Otten Innovation Cup: The Rules, like the times, are changing

Stevphen Shukaitis attends the tournament trialling potential new rules for football and ponders whether they are, in fact, a good thing

The Background

After a three-year hiatus, the 73rd iteration of the Otten Innovation Cup was held at Campus De Herdgang in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Hosted by PSV, this year’s running order included under-19 youth teams from FC Copenhagen, FC Utrecht, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC, Manchester United, Rangers, Red Bull Bragantino, and RSC Anderlecht. In the end PSV emerged victorious, managing to overcome RSC Anderlecht in a tight final, 1-0 after a late strike.

Given that previous years have featured young talents that have gone on to become internationally known players, including Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Memphis Depay, and Cody Gakpo, it would be tempting to focus analysis on the developing future stars on display, as there were plenty. Although they were not the most successful in terms of results, I was most impressed by the players from RB Bragantino, particularly the very cultured long passing of their ball playing centre backs, Italo de Jesus Barbosa and Oscar Javier Benitez Cobo, and mercurial sixteen-year-old attacking midfielder Yuri Silva Leles de Souza, who displayed an immense talent for finding and creating space, coming close to finishing as the tournament’s top scorer despite not making the final.

But for this reflection and analysis, I want to focus on another aspect, namely the rule changes that were introduced and trialed in this tournament and what effects they might have on football if they were introduced more generally. It was these changes which had brought me to this tournament. Last year, there were initial media reports published indicating the KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association) was considering introducing the following rule changes across the entire second division:

– 30 minute halves with the clock stopping but the ball is not in play

– yellow cards to include the booked player being removed from the field for five minutes

– replacing throw ins with kick ins

– allowing self-passes and dribbling from free kicks

– unlimited substitutions

It was decided that, rather than introduce these changes immediately across an entire division, they might instead be trialled at the Otten Innovation Cup. These rule changes were used in this year’s Otten Cup, with slight changes such as matches of two periods of twenty-five minutes of effective game time rather than thirty. Taken together, such changes could have significant impacts to the way football is played, which makes this tournament an ideal venue for observing and analyzing the possible effects of such rule changes. This is quite timely given that these changes, at least in part, address dynamics in the game that have become major talking points in football media, particularly the ever-present worry about the menace of time wasting.

Before proceeding I’d like to note this is analysis is based on my personal, and thus rather anecdotal, observations from a series of matches over three days. Writing it, I’m thus working based on my perceptions and hunches, rather than more robust tracking and analytic data sources. When a more thorough report is written up for the IFAB this data may be available. But for the present purposes it is not.

The Effects

The overall effect of these changes was to increase the tempo of the game. In the absence of pauses naturally created through setting up free kicks and throw ins led to a general quickening of play. For much of the game this led to matches that felt more intense, as there were less dips in rhythm and intensity. But it could also arguably be seen at times that this quicker pace was leading to a lower quality of decision making in play, as players literally had less time to consider their next move. Many of the fixtures ended up feeling like they were composed of near constant transitions, with quick shifts of possession and movement back and forth the pitch, rather than sustained possession and controlled build up.

If that was the overall combined effect of these rules changes, let’s now shift to trying to disentangle the effect of individual rule changes insofar as that is possible.

The shift from throw ins to kick ins or dribbles: taken in isolation, incident by incident, it did not seem to make a huge difference. There were no players opting to carry on with throw ins rather than the newly available options. This did not make much of an effect for kick ins from the middle section of the pitch. In the middle zone layers tended to self-pass and dribble in rather kick the ball in. There was more of a notable difference when this happened in the final attacking third of pitch, as these positioned now functioned much less like a traditional throw in situation and more like taking a corner. While the new rules did allow for direct shots on target from kick in this was not really seen, as given the distances and angles involved, success would be unlikely in the absence of a player on the Messi / Ward Prowse level in terms of free kicks.

Change in clock / game time: this was described by the organizers as difference between gross playing time and effective playing time, where the more important thing is effective playing time. For these matches my impression was that it did not much difference in how long the games were played for, but rather it was more a question of representing the amount of time left. The stopping of the game clock whenever the ball was out of play meant that games would end precisely when the clock reached zero. There was never a question of how much extra time an official would add on, or whether this would be extended because of a further incident that occurred during added time. This made things clear, open, and transparent.

The overall effect of this change would be to make matches more comparable and fair. The introduction of this change is often framed as something which will eliminate time wasting in games. Logically this seems sensible. If engaging in so-called time wasting behavior does not actually result in any time being used up, then there would be less of a benefit, and thus incentive, to do so. But is that the only motivation for time wasting behavior? Arguably many behaviors that are described as time wasting could also be done to annoy or frustrate opponent, or could be ways to attempt to slow the pace and rhythm of the match. Thus, the introduction of this approach to time keeping might not eliminate these behaviors, but would seem their reduction, and continue occurrence for more particular reasons such as attempting to slow the pace of a game.

