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Thursday, February 4, 1999 Published at 17:50 GMT

Sport: Football

Football enters the Twilight Zone

Zidane takes control of zone 14 against Italy in France 98

It is a question that has baffled sport's greatest tacticians for generations.

How do you succeed in the cut-and-thrust world of football, the most popular sport on the planet?

Well now there is an answer.

Scientists have completed a thorough analysis of the "beautiful game" - and their results make interesting reading for budding coaches everywhere.

The key it seems is football's Twilight Zone.

Or, to be exact, "zone 14".

Researchers at Liverpool's John Moores University divided the average football pitch into 18 separate areas and discovered that one zone more than any other held the key to achieving success on the field.

Zone 14 - or as every armchair pundit would know it, "the hole" - lies just in front of the "D" on the edge of the opposition's penalty area.

Control zone 14 and you are well on the way to victory.

And if that sounds a slightly tenuous theory, then ask the French.

Because the research team based their study on the patterns of play adopted by both successful and mediocre teams in the last World Cup.

They found that the four sides who reached the semi-finals - France, Brazil, the Netherlands and Croatia - made an average of 25 passes from zone 14 and directed 70% of them forward into the penalty area.

The other teams, England and Scotland included, had just 15 passes from the hole, with only 64% of them directed into the 18-yard box.

Zidane's in the zone

The teams that did best were helped by the fact that they had certain individuals who could exploit zone 14 to its full potential.

Here the research team are in agreement with the great and the good of the international game, who named Zinedine Zidane as world player of 1998.

The Juventus midfielder, who scored twice in the World Cup final, was the true mastermind of France 98, according to expert opinion both on the terraces and in the laboratories.

[ image: In the hole: Bergkamp is a Dutch master of zone 14]
In the hole: Bergkamp is a Dutch master of zone 14
"Zinedine Zidane of France was probably the best exponent," said Tom Reilly of the John Moores Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences.

But there were others who excelled in the hole. Arsenal fans will need no confirmation that Dennis Bergkamp did the job for the Dutch, while Brazil had Rivaldo and the Croats relied on Zvonomir Boban for their zone 14 inspiration.

The other mark of success in the World Cup was a side's ability to cut through the opposition defence with rapid sequences of two or more forward passes, without resorting to square balls or back passes.

The four top teams averaged 94 such flowing moves per match - compared with 76 for the rest.

This, it seems, is where Glenn Hoddle's England could have gone wrong. His team's penchant for "possession" football - moving the ball sideways and backwards - failed to hit the opposition where it mattered most and may have brought about their elimination in the second round.

"This holds possession as end in itself rather than as a means to split the defence," Reilly told New Scientist magazine.

The research team plan to present their findings at the fourth World Congress on Science and Football later this month.

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