WC10 half-time recap part 2: Football as Morality Play

Part Two of Three pieces on the World Cup at its midpoint.

2. Order and improvisation, effort and savvy.

Like a picnic game where the parents play the kids, you can see the battle of the fit running teams against the experienced, savvy teams. The first make more chances but do not finish many, due to technical or tactical breakdowns. The clever teams get fewer chances, but do better at taking advantage. This South Korea v Uruguay round of 16 game is a perfect example, with Luís Suárez just curling in the 2-1 in the pouring rain. The Koreans ran themselves into more chances but couldn’t put one in the net. Then the ball falls to Suárez and he strokes one home off the far post.

Lots of armchair anthropology takes place at the World Cup; the Germans are “ruthlessly efficient” (running up and down the field like railway cars, with nary a creative thought) while the English are “passionate” (running everywhere but not intelligently). The South Americans are “creative” (tricky), and the Africans are “athletic” (strong but undisciplined).

note to reader: an hour has gone by while I found stats on distance covered by each team.

Hypothesis: There should be two camps when comparing effort. The Ants will run a lot — not always wisely and not always to a successful return. Ant teams include both Koreas, Japan, USA, New Zealand and Australia. Grasshopper teams are skilled but put in less effort, teams like Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Algeria, and South Africa. Italy and France looked sluggish, I bet they’re down there too.

Aussies are out, but not for lack of effort

The envelope, please:

Here are the three teams that ran the most so far:

Team km / match
USA 118.37
Japan 116.13
Australia 112.5

Not a surprise. Our hypothesis holds true, the Ants work harder (but aren’t the most skilled teams). Who’s in 4th place?

Ghana 111.46

There’s a paradigm-buster. Looking at the individual stats, I was proud to see these guys at the top of the table:

Mike Bradley, 51 km
Landon Donovan, 48 km
Clint Dempsey 47km

But here’s why we went out to Ghana:
Ayew and Annan, 46 km

This tells me that Ghana is breaking the stereotype and its “strong African players” are also running like mo-fos. This suggests that will go deep into the tournament and no one will have it easy against them.

What teams are at the bottom?

Team km / match
Greece 100.42
Honduras 99.90
Argentina 98.36
Nigeria 92.84

Except for Argentina, it’s not a surprise that the teams that work less won less. And Argentine may be relying on its possession to avoid running in defense. So let’s look at the teams ranking last in running without the ball:

Team not poss/ game
Spain 34.39
Argentina 34.94
Brazil 35.02
Italy 36.44
Cameroon 37.08
Netherlands 37.49
Chile 37.55
France 37.82

Wow – there’s a surprising stat. The teams that run the least when they don’t have the ball did poorly or really well. I think this means that the worst teams don’t run without the ball and give up goals, and the best teams don’t run without the ball because they usually have it. In today’s Spain – Portugal match, Spain had 67% possession.

In matches this is how the stereotypes can play out:

South Africa v Mexico: Tshabalala scores one of the finest goals on the Cup to open the scoring. Then South Africa goes to sleep on a free kick, allowing Mexico an easy equalizer. “Brilliant but undisciplined”

Japan v Cameroon: Japan kick, foul and harass Cameroon, keeping them off the scoreboard. Then they sneak a goal from a long cross and win. “Pluck beats athleticism”

USA – Algeria: Watch Landon’s last-minute goal against Algeria again, and instead of marveling at his brilliance, watch the Algerian defenders who track him: Landon takes off from inside his half. He has two markers who chase him into to Algerian box. But after dishing to Altidore, Landon holds up a second. His markers, instead of catching up and going goal side, stop 5 yards away. Just stop running. If they’d continued, Landon would not have scored.

Teams that ran the least overall:

Nigeria, Honduras and Greece.

So, there are two paths to victory: work your ass off and run the opponents into the ground. Or, be smart, have great touch and play circles around them. Ant or grasshopper. It’s exciting to see the two styles go head to head and then draw a conclusion from the result, like “The hard-working Japanese overcame the athleticism of Cameroun” or “All the efforts of the South Koreans came to naught against Uruguay’s cunning and deadly skill.” But what Ghana is telling us is that to make it deep into the Cup, you gotta be half ant and half grasshopper.

"I don't like to run too much, it makes my thighs quiver, see?"

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2 Responses to WC10 half-time recap part 2: Football as Morality Play

  1. Joanna says:

    Isn’t this what some people have been complaining about with Dunga? that he makes his Brazilians run plays instead of just relying on individual flair?

  2. jimsakeeper1 says:

    Complaining until now, that is. This post is a dog’s breakfast, still needs editing on the front and expansion in the back; what’s beautiful and exciting for me is that any team to get to the last eight, they have to possess both characteristics.

    For example, while Nigeria was one of the teams that ran the least, Ghana is among those that run the most. England ran a lot but no one was impressed with their touch, so they are out. Japan used to be among the headless chickens, but scored two excellent free kicks to beat Denmark.

    Brazil used to be known for allowing 2 goals while scoring 5. With Dunga, they are more likely to win 3-0.

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