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Focus on tactics

The influence of the coach

June 21, 2010
By Norman Hubbard

Coaches win matches. That appeared the philosophy of the various national football associations as a veritable Who's Who of managerial talent converged on South Africa. There are winners of the World Cup (Carlos Alberto Parreira and Marcello Lippi), the European Championships (Otto Rehhagel), the Olympic Games (Marcelo Bielsa), the Confederations Cup and Copa America (Dunga), the Champions League (Fabio Capello, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Vicente del Bosque) and other major European trophies (Sven-Goran Eriksson and Bert van Marwijk), not to mention numerous opinion polls to find the most unpopular man in France (Raymond Domenech).

Ricki Herbert joined Ryan Nelsen in celebrating Tuesday's draw
GettyImagesRicki Herbert has starred by getting New Zealand two points thus far.

Yet two games in, an unofficial league table of managerial performances might show some of the most unheralded, such as Ricki Herbert and Matjaz Kek, near the top along with Bielsa, Hitzfeld, Paraguay's Gerardo Martino, Mexico's Javier Aguirre and the most unqualified of them all, Diego Armando Maradona.

Because managers get judged on the decisions they make, especially the contentious calls and the potentially game-changing moves. Thus far, the verdicts can be unflattering for some of the sport's bigger names. Capello's choice of Robert Green went woefully wrong while his continued omission of Joe Cole confuses. Another Real Madrid alumnus, Del Bosque, may have benefited from introducing the creativity of Cesc Fabregas from the bench against the Swiss; he opted not to. Domenech did not shirk a decision by dropping his captain, Thierry Henry, or omitting Karim Benzema altogether, but his uncanny habit of being proved wrong persists.

The African fondness for importing expensive Europeans has hardly been rewarded. Paul le Guen left Achille Emana and Alex Song, two Cameroonians expected to start, on the bench against Japan and selected Samuel Eto'o on the right wing. A limp display duly followed and, while a more conventional team produced an improved performance versus Denmark, the damage had been done.

Eriksson appeared to have constructed a solid defence against Portugal but Didier Drogba's recall for the Brazil game came at the expense of Gervinho, the brightest Ivorian forward in their opener and, when introduced, the liveliest against the Selecao. The emerging talent surely should have been granted the full 90 minutes.

Lars Lagerback, meanwhile, has preferred to start arguably Nigeria's most dynamic forward, Obafemi Martins, among the replacements. Peter Odemwingie, who excelled in the African Nations Cup, has been marginalised, first substitute and then substituted while Sani Kaita, chosen for both games, was senselessly sent off against Greece.

Players can render even the finest manager red-faced. Hitzfeld's tactical mastery was apparent when Switzerland surprised Spain. Der General changed that side to start with Valon Behrami, who was promptly red-carded in the loss to Chile. Hitzfeld, though, is very much in credit.

Others have at least suggested that lessons are being learned. Perhaps none miscalculated their initial gameplan more than Greece's Rehhagel and Australia's Pim Verbeek but each engineered a better result with a change of strategy for the second match: Greece won and Australia almost did, with substitute Scott Chipperfield nearly scoring with his first touch.

In his changes, as in much else, the brilliant Bielsa has been consistently correct. The goal that defeated Switzerland was fashioned by three newcomers to proceedings, substitutes Jorge Valdivia, Esteban Paredes and Mark Gonzalez. Uncharacteristically, Bielsa played a back four against Honduras and, having won, switched to his preferred 3-3-1-3 to face Switzerland. Martino was another to react to a fine result with a change of shape; he, too, was justified.

Successful alterations were a comparative rarity in the first 16 games. The next 16 have brought more. Perhaps the most dramatic intervention from the touchline came courtesy of Bob Bradley: two goals adrift of Slovenia, the American made a double change, resulting in a new system. Parity was restored, aided by the use of Landon Donovan in a more advanced role, before one of those half-time arrivals, Maurice Edu, was strangely denied a winning goal by an errant official.

Aguirre has had a similar influence. Mexico were drawing with France when he started to tinker. Two men he summoned from the dug-out, Javier Hernandez and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, delivered the goals, the third, Pablo Barrera, won the penalty the veteran converted.

The Portugal forward Liedson was another scoring substitute, though that is less of an achievement when his side held such an overwhelming lead against North Korea. But there have been more significant arrivals without finding the net: Maradona's use of his son-in-law, Sergio Aguero, certainly didn't appear nepotism when the latter helped cement victory over South Korea while Mauro Camoranesi helped Italy salvage a point against Paraguay.

Marcello Lippi
GettyImagesMarcello Lippi's Italy finished bottom of their group, without winning a game.

Important then, Lippi's interference in the draw with New Zealand was criticised by Claudio Marchisio. The Juventus midfielder might have a stronger argument had his performance been anything other than anonymous; this view is that Marchisio was fortunate to stay on the field when Simone Pepe was removed, but Lippi, whose substitutions transformed the semi-final in 2006, was certainly proactive.

Yet, with fewer options, his Kiwi counterpart Herbert came closer to turning the game. The sight of Chris Wood powering past Fabio Cannavaro is one of the abiding images of this World Cup; the teenager, who flashed his shot wide, was inches away from an improbable winner.

It was the impact substitute in a nutshell. But his exact opposite, the non-impact substitute, has been a sadder product of managerial mediocrity and failing footballers. Its definition may have occurred when the utterly ineffectual Nicolas Anelka went off for the similarly substandard Andre-Pierre Gignac against Mexico. A coach helped with that match. It wasn't the French one.