If this approach were adopted more generally it would only be possible if an appropriate length was used for the halves of the game. For instance, this could be shifting the format of a current ninety-minute match to one with two thirty minute halves, which would be close to the average actual amount of effective playing time currently played in most Premier League matches. Otherwise if the demand was something like 90 minutes of effective playing time, that would represent a significant lengthening of fixtures. This can be seen in the way that current Premier League matches are being extended to make up for ‘lost time.’ This kind of lengthening of fixtures, particularly if coupled with a more intense game state (and the overcrowding of the fixture calendar) could easily lead to more injuries and player burnout.

Yellow cards now involving the player being removed from pitch for five minutes: The introduction of this change makes the giving of a yellow card a weightier decision now, as the team is down a player. This seems likely to change player psychology and decision making around tackles. This would particularly be the case about deciding whether to engage in ‘professional fouls’ made to stop a promising counter attack but likely to lead to getting a yellow card. Players could still do this, of course, but the added penalty of the team being down a player for five minutes of effective game time would make this heavier decision to make. It is difficult to tell in a short tournament format the effect of this change on player psychology, but it seems likely there would be one. There are other knock on effects of this change as well. For instance, if a goal keeper is given a yellow card for time wasting, this would result in needing to substitute on another keeper for the minute of absence, thus effectively ‘rewarding’ a team with a greater pause in the flow of the game.

Unlimited and rolling substitutions: Over the course of the tournament most teams seemed to follow a more or less regular pattern for making substitutions. There was one notable exception, where a team with a pacey player that seemed important to their build up (but was easily winded), kept getting taken off and then brought back on a few minutes later. In some ways, this change strikes me as most interesting rule change, particularly if adopted more generally. The effects could be similar to the introduction of five substitutions, but more drastic. With unlimited substitutions, and being able to take players off and bring them back on, it would seem possible to develop players who are much more specialized in their roles. With this greater flexibility why not have a player who is best suited for dead ball situations, or for particular phases of play? This could make it more possible to accommodate creative attacking players who are not near the same level in defensive skills. This could lead to the development of a more tactically diverse and complex game, as coaches have a greater option of kind of players deploy. Also, the fact that substitutions can occur without needing referee permission, and do not require a break in play before they can happen, can introduce an added layer of stealthily introducing players at moment where their introduction might be unnoticed, thus leaving them unmarked (example?: Lucas Moura corner goal against Man City in 2019?).

The Results?

Taking these changes together, and if they were extended across football more generally, would create a game that is faster, more fluid, and more changeable. It would be a more intense game, more dynamic. But would it lead to better football? That depends, of course, on what one understands as ‘higher quality’ football. According to Daan van den Eeckhout, Project Manager from the KNVB, these changes “could bring a refreshing dynamic to the game and enhance the overall experience for both players and spectators.”

I would tend to agree that the likely effect of these rule changes would be a faster, more intense version of football, one which would likely be appreciated by many football fans precisely for those reasons. It is perhaps a desire for a faster and more intense version of the game that has led to the creation of the Kings League. I’m not convinced that such changes would be wholly positive, at least depending how they are implemented. Just creating a faster and more intense game, without considering broader effects of this on players’ bodies and well-being (particularly in a context of congested fixture calendars), would not lead to positive effects with more player injuries. Players carrying ongoing injuries seems unlikely to create overall better levels of performance.

The use of the stop clock would do much to address concerns around time wasting, but insofar as games more intense in their pacing, it seems likely there could be time wasting behaviour, but now it would be done for the purposes of trying to slow down the game. It seems possible that in a few years rather than having arguments about time wasting there could be a moral panic about the scrooge of ‘game slowing’ behaviour, which could likewise be demonized.

The introduction of new rules could lead to at least a short-term period of confusion over them, if not longer. The unlimited and rolling substitutions means that keeping track of this is devolved to teams, with penalties should be this not be done correctly. During the tournament, there was still some lack of clarity around certain aspects of the rules and their effects. For example, in one match that ended in a penalty shoot-out, players were introduced after end of regulation time but before the shoot-out. This is not allowed: any substitute players needed to be introduced before the end of normal time. This was not realised (the coaches of the two teams involved were informed of this a few hours after the match), and probably didn’t make a significant effect. But any major introduction of new rules will involve a period of confusion in transition.

Does this year’s Otten Innovation Cup show us the future of football? Perhaps, even if not in a total way. The introduction of these rules changes seems to address some of the less admired dynamics found within football, and at least within my estimation, produced a quite intriguing and engaging series of fixtures. But despite that I’m still not 100% convinced on all of these changes quite yet. Maybe looking at events like the Otten Cup we can see the future of football, although one that is already partially here already, in even unevenly distributed manner.

Header image copyright IMAGO / Claus Bergmann

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