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Xaor's Corner: Aerial Battles


This time I’m looking at the way that FIFA represents headers, crosses, and corners. See all previous Xaor’s Corner articles: here

In FIFA 11, there were a huge number of complaints about how crossing, corners, and heading worked. Many, if not most, believed that the balance has been improved considerably in FIFA 12, but it’s still fair to say that the aerial battle is one of the least predictable and most frustrating areas of FIFA today, often leading to one feeling that headed goals are preordained, and little down to user control.

This is perhaps not that surprising – aerial play in general presents a myriad of challenges which are unique. Most importantly, the sheer number of players involved in a single moment is very high. It is not uncommon for a corner to involve upwards of 20 players, including the goalkeeper. In a real life corner there is plenty of action before the corner is taken – players jostle around for position and there is plenty of holding, tugging and pushing between the players too. Once the ball is in flight, everything intensifies and it’s likely that three or four, if not more players will make an attempt on the ball.

When playing FIFA, there is one very major and clear difference which is really the crux of the issue, which is that aerial battles are almost always limited to one player from each team going to head the ball, plus the goalkeeper. This isn’t always the case, as the featured picture testifies, and I have seen two players from one team jumping for the ball. The problem is it’s a once-a-month type of thing, when it should be something you see every game. In fact, the whole event is pretty sterile, with all but two players watching the ball.

The result is that the whole concept of an aerial battle and the whole balance of a ball being put into the box is warped. Take an example where a cross is played in towards an attacker who is surrounded by defenders. In most cases, the defensive team has a large advantage and would probably be expected to get the ball away, but in FIFA one defender and one attacker will go up the ball, levelling any advantage the defensive team should have. In fact, it’s arguable that the defending user may even be at a disadvantage here. If the cross is played well, then the attacking user can guarantee that his player will at least make an attempt on the ball. The defensive user’s circumstances however are more complex, because he’s dependent on which player will be allocated, or switched to. It’s all too common in this situation for the game to switch to a defender behind an attacker, who is thus tremendously disadvantaged. It’s in many ways preferable to have one well placed on his own, than to have a multitude of defenders in the right area.

The ideal solution is obvious: EA could remove the forced one-on-one situation, and free it up so that many players can go for the ball. If it only it were so easy – EA surely would have done this already if there weren’t considerable technical walls to doing so. We can hope that they make some headway with this, but even if they improve it somewhat it seems unlikely that the restrictions could ever entirely be removed in the short term.

So what else could be done to hide these problems? The most obvious would be making further improvements to player switching. Currently the game seems to choose the player who can get to the ball the easiest. In most situations this is fine, and works a treat, but it all too often lets you down in an aerial battle. It could, for example, look at a number of other factors when the ball is in the air. It could take into account which players were in front of the attackers, as well as player attributes like height, jumping, and heading ability before choosing the player. This would hopefully result in aerial battles being won in a more believable, predictable and fair manner than they are currently.

While FIFA 12’s goalkeepers did see dramatic improvements in a whole host of areas, one of the areas they are still deeply questionable are when dealing with aerial balls. Their anticipatory movement (on the whole) is poor, and this often leaves them badly placed when the cross comes in. They also are generally far too reluctant to come out and catch or punch away corners – typically waiting while an easy header flies over their head.

One other area to look at would be the tactical side of things – currently the tactical setup when it comes to corners and indirectly taken freekicks is non-existent. We have to rely on the CPU to choose where players should stand, with only the ability to control the ‘mentality’ of your team which dictates how many players will go up or stay back. It would be nice if we had more control here – able to allocate players to positions or duties. Football manager presents an ideal blueprint for that – it allows you to give instructions to each player. You can tell your tallest man to mark theirs, tell a defender that he should stay back, and the list of options goes on and on. People have complained for years that FIFA has allocated players positioning at corners badly – the tallest players on the posts and so forth – what better a way to alleviate those problems than allowing us to choose these things for ourselves?

Crossing, corners and heading are a really large part of football, and a large part of FIFA. They simply can’t be ignored or neglected, and like any major part of the game they need to be nailed if FIFA is to really come together. Currently it feels random, if not downright cheap at times. There are clearly many ways in which this could be improved to try repair that, and these are things which really ought to be prioritised gameplay fixes and improvements for next year. Above absolutely everything, including realism, FIFA needs to be balanced if it is to be an enjoyable experience for all – the aerial battle is key to that.

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