Experts cast eye over Lithuania 2021 group stage

  • FIFA Technical Study Group Members Miguel Rodrigo and Graeme Dell run the rule over the group phase

  • They point out technical and tactical developments they have observed

  • The knowledgeable duo also discuss what they expect to see in the knockout stage

The group stage of the FIFA Futsal World Cup Lithuania 2021™ has now drawn to a close. With the tournament’s outstanding teams having qualified for the knockout phase, certain conclusions and forecasts can now be made.

Englishman Graeme Dell and Spaniard Miguel Rodrigo, FIFA Technical Study Group Members, are well placed to offer some insight on the group matches and give fans an idea of what to expect from the Round of 16 onwards.

Graeme Dell, FIFA Futsal instructor Miguel, Graeme, if you think back to your early days as futsal coaches and compare it to what you’ve seen during the group stage of the Futsal World Cup, what are the principal differences, in your view? Miguel Rodrigo: Physicality and defending now outweigh attacking and talent, I’d say. When I started off coaching 20 years ago, there was more attacking play, more talent and more freedom given to the players. There’s been tremendous progress in countries where futsal didn’t exist, though. In the last 16, we’ve got a full complement of Asian teams – their players and their coaching knowledge have greatly improved due to an influx of Spanish and Brazilian coaches.

There have been tactical improvements and an increase in knowledge of the game as well, and that stems from the professionalisation of futsal in almost all countries. Systems tend to repress players’ talent. I would imagine that this is a temporary thing, and that as coaches gain experience, they will understand that tactics and individual technique make the difference, rather than collective play and formations. I’d also like to say that most of the teams are made up of veterans, and it seems important to point out that in the group stage very few young players took part. They need to play a more important role in the future.

Graeme Dell: We’ve seen futsal develop from Thailand 2012 and Colombia 2016 to this year’s World Cup in Lithuania. We saw a change in the pecking order in 2016, with Argentina being crowned world champions for the first time, and there has been an increase in the number of teams that have what it takes to win a World Cup. That’s good and important for the game as a whole, but there’s also something we need to keep an eye on: if you look at how old the players are, you’ll see that the average age is rising.

We have to ask ourselves what we’re doing to protect the game and to help develop the next generation of players. We need robust national competitions and strong youth systems, so that young players can develop while performing at a solid level. The World Cup is also vital, due to the positive impact it has on the general development of the game.

As far as you are concerned, what was the main technical development that you observed during the group stage in Lithuania? Miguel Rodrigo: The technical level has risen significantly. Coaches have understood their players’ technical needs, and the requirements of their own style and approach. If you understand your players and how you want to play, it’s fairly easy to make sure your technical needs go hand-in-hand with your tactics. In contrast, some teams have an extremely high tactical level, which has either come from studying the game or via the globalisation of knowledge through the internet, and their coaches try to implement things that are basically too advanced for their players’ feet to handle – they don’t have the necessary execution or technique. That’s a danger for them.

Graeme Dell: There are huge differences in teams’ technical abilities. I would put them into two distinct categories. There are teams with an excellent overall game that can retain possession, and then there are teams that struggle to string three or four passes together. Technically speaking, we still have some work to do to improve the game.

There’s been some remarkable passing for us to admire, especially the switch from one wing to another that leads to a goal from a first-time shot. It’s a great example from a technically demanding game, and it shows the benefit of properly applying futsal skills.

Futsal is more about players who don't have the ball than about those who do.

Graeme Dell

And what about the principal tactical developments? Miguel Rodrigo: Players’ and teams’ understanding of the systems being used is the main thing, I’d say. There’s been great progress in terms of interchange and flexibility – with each game being treated differently. Teams’ movement depends on the area of the pitch they’re in, taking into account whether or not they have to deal with pressing, who has the ball, and suchlike. This is the greatest development, along with the plethora of different formation options. You can also see changes and tactical diversity in dead-ball situations, where there is a lot of variety and positioning adjustments.

That said, I find that individual tactical development, where the player decides for himself, is lacking. This is the future of the sport. Coaches know how to devise systems of play, but the development of a player’s individual tactics is what makes the difference.

Graeme Dell: The tactic that struck me the most was the use of high pressing. Teams are pressing better and more forcefully than we’ve seen before, and the ones that did it effectively got the best results in the group matches. And by this I don’t just mean pressing the man with the ball, but also cutting off passing angles and pressing players without the ball. The teams that tried, but didn’t really know how to do it, paid for their mistake. A second thing that stood out to me is that teams have worked hard on their set pieces. Many of them won games because of it, as it’s something that’s difficult to prepare for, given the variety involved and the accuracy of execution and finishing.

What do you expect from the knockout stage in terms of technical and tactical development and quality? Miguel Rodrigo: It’s good that the best teams have qualified. Fears and constraints will fade away; they’ll all have to play in a more open fashion. These are the best teams, and from a technical and tactical point of view, we need to see the best matches. It’s now up to the coaches to unleash their potential, showing us a bit of their personality and what they’ve been working on. The coaches allow us to see teams’ tactical and technical range. In the Round of 16, I expect the best to show their potential and promote the game of futsal through goals, one-on-ones and entertainment.

Graeme Dell: What surprised me in the group stage was that quite a lot of sides looked pretty rusty. They needed that first game to get back into a rhythm. In the second and third matches they were much better, although some teams have not yet shown what they’re truly capable of. In the knockout phase, the teams that can adapt their game, that know when to up the pace or slow things down, will be successful. Set pieces will play a key role and teams that try to press all over the pitch will likely prevail. I think we’ll see a few surprises from the quarter-finals onwards, and the intensity of the matches will increase, because the stakes are much higher now.

In the Round of 16, I expect the best to show their potential and promote the game of futsal through goals, one-on-ones and entertainment.

Miguel Rodrigo