spain a clear advantage in the final.

Expect two or more Dutch defenders to be booked, or for the Dutch to recognise the risk and hang back from the tackles needed to control midfield. Either way spells more freedom for Spain to play.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Simon

Thanks for the comment - hope you are well and still running strong!

Fair comment. I have found, through rugby anyway, that it's impossible to accurately predict how a referee will influence match. We tried (with the SA team) to analyze referees and see whether they displayed a bias towards attack or defence and particular offences. We found it to too random.

That said, I think your general thoughts are probably accurate. Howard Webb, incidentally, has the lowest fouls to card ratio of any ref in this tournament - 5.7. Which means he gives a yellow card every six fouls.

So I think there will be cards, and given what you observe about the Dutch defence and Spanish way of play, it's likely they'll pick up more. If that happens in the first 30 minutes, then the game could well be affected.

Time will tell!

And what's this about not being able to spot a dive or a genuine trip? Did I miss something?


Anonymous said...

Hi Ross

Thanks for the compliments and the link to the site, much appreciated. Let's hope it's a great final!

Michael @ Zonal Marking

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Michael

Not at all - thank you for your site! I send that link to all the rugby people I work with, and suddenly they're all experts! You have a gift for simplicity of complex strategies! I am hoping our rugby analysts will learn from it.

Enjoy the final!


Anonymous said...

see below...
I am not an Italian speaker but it appears Pistorius ran a new PR 46.02 after splitting 22.2
Thus he is now running positive splits..
Will ASA name him to their Commonwealth team?

Pistorius vola a 46"02, record personale
CELLE LIGURE, 8 luglio 2010 - Oscar Pistorius si avvicina a Mondiali e Olimpiadi. Lo sprinter sudafricano, amputato alle gambe, ha ottenuto il suo miglior tempo di sempre sui 400 m con 46”02 al Meeting Arcobaleno di Celle Ligure. Un risultato straordinario, ottenuto pochi giorni dopo il 46”33 degli Assoluti di Grosseto. Il tempo di qualificazione per i Mondiali del prossimo anno in Corea è di 45”95, a soli sette decimi dal tempo ottenuto in Liguria da Pistorius, che correrà la settimana prossima a Nuoro (il 14 luglio) e poi a Lignano Sabbiadoro (il 18). Pistorius ha fatto una gara perfetta, con una ottima partenza, il suo punto debole, e arrivando a metà gara in 22”2, sotto il suo limite. “Sono molto contento, un risultato che premia il lavoro che sto facendo in questo periodo a Grosseto – ha detto Pistorius, che in Toscana, dove fa base durtante i mesi estivi, è seguito da Andrea Giannini –. Ho perso anche più di cinque chili, mi sento bene e spero di riscattare la stagione scorsa, nella quale non sono andato come volevo, anche a causa dell’incidente che mi è capitato in barca nel 2009. Non ho ancora i tempi di qualificazione Mondiale, ma sono molto vicino. Ho fiducia e l’obiettivo rimangono i Mondiali del prossimo anno e Londra 2012”. Altro obiettivo di Pistorius nel prossimo anno sono i Mondiali paralimpici di atletica, in programma a gennaio in Nuova Zelanda.

Newty82 said...

Correct so far 0-0 @ half time