Experts join the clamour after a sensational start
The group stage at Russia 2021 has delighted fans and experts alike
The new four-second rule has had a huge impact on play
TSG members Claude Barrabe and Matteo Marrucci share their insights
Spectacular goals, incredible saves, head-turning skills, dramatic turnarounds, stunning surprises and top-class play – the first week at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Russia 2021 has had it all, thrilling spectators and fans of the discipline everywhere.
But what about the experts? Have the tactical intrigue and technical quality lived up to expectations? Has the new rule obliging goalkeepers to keep the ball for no longer than four seconds had a positive impact? Should we be shocked that the holders are out already and the favourites have struggled to impress?
FIFA.com spoke to France's Claude Barrabe and Matteo Marrucci of Italy, both members of the FIFA Technical Study Group (TSG), to get their considered verdict on the group stage action.
On the quality of play
What we've been seeing is a high-quality World Cup that the teams prepared for both physically and tactically, and with a variety of playing styles. There is a greater pace to the action than at previous editions, and the new so-called 'four-second rule' has played a role in that. Given the physical effort that the game demands these days, it's essential to prepare the players' fitness, and the teams have adapted perfectly to that.
In terms of results, the big teams have made it through to the quarter-finals, starting with Russia and Brazil, who both began slowly before finishing the group stage very strongly. The fact that holders Portugal are out might seem like a surprise on paper, but if you look more closely their team is different to the one that clinched the title two years ago. Senior stalwarts have either left the set-up, like Madjer, or were forced to miss out, like Jordan and Rui Coimbra. Others such as Belchior got injured or were suspended, like Andrade. They were a little unlucky, not to take anything away from the quality of the opponents they faced.
On the impact of the new four-second rule
It's been massive. As we said, the play has become quicker and more direct. It's more transitions. The goalkeepers can no longer take a little time to analyse things before an attack: they have to act fast. And since it's difficult to only distribute the ball by hand, they have been forced to improve their ball skills. Some teams have known how to deal with that, others less so. But, either way, they have had to evolve tactically.
The game is evolving in a positive sense, but it's the goalkeeper who has had to suffer because of that.
When defending, the 1-2-1-1 formation which was widely used – in particular to put pressure on the goalkeeper – has disappeared. Now, the keeper has time pressure to deal with. At the risk of taking him out of the action, teams prefer to take that risk and block the wings in one on ones.
When attacking in open play, in contrast, defenders are forced to come and support the goalkeeper before then executing their preferred game plan. For a set-up with two defenders, one of them stays wide on the left or wide on the right; the keeper and the other defender then become playmakers. As a result, the role of the goalkeeper has taken on even more importance. He has to be as good with his feet as he is with his hands. He's starting to become an outfield player in his own right.
It's more difficult now for teams who are ahead to control their lead... Teams have no choice but to attack, and that means guaranteed entertainment!
On the overall standard of teams
A few days ago, Madjer said this World Cup would be among the most competitive, and he wasn't wrong. The standard of play has lived up to that, and of course his own side Portugal are counting the cost. We've been watching a very high-level competition in terms of tactics. Although they began slowly, favourites Brazil and Russia both realised they needed to quickly raise their game in order to continue their adventure, because they were facing a real challenge.
On top of that, the four-second rule tends to disadvantage the biggest nations since, if they are ahead, they can no longer manage their lead as they once did. But even though the competition is more evenly balanced, and the gap between the big teams and the rest has shrunk, we still have a few familiar faces in the quarter-finals. In any case, the knockout stage is shaping up to be enthralling.