A football masterclass with Wenger and Klinsmann
The former Arsenal manager and Germany's World Cup-winning striker turned coach spoke about trends, data, the importance of numbers--both underscored the “emotional side” of football--and highlighted the pitfalls of science badly used
Together they made an extraordinary pair, the poise of Arsene Wenger and the panache of Juergen Klinsmann. They know each other since their Monaco days in the mid 1990s, Klinsmann having moved from Inter Milan to where Wenger was building a reputation as the manager who would forge ‘The Invincibles’ of London. Between them, they have enough solid gold as football champions to be the envy of any mid-sized jewellery chain.
So, when they speak about trends, data, the importance of numbers--even as they underscore the importance of the “emotional side” of football--and highlight the pitfalls of science badly used, you listen. An auditorium of journalists did at the introduction of the FIFA Technical Study Group (TSG) for this World Cup with Klinsmann, a 1990 World Cup winner who has taken USA and Germany to the competition as coach, the “captain” (Wenger’s description) and Sunday Oliseh, Alberto Zaccheroni, Cha Du-ri, Farid Mondragon and Pascal Zuberbuehler as his team members.
Having helped develop the FIFA Training Centre, a virtual deep dive into coaching and analysis that is available to all, Wenger spoke about additions such as “time difference between when the player touches the ball” with real life example of Luka Modric from the 2018 finals. Modric, Wenger said showing a dashboard, touched the ball for 1.50 minutes asking for it 65 times but got it only 45% of the time. “The TSG will see why. Was it because he was man marked? Was it because the centre-back didn’t play to him enough?”
Such data, compiled and curated by a team of 78 data scientists, data engineers and football analysts--a marriage of sport and science, said Klinsmann--will be available to all 32 teams hours after a game.
Wenger, who at 73 still looks as dapper as he did on the touchline, had numbers at the ready whenever an answer demanded one. Consider this: the average time when coaches made substitutions when three were allowed was the 72nd minute; with five allowed that has come down to the 67th minute. “But that changes when there is a big difference in score early.” Five substitutions, he said, has helped tactical flexibility and create more chances to change the game.
But both warned against data in the wrong hands. Despite the increase in intensity, football remains a technical sport and the difference is caused by players with the vision and the technique to carry that out, said Wenger. “Badly used science can be detrimental because players can be too conscious of data and not rely on instinct. Science must be used to encourage audacious decisions.” Klinsmann said: “You cannot put all things into data specific language because football still has an emotional side.”
“It is important to see how football has changed over the past four years,” said Wenger, elucidating his point by saying how the defensive line has moved up since Russia. And how the press has become “absolutely universal". That makes the long ball behind defensive lines and the transition important to analyse, said Wenger. “And the quality of the first pass to beat the press when you win the ball. Also, how important the dribble is to get out of the first press.”
Clubs would usually put those reluctant to press on the bench but national teams “need to find a compromise” as they are made up of the country’s best players, said Wenger under whom Arsenal finished in the top four of the Premier League for 17 successive seasons.
What has also changed is the importance of “opposite qualities” in players. “The goalkeeper has become the master of distribution and the striker has to defend more. It can be interesting to see if it has been transferred from clubs to national teams,” said Wenger. Given that Klinsmann said national team managers take trends from the Champions League, it should, and England goalie Aaron Ramsdale has already highlighted the importance of England goalkeepers playing out.
To a question from HT, Klinsmann said he hoped this World Cup would have a more sophisticated style because players can take “the energy, the rhythm of last three-four months straight into the World Cup.”
“I have seen both sides. If a national team played a friendly against a club, the national team would lose because the rhythm of the club team is far more detailed. So, teams with a bigger block of players from the same club, such as it is with my country and Spain, should be a positive,” the former striker said.
Wenger added: “Club football is a consequence of globalisation and financial potential of club and it is concentrated among a small number of teams at the top level. National team football is a consequence of the quality of football in the country in terms of developing players. And the difference between most countries have reduced a lot.”
That makes the World Cup an interesting competition to analyse. “The football you play is a reflection of the culture and mentality of your country. Belgium and France will prefer a counter-breaking style and Spain will want possession. There is no better place than a World Cup to see the reflection of different cultures on the pitch,” said Klinsmann.