Wold Cup analysis: Numbers signpost the wide route to World Cup glory

One of the key findings from analysis of the group games was the effectiveness of wide players, whether wingers, wing-backs or attacking full-backs, in creating goals.
Wold Cup analysis: Numbers signpost the wide route to World Cup glory

Vinicius Junior of Brazil takes on Moonhwan Kim of Korea Republic. Pic: Michael Steele/Getty Images

ARSENE WENGER was nicknamed Le Professeur for his obsessive analytical approach to football, his micro-management of performance data when he was a coach, so it should come as no surprise that he has taken to his role as head of FIFA's Tactical Study Group like a 'canard' to water.

Wenger's role at the game's governing body has appeared to be somewhat mercurial, part ambassador, part blue-sky thinker – coming up with the idea of abolishing throw-ins, supporting a World Cup every two years, and other pie-in-the-sky concepts that have not been well received.

But where his heart lies, and where he can speak with authority, is the use of data to analyse the performances of players and teams.

So it was logical for him to be the face of FIFA when at the beginning of the World Cup they introduced a new system of data analysis, information that is very detailed, publicly available almost in real time, and packed with statistics.

It is fascinating for professional coaches and even those of us who have done our basic qualifications in order to coach our kids' teams, for example, but is it of interest to the general football fan, and can they understand the implications?

Moreover there are plenty of coaches at all levels who are sceptical about the data-driven approach, who believe there is more to be gained from an instinctive feel for the way a team should play.

Luis Enrique is one who prefers to send organise his teams on the basis of the good practices he encountered as a player and has developed as a manager, rather than rely on a numbers-first approach.

It is not that he is a technophobe, nor against progressive ideas – quite the opposite, as his use of technology in his work has shown. He has a 'watch-tower' made of scaffolding alongside the training pitch so he can have a birdseye view of his sessions, and communicates with the players via walkie-talkies.

But Enrique publicly stated his belief that no amount of data analysis will divert him away from the underlying principles of good positional play and possession-based football. It could be argued, especially after Spain's defeats by Japan in the group stage and by Morocco in the last 16 on Tuesday, that they were one-paced, one-dimensional, unable to step up a gear or switch to a more effective style when necessary.

Wenger pointed out, for example, that one of the key findings from analysis of the group games was the effectiveness of wide players, whether wingers, wing-backs or attacking full-backs, in creating goals.

One of the key findings was that the centre of goal was well defended by most teams, leading opponents to go wide in order to create goalscoring chances. One slide in Wenger's presentation after the group stages showed that nearly two-thirds of attacks went down the flanks, compared to only 15 per cent through the centre, and less than a third through the inside channels.

So it does not take a genius to see why France have been so effective, when they play Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele out wide, or Brazil with Vinicius Junior and Raphinha creating chances. If it is not out-and-out wingers creating chances, other teams rely on their full-backs getting forward, as Denzil Dumfries does to devastating effect for the Netherlands, and Ashraf Hakimi does for Morocco.

Teams without natural width struggled – think of Germany, Spain and Belgium, for example. And another point made by Jurgen Klinsmann, Wenger's assistant on the TSG, was that teams without a traditional and in-form number nine struggled too. So although Harry Kane has only scored one goal so far, he has created numerous chances for his England colleagues. Olivier Giroud has had his best World Cup for France, even at the age of 36, and Richarlison is revelling as a centre-forward for Brazil. 

Playing Kai Havertz as a 'false nine' has been ineffective for Germany, as Klinsmann admitted when he said: “We have not had a true number nine since Miroslav Klose, who is still our top scorer in World Cups.” Spain lacked a figurehead, with Alvaro Morata looking the lightweight figure he was at Chelsea, and Belgium's main striker, Romelu Lukaku was far from fully fit and played only fitfully.

So having good wide players and a top-class number-nine is the template for attacking success, while at the back, the key man has turned out to be the goalkeeper – and not just for his shot-stopping.

With the increasing trend to play out from the back, Wenger's group found an astonishing rise in the amount of time goalkeepers played the ball on the ground – almost doubling since the 2018 World Cup.

It is clear that a major factor in selecting a keeper now is how good their footwork is. Brazil's Alisson is one of the best in the world with the ball at his feet (and his number two Ederson is not far behind).

Wenger says the rise of the 'sweeper keeper' allows defences to be more aggressive in pushing up and compressing play into midfield, again making it harder to create openings through central channels. Perhaps this is why traditional playmakers such as Christian Eriksen and Kevin De Bruyne, who both went out at the group stages with their countries, are struggling now, with less time and space to pick out forward passes.

There are always exceptions, though, often from exceptional players. Lionel Messi is his manager's dream, on the one hand, and an opposing coach's nightmare on the other. His unpredictability means it is hard to know when or where he is going to attack, and his technique means he is almost impossible to stop when he sets off on those darting runs. Messi breaks the data-driven model of how to win a game, or how to thwart the opposition, because he is unique.

No amount of statistical analysis can prepare you for dealing with Messi. He simply plays by his own rules. When Enrique was playing for and then coaching Barcelona, Messi was there to throw the best prepared plans out of the window and do it his way, so you can understand why the Spaniard distrusts the data-driven way.

And if you don't have a Messi, then perhaps Le Professeur's more methodical approach will come up trumps. Crunch the numbers, and by the law of averages, success should follow.

It is not always like that, though. And that is why we love the unpredictable chaos of football. 

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