Tokyo 2020: Meet the FIFA experts

20 Jul 2021
  • FIFA’s technical analysis of tournaments is changing under Arsène Wenger

  • An impressive, star-studded technical team observing Tokyo 2020 reflects Wenger’s vision

  • We hear from four of FIFA’s experts: Christian Gross, April Heinrichs, Javier Mascherano and Pascal Zuberbühler

FIFA is taking a new approach to the technical analysis of tournaments and is embarking on this journey at the Olympic Football Tournaments with the help of some star power. The world governing body’s technical team at Tokyo 2020 represents a mix of renowned football experts, performance analysts and football data scientists & engineers. This reflects the vision of Arsène Wenger, FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, which is that technical observations and football data analytics should be utilised together to increase and develop understanding of the game and improve the fan experience. Going forward, FIFA will be adopting a three-factor system:

  • Tournament analysis: looking at current observations

  • Longitudinal analysis: looking at trends over a series of tournaments

  • Developmental analysis: looking at how the performances change from youth to senior level

Wenger, as the chairman of FIFA’s Technical Study Group, will head up a formidable Tokyo 2020 line-up alongside Senior Football Expert Pascal Zuberbühler, a 51-cap former Switzerland international. The technical experts, meanwhile, will be April Heinrichs and Elisabeth Loisel for the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament, with Christian Gross, Steve McClaren and Javier Mascherano overseeing the men’s event. None of the above require any introduction in football circles, and Mascherano and Heinrichs arrive in Japan with Olympic gold-medal-winning experience. With the tournaments about to begin and with a chance to gain their insight, we heard from a few of these FIFA experts on their Olympic memories and hopes for Tokyo 2020.

Christian Gross

Christian Gross on... ... his expectations for Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s largely home-based squads, having enjoyed recent coaching success in both countries. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are very aggressive and, in their domestic championships, there is a lot of competition for the league title. That means that, to win the championship, you need to have a strong squad, because these teams are also involved in the Asian and African Champions League competitions. The tactical approach is like it is in Europe – a mix between 3-4-3, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1. ... the challenges of a global tournament and facing some lesser-known opponents. I think the coaches will try to follow their own philosophy and not adapt and change their approach to the games too much, as they don’t have all information about their opponents. ... the main 'to-dos' for a coach prior to a tournament like the Olympics, given the short preparation phase. I see an advantage for coaches who can watch and observe their players in their own domestic championships, as these coaches are not too stressed by following their players abroad. Normally, the coaches of Olympic teams spend years together with the same players in their associations, so they have trained them already and know them very well.

VANCOUVER, BC - JULY 03: April Heinrichs of USA addresses the delagates at the 6th FIFA Women's Football Symposium at the Hyatt hotel on July 3, 2015 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Stuart Franklin - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

April Heinrichs on... … the differences between coaching at an Olympics and a FIFA Women’s World Cup™. The two are similar, but there are fewer teams at an Olympics and fewer rest days, too. I think it all levels out in the end. It is the best 12 teams in the world in 2021, and the Olympic Games are unique. It is important to let the players feel they are part of something bigger than just football. Opening ceremonies, for example – at times when it was possible to attend – are unlike any other celebration and, honestly, no two Olympic opening ceremonies are the same. … the teams she’s most looking forward to watching and analysing. I’m certainly curious about the USA and the Netherlands. These two teams met just a couple of years ago in the Women’s World Cup final, they’ve continued to have positive results, and I have a feeling they will meet again in Tokyo. I’m also curious to see how my Swedish friend Pia Sundhage has built Brazil in her short time with their fabulously talented players. That is a perfect marriage with Pia’s defensive posture lessons learned from coaching the USA and adding that to the Brazilian flair in attack. I’ll also be cheering for the hosts, Japan. Asako Takakura only took over the team a short time before the Women’s World Cup, and they have been shut down quite a bit during COVID, but they are the home team and she will have them prepared, proud and ready. Australia have a new coach, Tony Gustavsson, who has been with the US team these past eight years, so he will bring a great level of professionalism, a clear vision and structure to a very talented and dynamic Matildas side. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Sweden and Great Britain entertained, succeeded and caused a few upsets as well. … the tactical trends she expects to see. I envision a high volume of possession, with fast transitions to attacking and defensive styles of football from all teams. Some will execute better, faster and more consistently than others. I’m curious whether we will see a system with three central defenders and two wing-backs in the women’s tournament, with this having become popular again in the men’s game. And I’m curious which central midfielders will shine and whether we will have playmakers emerging from the central defender positions. We also saw games being decided within the first 15 minutes during the Women’s World Cup, so let’s see if teams start quickly once again in Tokyo.

