World League Finals 2013 – Review

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Many years ago, I had several conversations with a colleague about whether our best player should play as opposite or middle blocker. My colleague contended that by playing as a middle blocker, the player had to always be respected by opposition blockers and therefore made the game easier for everyone else. I maintained, correctly, that while that was true, our reception meant that the first tempo was available less than 50% of the time and the middle didn’t spike in the backrow, meaning that at best he would influence 25% of the game as opposed to 100% of the game if he played as opposite.
I was reminded of those conversations while watching the World League finals over the last few days. Dmitry Muserskiy’s spectre hung over the entire tournament as I am pretty sure my colleague envisioned way back then. He was the central figure in every single play while he was on the court, giving opponents respite only while he was off the court for the libero. Every middle blocker knew where he was on every offensive play. Every setter and spiker knew where he was on every defensive play. Every receiver hoped he made an error when he served. And perhaps even more than that, he was the calming leader that every team needs. So even though the receivers got their wish in the final when he missed 6/7 serves, and the blockers managed to keep him at only 53% spiking percentage, he was still the dominating figure in every sense. There have been players as big as him before (Dineikine, Kazakov) but there has been noone in volleyball history with his combination of physical and technical skills. He is a joy to watch.
Which brings me to some other thoughts and observations from the World League finals, in no particular order…
Russia – As a team they weren’t impressive during the rounds and only scraped into the finals on the last weekend, but their last semi final and final performances were about as impressive as you can possibly have. The most recent comparison that comes to mind is 2004 Brazilian Olympic gold medallists. They played faster and smarter than Brazilian. They played more precisely and more disciplined than Italy. They were the best team by miles.
Risk Management – The American commentator, Paul Sunderland, who commentated on lamented, to the point of distraction for viewers, that players were not attacking high balls, but only playing tips and shots. He was right. The most common risk management strategy used in attack was to not take any. As in zero risks! Setters, and especially non setters, set the ball high and off the net, essentially giving spikers no alternative but to play shots and hope for a chance to block. The spikers were willing participants. I lost count of the number of rallies where the teams played shots back and forth until one team made an error: each one of which was a perfect example of long rallies indicating bad volleyball. The exception was Russia. A perfect example of the positive correlation between risk and success.
The Standardisation Of Men’s Volleyball – For some time men’s volleyball has been essentially standard across all teams. The general makeup of the teams is the same, as are the general strategies and tactics. This seems to be becoming more prevalent. There are exceptions, for example Germany and Italy, but even these are more in terms of lineup variations than tactics. In addition to the risk averse nature of the game, serving and blocking were almost standard. In many cases the position and type of serve was predictable from the rotation of the opponent. And still caused trouble! Speaking of serving…
Serving – It seemed from the videos at least, that there were fewer servers taking big risks with the jump serve. There were more jump serves with placement, for example short serves, and more jump float serves. In the Argentina – Bulgaria match for example, over 60% of the serves were jump float, mostly to the same positions (see above), but still, not just blindly smashing the serve. I guess that is one positive aspect of the increasing risk aversion of men’s volleyball and an indication in the continuing improvement of block and defence (ie risk on serve is not longer necessary). Speaking of blocking…
Blocking – Blocking was effective. As many rallies as there were created by risk aversion in offence, there were even rallies created by good blocking*. Blockers are simply getting stronger and better. That having been said I was amazed by what I would consider poor blocking organisation, discipline and technique. Outside blockers positions were rarely particularly stable, nor precise and they reached in all directions. Middles sometimes closed the seams on high balls and sometimes didn’t. Triples were almost never clean. I see huge possible improvements to made in blocking in the next period of time. Especially considered the stagnation of offences. Speaking of offences…
Setting and Offence – The offences were remarkably standardised (see above), with a couple of small variations. Russia used a longish ‘b quick’ (or ‘2m schuss’ or ‘7’ or ’31’, depending on your volleyball language) which was devastating when coupled with great middle hitters and a super fast set to position 2 / 1 from Grankin. That combination rendered the standard tactic of the middle blocker waiting in the middle of the court ineffective. On reasonable reception the middle blockers found themselves with neither of the spikers in their peripheral vision and the overwhelming desire to check where Muserskiy (or Apalikov) was. Here even a milisecond hesitation meant that middle was toast, and Pavlov wins the MVP. Brazil used the ‘c quick’ (or ‘2’) a lot, even with the setter at the 3m line. It worked quite well, although most opponents were ready for it and the set to position 4 wasn’t really fast enough to punish them for waiting. Other teams had neither enough variation nor speed nor precision to be effective for any long periods. Needless to say, Grankin was the best setter. In all positions he set the fastest balls and used the greatest number of tempo variations. Apart from a short blackout in the semi final, he was fantastic, although it should be noted that he didn’t become the starter until the second match.
And so World League has concluded for another year. I don’t think this one will be remembered for a long time. Even allowing for the transition that is inevitable in the year following an Olympic year, the overall standard was disappointing, at least to me. There is probably no better proof of that than to note that Brazil and Russia, with very different teams from those that contested the Olympic final still dominated Italy and Bulgaria, who were essentially unchanged. Poland, who won last year’s edition while the top teams prepared for the Olympics, were also unchanged and didn’t even make the finals. I can’t see those two teams losing for the foreseeable future, especially as Russia seems to be getting into the habit of winning. I guess European Championships will be the first test of that.
* Blocking and defence is really blocking. There are no good defensive teams without good blocking, and no good blocking teams without good defence.

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