Sunday, October 26, 2008

Do I Like That?!

If you've ever volleyed a vertically descending ball at around knee height, you'll know that it's possible to hit a looping shot over the top of a wall, bringing it down in time to get under the crossbar and into the back of the net. This is possible because the height of the ball at contact enables you to bring the front of your foot underneath and round the back of the ball, thereby imparting topspin to it, which reduces the air pressure on the underside of the ball during its trajectory and increases it on the topside, resulting in the dip to the shot that prevents it from going over the bar.

Had the ball been passed along the ground for the free kick shown in the above clip (Ernie Hunt's goal from Willie Carr's famous "donkey kick" in 1970), it would have been much harder for Hunt to impart the necessary topspin because he wouldn't have been able to get his foot under the ball; he would have had to impart sidespin on the ball instead and attempt to bend the ball around the wall.

The only way to put topspin on a stationary ball for a free kick is by bringing the front of the foot as close to ground level as you can, which, because of human physiology, means attempting to lean over as you take the kick. You can see this in any David Beckham free kick:

Because it's impossible to bring the foot exactly parallel to the ground, the result is never perfect topspin but a combination of topspin and sidespin, which keeps the ball down but also makes it possible to curve the ball in the air around defenders or away from the goalkeeper.

Why am I boring you with this shite? Because I've just finished reading Ken Bray's How to Score: Science and the Beautiful Game and Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics. Bray's book is a sort of primer which tells you why you've been able to do these things since childhood, with a few extra tips that can help you maximize the distance of your throw-ins, how to position the wall if you're a goalkeeper, how to take penalties and so on. Most of the stuff in there is common sense, and the stuff that you won't know is mostly stuff you don't need to know to enjoy playing the game. There's also a chapter on the psychology of winning, using the Liverpool v. Milan Champions League final of a couple of years ago to demonstrate a few fundamental points about attitude.

Wilson's book is the longer, more substantial work, and a real joy to read. He traces how the formations used by teams have, in effect, turned upside down over the century and a bit of organized footie. Teams originally had two defenders and eight attackers, the latter of which moved in close proximity to the man with the ball in order to protect him. Gradually, the formations have become increasingly defence-minded, so that where once teams went out in a V formation with the keeper at the base of the V, now they go out in a Christmas Tree or lambda formation, with some variation on 6 defence-minded players and 4 attack-minded (4-2-4), (4-4-2), (3-5-2), or even (3-4-1-1). The pleasure in reading Wilson's book comes from seeing the logical progression through history as managers and coaches try to find ways to score more goals and concede fewer, each new formation resulting in temporary success until opponents figure out how to counteract the new formation, leading to a temporary stalemate until another variation is tried or FIFA change the rules to try to break the deadlock. It's a fascinating book if you're sort of person likely to be fascinated by that sort of thing, and even if you aren't, Wilson does his best to make the story interesting.

Many "connoisseurs" of football cite the total football employed by the Dutch teams of the 1970s as the ideal way to play the game. Ten outfield players all comfortable with the ball and all capable of playing in any position. It's a lovely idea, but of course the very layout of the football pitch mitigates against this kind of team. In terms of probability, you have more chance of conceding a goal the closer you are to your own goal when you lose the ball (a generalisation, but safe enough for our purposes). Consequently, you don't want to be pfaffing around near your own box trying to take players on or stringing together short passes. You want to get the ball into the second third of the pitch or upfield away from your own goal. You'll also put a premium on heading the ball out of defence when balls come in from opponents trying to find teammates. As a result, the kind of game you'll be playing in the first third of the pitch (close to your own goal) is going to be different to the kind of football you'll be playing in the final third of the pitch, when you're trying to score, so even if you have eleven players equally skilled in all elelments of the game, the ones playing at the back are going to be playing a different type of game to those playing upfield. The main benefit of total football is really more to do with depth of skills in your squad than how you play on the pitch; anyone can fit in to any position.

Wilson has much fun at the expense of Graham Taylor and the second school of "English Pragmatism," which centred on the theories of FA technical director Charles Hughes, who advanced a supposedly scientifically based, statistically backed argument for hoofing the ball up the pitch as quickly as possible into the final third of the pitch rather than mess about stringing together moves composed of several passes. Wilson diligently demonstrates why Hughes's theories are complete and utter bollocks, ripping to shreds the "scientific basis" of his arguments in a very entertaining chapter. His dismay that Hughes could have been taken so seriously so high up in the FA is something that most readers will share but also not be particularly surprised at.

Wilson's is a lovely book that I suspect will appeal to readers of a certain age, and, I suspect, let's be honest about it, mostly men. It offers a nostalgia trip, an opportunity for enlightenment, and an excuse to watch more footie. I find myself checking formations in the paper of a weekend when I look at the lineups in the papers now, and the match reports make more sense to me too, although even at my age I think you still can't beat getting out there in the mud and the wind and the rain, eleven against eleven, jumpers for goalposts.



cakes said...

"Right out of the book and on the first line too...". Bring back Barry Davies now. Do you remember him once comparing some Bristol Rovers full back to a character out of a Chekhov drama?

John said...

Was it comedy or tragedy?

Martin said...

With regards to the Carr free kick surely the most important factor isn't spin but height. If the ball is in the air the the ratio between "h", the height the ball has to rise (and descend) to "d" the distance to the wall ( and thus the apex of the parabola) is considerably diminshed. If Willie Carr was kicking a dead ball of a platform 2 feet high it would be a lot easier to get it over and down again with or without topspin.

I must remember to take a dais with me to footy on Thursday.

John said...

Hi Mart--

I don't know whether it's the most important factor, but you're quite right that the height does make a difference to the ease with which the kicker can clear the wall. Not only that, it means that, even if he doesn't use spin at all, he can hit the ball harder than if the shot had begun at ground level. Had he begun at ground level, in order to bring the ball down in time on the other side of wall while relying only on gravity, he would have had to severely reduce the amount of power he could put into the shot; he would have had to chip the ball, giving the keeper far too much time to respond to a much weaker shot.

Had Hunt not been using spin at all for his free kick, then ideally he should have had the ball coming directly at him and as far off the ground as possible, like Rooney's volleyed goal from a corner kick a couple of years ago, if you remember that. The contact with the ball would then have have enabled him to generate even more speed in his shot.

However, in the Hunt free kick, he's hitting a vertically descending ball, and it's this that enables him to impart the topspin on the ball and loop the shot. The good thing about using spin is that, providing you get the timing right, the harder you hit the ball, the more spin you impart on it, and in the case of topspin this means that the harder you hit the ball, the less chance you have of skying it. Also, because you can hit the ball harder when you hit with topspin, it means the keeper has less time to respond to the shot, and the sudden dip in the trajectory of the ball means that it is more difficult for the keeper to gauge its movement, particularly if the keeper is Scott Carson.

cakes said...

As Mart will no doubt tell you, John, I regularly put topspin on my whole body on a Thursday night. Horizontal footie - you should try it.

Jim said...

I'll have to pick up those two books for my soccer fanatic nephew. Hope I can get them in Canada.

Thanks John!

John said...

Hi Jim--

You're welcome. Only too happy to spread the gospel. ;-)