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28.09.2016, 13:22◄ last page     

FIRST-HAND INSIGHT: A new rule that helps teams be more aggressive decided the Match of the Week between Flensburg and Veszprém. But how did the other 26 coaches fare in the first week of the VELUX EHF Champions League?

Winds of change bring more entertainment

Just type “change” into your search engine and an army of quotes and proverbs will flood your screen. From Mahatma Gandhi to Albert Einstein and Barack Obama, you will not have any trouble finding a quote that could be transformed into a motto.

While there are few things that are not susceptible to change, handball is not one of them. Like almost every sport which is trying to keep in touch with the hectic routine of the modern day, handball has become faster and more entertaining, while the VELUX EHF Champions League is providing nail biting matches on a weekly basis.

What the change brings to the table

However, change is inevitable and the Europe’s top competition is trying to keep up with the pace. Therefore, from the start of the new season, there have been several changes in the rules of the game, the most important one being the new goalkeeper rule.

Up until last season, a team could replace their goalkeeper with an outfield player, while the player had a cut-out goalkeeper shirt on, with the number clearly visible. From autumn 2016, the rule has been changed and any player can replace the goalkeeper during the game.

The downside is that this player cannot enter the six-meter zone and act as a goalkeeper without earning a 2 minute suspension, compared to the previous rule, when the player who had the goalkeeper shirt on could make saves.

With the new rules, the substitution is clearly easier, but coaches are now facing a huge dilemma about the correlation between risk and reward. Changing your goalkeeper when undermanned by a suspension and have a bigger chance of scoring, or lose the ball and you are exposed to an empty net that could change the outcome of the game.

The first match day of the new season helped put things in perspective and it was plainly obvious that the overwhelming majority of the teams are now taking advantage of the new rule when they have a suspension. 

Five teams did not use the new rule

A glance over the 14 stellar matches from last week provided a lot of insight into the tactical minds of the coaches and how they responded to the rule change. Only five from the 28 teams that are currently playing in the VELUX EHF Champions League, 17%, did not substitute their goalkeeper with an outfield player.

Chekhovskie Medvedi, Montpellier, Nantes, Motor Zaporozhye and Besiktas Mogaz HT never risked having an empty net and took the conservative option, while Meshkov Brest did not change until the third suspension in their loss against title holders Vive Tauron Kielce.

While several Eastern teams with experienced coaches failed to take up on the new rule, there were teams that took the risk and had seven outfield players when their opponents were down one player via suspension. Norwegian champions Elverum used this tactic in their loss against RK Metalurg Skopje, 18:17, while PSG Handball gave their all in the dying seconds against Kiel, only to come up empty handed, after a 28:27 loss.

Veszprém took the risk

However, these were isolated cases, as most teams used the new rule when they were a man down, in order to spur on their attack. One common trait was that safety was the main priority for the coaches, with a player coming back for the change seconds before the play was over. In most cases, the player was the wing, who finalized the crossing scheme and went back into play.

Therefore, it was no surprise that there were only ten open-goal shots converted in goals in 14 matches when the teams used the new rule while having at least one player suspended, most of them in the Match of the Week between Flensburg and Veszprém.

While the German powerhouse and the Hungarian side scored from four open-goal plays, as they constantly used six outfield players when down a man, it was a surprise to see Xavi Sabate, Veszprém’s coach, to go for it with 20 seconds left in the game, as Veszprém had a one-goal lead. A failed move saw the German side take control and Kentin Mahe scored to make it a 24:24 draw.

Teams are still learning

Most teams did their homework in pre-season and had clearly set plans in motions for their empty-net moments, some of the teams had serious trouble when trying to score by balancing the risk/reward approach. One of the sides was Rhein-Neckar Löwen, the only team that failed to score in three consecutive situations. The German side even had their goalkeeper, Mikael Appelgren, earn a 2 minute suspension for a botched change.

However, the season is still young and most of the teams are still coping with the new rule. There is no doubt that the fans are in for more entertaining games and nail biting finishes, as they watch powerful teams juggle with unexpected line-ups and new plays that are slowly integrating into their game plan. Who knows, maybe we will even see a title decided by an open-goal shot. Now, even the goalkeepers can become top scorers.

TEXT: Adrian Costeiu & Tomas Cuncik / bc

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