I followed volleyball very closely up until the early 2000s when wholesale rules changes changed the sport too much for my tastes. I still keep in touch with fans and coaches I met during several years where I watched a lot of men’s and women’s collegiate matches and the occasional international match, posting notes to rec.sport.volleyball of Usenet news. I learned how to take shot charts and do rudimentary statistics while in graduate school and enjoyed doing that at the events I attended in the mid to late 1990s. I looked up some recent international men’s matches at the suggestion of one of my ‘volleygoombas’ and took a shot chart for the first time in fifteen years using Youtube video. I put down some thoughts on USA’s win over Argentina for the 2015 World Cup which qualifies the men for the 2016 Olympics.
USA d. Argentina: 25-20, 25-21, 17-25, 25-20
FIVB 2015 Men’s World Cup, Tokyo
I last took a shot chart in the civilized era of sideout scoring and just as sideshows like the Liberace defensive specialist began to infect the game. For this purpose, having an endline view is best to see receive and block alignments and to watch the flow of a match. Most footage is shot from the sideline for no good reason but fortunately, Youtube user ILOVE206RC managed to obtain and upload footage of this match from a good viewpoint. The lower rows of my charts show serve receive and the upper rows show what a team does on serve and when they’re able to attack off of a dig or other defensive play. Two pages can cover a match.
Adapting what I used to do for a one-off fully Ruben Point Scoring match was an ongoing process. Eventually I settled on noting what plays USA ran on serve receive, what got set, and the result along the left side of each ‘court’. I noted points scored and allowed (bar above point number) by game in the box below the ‘court.’ The results are accurate enough for fun but nothing anyone could use for a serious purpose.
I’m duly impressed by the size and speed of the modern international male volleyball athlete. 6’10″+ players used to be plunked into the middle blocker role by profoundly grateful coaches. Now they’re primary passers, hitting from all over the court, and hitting the floor to make defensive plays. Even Russia’s Dmitry Muserskiy gets his lurchiferous 7’2″ frame to the ground to dig and pass. This is not surprising in retrospect. The jackals at the FIVB sold the game out to get it to fit in a notional 2 hour slot for television. Endurance used to be an asset in the sideout era but no longer. The innumerable stoppages of play and an artificially short timespan have obliterated that need and favors the purely explosive in a sprint to exhaustion. With 2 mandatory tv timeouts per game, 2 lengthy team timeouts per game, a minimum of 2 video challenges per team per game, leisurely spans in between games, and a group hug after every point, little time is actually spent in play. This match clocked in at just about 2 hours from start to finish. Debit the aforementioned and the actual amount of ball-in-play time is ridiculously short.
USA’s offense is fun to watch when it gets to play. On any decent pass, the frontrow hitters are in pattern far faster than their predecessors, there is always at least one backrow option, and the frontrow combination play has fully given way to the back-row-quick (bic). The latter is the old ‘Pipe’ set out of the middle but run at a blindingly fast first-tempo. Four or five hitters against a three man block puts the serving team behind the eight ball to disrupt the receivers to the greatest extent. The biggest knock against men’s volleyball used to be the overwhelming advantage to the team receiving serve – pass, set, crush. Well, whaddya whaddya, this is where the specialist defensive player is allowed to add his two cents. That’s right, the Liberace, ostensibly there to aid the defense and prolong rallies, actually supports that part of the game that kills rallies dead. This he does by doing what the tall guys do only by falling, rolling, and otherwise styling for effect.
On the positive side, the State Penn trio of Matt Anderson (6’10” Opposite), Max Holt (6’10” Middle), and A.A.Ron Russell (6’9″ Outside) can get up the top of the antenna and pound. 6’4″ Taylor Sander at the other outside makes up for his height (!!) with unreal leaping ability and a shoulder that can hit unhealthy angles. David Lee, the 6’8″ stoic assassin, is amazingly fast in the middle and sets a mean block. I was most impressed by the 22 year old setter, 6’6″ Micah Christenson, who ran this high octane offense with panache and contributed in all aspects including blocking.
The push to make referees optional by relaxing rules has been completed by the addition of replay. This, too, was inevitable. The players get taller and faster and are eternally young. It takes decades to claw up the ranks into international referee status and reflexes don’t improve with age. The FIVB took a look at the NBA circa 1998 and decided that coaches should be a part of the circus. They’re now allowed, perhaps required, to pace the sidelines looking alternately pensive and intense.
The chart blank I developed in the old days is obsolete and not just because of RPS. First, I am guessing that digital video and analytics have obliterated the need for such things. Secondly, this four game match barely required half the space I’d allocated to note the plays. I think Game 4 took barely 1.5 rotations to complete. Finally, it is in dire need of Tuftification. There’s too much ink and too many boxes which serve to cramp the fingers and strain the eyes. USA did slightly better on Anderson’s serve and the others did their bit. Argentina took Game 4 with a nice run by setter DeCecco against USA’s Rotation 6. The speed of the serve-receive-attack and the deceptiveness of the setters is so great that blockers have to read and react instantly. The head coaches I knew thought primarily about blocking and I assume that preference has only gotten stronger with time in the profession. Middles frequently waited on the quick and bic hitters and flung themselves to the pins on outside sets, crashing into the outside blockers. It looked chaotic at first but then it became clear that they and their outsides know exactly what’s going on and practice this to prevent injury.
Confronting these huge blocks, hitters often tried to wipe attacks off arms and hands and back towards their coverage. A big difference in the intervening years is how much the block has become a complete action. The blockers are trying to control and stuff the ball on the way up, at the peak, and on the way down. Al Scates and his Bruins could pull that off against overmatched opponents back in the day but to see it at this level is a marvel. I was pleased to see that the overhand chuck on serve receive was less pervasive than I had feared. There was a time when teams would heave and go on every play and it made for some utt bugly volleyball. Coaches used to rank pass reception on a three point scale – higher scores went to passes where the setter had more options. It was always subjective and at this level is completely irrelevant. I watched a few other matches besides this one and setters run their offenses including up-tempo combinations from anywhere on the court and high over the net on tight passes. I don’t know what the current rules are about rotation but on serve, USA blockers broke rotation long before the ball was contacted for play. The net is now a mere formality. It won’t be long before someone goes up, loses his balance, and winds up Fosbury flopping on the other side. Service errors are epidemic and wreck the experience, especially now that a point is awarded to the receiving team. A smart move would be to disallow the Liberace on serve receive and to make servers land before the end line. An even smarter move would be to require holding serve to score a point, failing that to take away a point from the erring team on a service error rather than rewarding their opponents. Apart from that, the USA five option offense, block, and some bang-bang defensive plays were enough to turn the tide in games 1, 2, and 4. If I had the inclination, I’d go back and see what the scores would have been like under sideout scoring. But, I don’t.
In the end, it was a fun little exercise to make a chart and see a match from the endzone again. I used to look forward both activities and often drove long distances for the pleasure of them and for the people I’d meet at the events. But, the game devolved to be not worth the driving time. I can’t imagine what it must be like for these squads to fly for days around the globe for matches where they barely get warm. I understand that oligarchs are paying them well so it must have its consolations. It is like leaving Bedford Falls and coming back to Pottersville.