Argentina's midfielder Javier Mascherano gestures 

Javier Mascherano on... ... the difference between his experiences of winning gold in 2004 and 2008. The main difference was obviously my age. When we won the first gold in Athens, I was just 20 years old and I did not have too much responsibility in the team – my role just was to play football. In 2008, I was one of three overage players and my status within the team was different. I had to take on more responsibilities and help the younger players with my experience. Both gold medals were important milestones for my further development, both as a player and as a person. ... the importance of overage players in helping youngsters on and off the pitch. In 2008, we had a great team with players like Juan Román Riquelme, Lionel Messi, Angel Di María, Sergio Agüero and other big names. Riquelme and I were the overage players and we had the mission of leading a group of young people who were already stars. Luckily, I think we did a good job and that’s why we ended up having a great tournament and winning gold. I think that knowing how to lead and create a good atmosphere in the group is very important to achieving results. ... the unique nature of the Olympic experience. The Olympic Games for a football player represent a return to the amateur stage and a different experience, living with other athletes, away from sleeping in luxury hotels and further away from the media than in daily business with the clubs. All of this makes it one of the best experiences a sportsman can have.

Pascal Zuberbühler joins FIFA Technical Development Division

Pascal Zuberbühler on... ... the development of goalkeeping in the women’s game. The area of goalkeeping has drastically improved in women’s football over recent years. Most star keepers are above 30 but they have still managed to reinvent their game and take it to the next level – on the line but also in their build-up play with their feet. The fact that more and more teams work with a dedicated goalkeeping coach obviously helps as you can see a big difference nowadays in the level of goalkeeping between teams that work effectively with a goalkeeper and those who don’t. But this is just the beginning and there is still a lot of potential for improvement. ... the evolution of a goalkeeper’s role in the men’s game. The goalkeeper nowadays needs to perform like an 11th outfield player. He is the first playmaker on the pitch and his ability to break the first line of the opposition is crucial. He must be two-footed, brave and calm in possession and build a close connection to the rest of the team. This is supported by the changing training methods. Goalkeepers are used more and more in technical exercises and team training. Individual and classic goalkeeper coaching is still very relevant though. The main task of a keeper is to save shots and keep a clean sheet; this is where they gain their confidence from. We should never forget and neglect that. ... the players he’s looking forward to watching in both tournaments. In the women’s tournament, I’m really excited to see further general improvements among all the goalkeepers. I’ve watched all youth and senior Women’s World Cups in the last few years and I expect to see another step forward. It’s amazing to see players like Alyssa Naeher, Sari van Veenendaal and Hedvig Lindahl still managing to raise their game. In the men’s tournament, I’m really looking forward to seeing keepers like Unai Simón and Mohamed El Shenawy, who are already starters for their senior national teams. But I’m also looking forward to young talents like Zion Suzuki, the Japanese goalkeeper who especially impressed me at the FIFA U-17 World Cup two years ago, so I’ll enjoy seeing him play again at the Olympics.

Did you know? The FIFA Training Centre will be launched later this year to take tournament technical analysis one step further, and to provide educational content on how coaches can utilise and implement the elements observed and identified in FIFA’s competitions.