Right up there with the complaints about the vuvuzelas at the 2010 World Cup has been tsuris about the Adidas “Jabulani” ball, which was made specifically for this event. Every four years goalies complain about the new World Cup match balls, which have consistently been made to fly faster and to swerve more severely. Glen Levy quotes Cote D’Ivoire coach Sven-Goran Erikkson as saying FIFA should heed the concerns of keepers and field players, yet Levy ultimately concludes that the concern is nothing: the low scoring is due to playing at altitude and to overly-defensive strategies.
I’m not so sure. The ball seems to be affecting offensive play more significantly than defensive play. From the opening match the ball looked to me as though it was coming upon players more quickly than they expected, and that passes were outpacing recipients more than what I’m used to seeing in the football I watch. Goalies were concerned that shots taken from distance would dip and dive and move about unpredictably; but few shots from outside the box even seem to be finding the target.
I decided to crunch some numbers to see if there was any data to support what I thought I was seeing with my eyes. I’m no Nate Silver, though I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. I compared selected ball control stats from the first sixteen games of this year’s Cup with those from the sixteen matches in 2009’s Confederation’s Cup.
The results were pretty striking:
Total Passes Completed
Short Passes Completed
Medium Passes Completed
Long Passes Completed
Shots on Target
In every one of these categories, control of the ball has been more fleeting in 2010 than 2009. Specifically, you can see that long passes, crosses, and corners have been the most severely impacted plays, sporting the largest differentials from last year to this.
All 32 of the games considered were played in South Africa, so the altitude question is neutralized. I supposed that strategic differences between a 32 team tournament and an 8 team tournament could have some impact on these numbers, as might the pressure of playing in the World Cup. I’m nowhere near equipped to integrate these allowances into my analysis. Now, everyone plays with the same ball, so I don’t think there are any questions about whether or not this situation is “fair.” But what’s above certainly combines with what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes to lead me to conclude that the Jabulani is having a negative impact on the ability of field players to control the ball.