2014 European Championships: Decision making
August 22, 2014 Leave a comment
The water polo experts and fans who could not come to Budapest have had the opportunity to watch all matches from the recent European championships either via the TV or Internet transmissions. Its culmination was the gold medal match between the hosts, Hungary, and Serbia in which the latter displayed a dominating performance and won with a big margin, 12:7 (1:3, 1:4, 4:2, 1:3).
The current Serbian team is possibly the most experienced of all comprising excellent players in every position who can be named among the best in the world. Having showed superb individual and collective skills, they deservedly achieved a coveted result in a major competition that the European championships are. That was also a big personal achievement for Head coach, Dejan Savic, particularly after the disappointment at the 2013 world championships.
That impressive score-line is supported by statistical data in favor of the champions. They scored 6 ‘field’ goals, Hungary – 2. Serbia defended 11 man-down situations from 16 attempts awarded to the opposition (69%), Hungary repelled 50% – 6 from 12. Conversely, Serbia’s extra-man attack rate was 50% (6 goals) whilst Hungary’s 31% (5 goals). The ratio of turn-over (counter-fouls) was 5-3 in favour of Hungary. It is clear that the main difference came from the number of the ‘field’ goals that the teams scored. The referees of the final match were Boris Margeta (Slovenia) and Adrian Aleksandrescu (Romania).
These teams also met in the preliminary rounds. Then Hungary won, 8:6 (2:0, 3:3, 2:2, 1:1). Largely due to that result the host nation gained top placing in the preliminary round thus playing one match less (7) than Serbia (8) in the tournament overall. Incidentally, the first game was played 10 days before the gold medal match. It is interesting to compare the statistical data of both games between these sides. Serbia scored 1 ‘field’ goal only, Hungary – 7. Man-down situations: Serbia defended 7 times from 8 – 88% (1 goal by Hungary)- which is superb, particularly against Hungary. The Hungarians defended 9 times from 13 – 69% (4 goals by Serbia), which is also a good figure. The ratio of counter-fouls was 9-5 in favour of Serbia. The referees of that match were Mario Bianchi (Italy) and Adrian Aleksandrescu (Romania). Like in the other game, the main difference in favour of the winner came from that of the ‘field’ goals.
Based upon the statistical data, it looks like the gold medal match was a mirror reflection of the other with the teams merely swopping ‘seats’. However, there is one very important factor that has not been taken into account yet – it is goalkeeping! Perhaps, the way the game was unfolding – and the final score – could have been different had there been another decision in this regard.
It would not be far from the truth to say that Tibor Benedek, Head Coach of Hungary, spent a sleepless night on the eve of the final considering who should be his starting goalkeeper. He opted for Victor Nagy. It would have been an extremely difficult decision which was not beyond absolute doubt. And it could not be. There are several considerations that allow to make such an assumption however good a keeper Victor Nagy is. I watched live both subject matches and can say that the Hungarian team’s good statistical data in the preliminary round against Serbia was achieved to a large extend due to the excellent actions of their ‘second’ goalkeeper, Attila Decker. His impressive performance was supported by similarly impressive statistics: Playing time-32 minutes, 13 saves from 19 shots (68,4%). He saved 9 ‘action’ (or ‘field’) shots from 10 and 4 from 8 in extra-man defense – all against the proficiency of Serbian players’ shooting skills.
As above-mentioned, Victor Nagy started in the final match. He was replaced after 10 minutes 22 seconds when the score was 1:6 in favour of the Serbians. Nagy’s statistics are: overall 2 saves from 8 shots (25%) and 0 from 3 extra-man shots. Attila Decker also let in 6 goals but he was in the goals 21 minutes 38 seconds – twice as long. Decker’s data are: 6 saves from 12 shots out of which 5 from 8 ‘action’ shots and 1 from 3 extra-man shots. The Hungarian goalkeepers’ combined percentage of saves is 40. For that matter, Serbian keeper, Gojko Pijetlovic, prevented 12 from 19 – a healthy 63,2%.
One can correctly say that it is easy to ‘criticize’ a coach’s decision in hindsight with the benefit of knowledge of what has actually happened. Indeed, Tibor Benedek was facing a very difficult decision. Here is why. Victor Nagy is a good experienced goalkeeper. He was a hero in Hungary’s winning of the world championships title last year in Barcelona, particularly in the gold medal match against Montenegro. In Budapest 2014, he had a very good game in the semi-final against Italy two days before the final in which his saves’ rate was excellent 63,2%, let alone in the other matches. On the other hand, Nagy had a poor gold medal match against Serbia in which his team was losing with a big margin at this year’s World League’s tournament in Dubai a month before the European championships. That game undoubtedly left a psychological scar on Victor which will take some time to heal. At the same time, it would have been in Benedek’s mind that Attila Decker had not just a good but EXCELLENT game against Serbia both in Dubai when he replaced Nagy and in Budapest in the preliminary round. It would have made sense to play him from the beginning in the final. But not to start Victor Nagy in the goals in the gold medal match at the home ground could and would have been construed by a grown-up family man like Victor as a lack of confidence to which there was no reasonable explanation. Such a decision would have seriously affected the relationships between the men and even had the potential to create a serious split among the players in the team let alone in the entire Hungarian water polo community. What if Attila Decker did not play well?
It is not easy to be Head coach of the Hungarian National men’s water polo team. Or any other top team, for that matter.