Van Basten: Video Assistant Referees are good for football

There were some fascinating footballing trends at the most recent FIFA Club World Cup, and the Technical Study Group (TSG) of Japan 2016 has now published its technical report on the tournament along with some key facts and figures. All sides at the FIFA Club World Cup tried to retain possession of the ball, playing out from the back. Is this collective style of play a coincidence or are teams playing more offensive football in the modern era? What are the challenges of playing this way? Marco van Basten: Most teams like to play football from the back, as Barcelona have done in recent times. In this way, you control the ball, you have a technical and tactical base going forward and that’s probably the football that most people like to watch. In the past it was probably easier to play long balls in behind the defence. 

It’s not always easy to play from the back. The opponent also has their own tactics to counteract this style. If their pressing is well organised, it is not easy to go forward. This is something that, for the last ten years, we have seen in different games at every level. The better defenders you have, the more you try to play football from back to front. The advantage of this is that you can give easier passes for the technical players to receive and it’s easier for them to do something with the ball. 

What you see now more than before, is that teams are beginning to play with three rather than four defenders. With three defenders, you have more players in midfield, more possibilities to reach them with the ball. This can, however, be a bit more dangerous. With three players in behind, it’s not always easy to find your team-mate in the midfield because it is a bit more straightforward to be pressed by your opponent. 

Kashima Antlers have become the first Asian team to reach the final of a FIFA Club World Cup. What were Kashima’s main characteristics during the tournament? We’ve seen a very professional, experienced team reach the final. They were very well organised defensively, with good tactical discipline. They played at a very high level, with Real Madrid finding it difficult to create chances against them. When Antlers did get possession, they were very quick to counter-attack and were technically very good. Altogether, the final was a very interesting game. It was fully balanced into the 90th minute, when the game was level at 2-2. It’s a big compliment for Asian football and, in this case, Japanese football. I think that Kashima Antlers could easily play in high level European competitions.

How has Asian football developed in recent years? Most of the players in the Kashima Antlers side were Japanese, and if these players are playing at a high level, then the national team will only continue to improve. I think at this moment there are a lot of players from Asian football also playing in Europe, which helps them and the national teams, putting them on a better level.

Teams had the opportunity to bring on a fourth substitute in extra time. Does this change the tactics of the coaches? Does this also influence the way teams play in the final minutes of regular time? I think the good thing about having a fourth substitute in extra time is that probably, quite often, the players are getting tired after 90 minutes of the game. When players get tired, they have fewer ideas and the game gets less interesting because nobody takes the initiative. If you bring on fresher players it’s good for the dynamic of the game, so the people in the stadium and watching on television see more exciting football, which I think is very important.

I don’t think it changes the tactics a lot, I don’t think coaches will use it in a special way, it’s just an extra possibility to change a player when they get injured or tired. 

Having played as a centre forward in your career, what qualities do you think a striker needs in modern football? What you see now in football is that the sport is getting a bit more like handball. There are nine defenders and a goalkeeper and the others are trying to break that wall, which is very difficult. This means the space for a centre forward is so small. The only thing you can do is a one-two, or quick passes, you can’t find a solution by dribbling or something similar. You can see this in two ways, the situation of a centre forward is very difficult because there is no space, but on the other hand they have to try to score goals so you have to serve them in a different way – either by scoring quick goals, like headers, or through fast counter attacks. 

I think strikers need to be much cleverer. It’s all about a little moment or space that you can use, in one split-second it’s already gone. Or, you have to be very strong. A target man who is served by his team-mates – you receive the ball and the defenders and team-mates see you as the focal point, it’s difficult to defend someone like that. 

I was a centre forward who liked to go to the wings and create space for other players. In modern football that’s very difficult. We see Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, going from left to right, front to back, to create problems for the opponent because then you have to defend players in motion, which is much more difficult than players who are static.

We have witnessed the first-ever live trial with video assistant referees (VARs) at a FIFA competition during the Club World Cup in Japan. How happy have you been with this trial? I’ve been very happy with the tests. It’s good for football and helps the game a lot. This is something that eradicates the big incorrect decisions, which is our goal. We had a few difficult moments at the Club World Cup in Japan, which were about the communication between the referee and the VAR. That has to improve, that’s clear. On the other hand, there was not a big mistake, so that is a positive thing. There are some things that have to improve, one of which is that when Cristiano scored his goal [against Club America], we did not give him time to celebrate, because there was a discussion with the VAR. But we are all happy. I think the players and the public can watch a little bit more quietly, without arguments, because we know that the result from a VAR decision will be correct. I’m convinced we’ll see more tests of the VAR system in the future.