Space: Football’s Final Frontier

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March 16, 2013 by Wayne.

So I submitted this for the first issue of the Ceteris Paribus relaunch but nothing seems to be happening so far. Bit frustrating, I sent this in IN JANUARY. Well, screw it, I’ll be posting it up here then.

There’s a famous saying about chess that goes something like this: The amateur sees a game of capturing pieces. The experienced player sees a contest of steps towards checkmate. The master sees only space.

In ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, Jonathan Wilson tracks the evolution of football tactics and how various roles have blossomed and faded away throughout the years. From the kick-and-rush days to the Cryuff fluidity, the tactical side of the sport has undergone remarkable changes. Sure, some teams still play the old rope-a-dope but even that is a calculated tactic (or, admittedly, a forced response from a superior squad). Messi and the gang have dominated headlines and trophies with their possession play but is there more to it than simply playing keep-away before threading the ball through? The answer lies in something Alan Jacobs calls ‘spatial awareness’.

In his words: “spatial awareness has three elements: self, teammate and opponent”. There are players blessed with an innate grasp of all three (Cannavaro, Zidane, Xavi etc.) and their play is invariably marked with an uncanny understanding of space. They see runs that haven’t been made, note the defender’s dropping shoulder, sense the brutish midfielder pivoting into a tackle, and observe the gap between the turning defender and his partner tracking the forward – all in a split second.

Unfortunately, not every player is spatially blessed. Some are unfairly maligned for not having the ‘intelligence’ for football – a claim usually lobbied against players like Walcott (who admittedly has abysmal anticipation and foresight). In truth though, the average player can keep track of, at most, two elements of play. Charting the movement of the play is an implicit requirement for all players – but predicting its future flow isn’t. Consequently, those less well-equipped to handle the fast-paced nature of the game – and the constant movement of space it entails – often find themselves weighed down with the accusations of a (footballing) mental deficiency.

Maxwell Kuhl calls Barca’s game “possession play that’s constantly leaning forward” and there’s a menacing overtone to that description. Against Barcelona, fluidity isn’t used as a weapon but as a form of being. Despite the number of bodies you throw behind the ball, they will outnumber you, flooding over like a storm of dwarfish bodies who simultaneously scream for the ball and release it as soon as it’s touched. The movement of both the bodies and the ball is dizzying to follow, and their play changes the opponent’s perception of space. Is that a slightly overreaching statement? Allow me to elaborate.

A defender can track a single player with relative ease, even once the goal mouth has been cluttered by a chaotic mess of bodies. However, when the target alternates between sitting in front of the defence and spearheading the attacking flow on the left, the defender is quickly overwhelmed. Tracking him halfway across the pitch would be suicide, but leaving him to interchange with such ease grants him both the creative and physical freedom to overload defences and thread the killer ball.

Essentially, the concept of space serves as a canvas that managers build on based on their own beliefs and the limitations of their squad. Barcelona can use space offensively due to a collection of players with excellent ball control and a final outlet in the form of Messi. Madrid regularly constricts space high up the field with their four attacking players, while the remaining players sit back to both defend and prepare for quick breaks. Juventus relies on the maestro Pirlo to dictate the tempo, while some of the best ‘shuttling’ midfielders in the game rapidly close down space and push high up.

One byproduct of this current tactical wave is the increasing irrelevance of a static forward. Indeed, the only place a static player can thrive is on the opposite end of the pitch where passing skills and positioning can compensate for the lack of industry. This is hardly surprising, of course – the new form of possession play can perhaps be seen as the application of the deep-lying playmaker throughout the pitch (if only in terms of philosophy).

Living in this age of Barcelona has forced many of the top clubs to adapt their playing philosophy, driven to keep abreast of their rivals. Even the most famous ‘reactive’ sides of the modern game (think Real Madrid, Bayern Munich etc.) have already shifted emphasis away from a traditional counter-attacking system. The new Galacticos recently purchased Modric and have adapted their play towards a challenge for space rather than possession (something that takes a great deal of time to familiarise with, somewhat accounting for their underperformance in the league). Munich, on the other hand, have long been moving towards a front fleet that seeks to overwhelm the opposition via nominal ‘wingers’ cutting inside and overloading the defensive region.

To paraphrase Michael Cox, reactive systems still thrive but only in terms of a gradual tactical shift towards the control of space. After all, winning back possession against Barcelona means very little – they press very high up the pitch and teams invariably lose control or punt the ball up to the shaggy head of Puyol. Tiki taka is a horribly destructive system; one where the fluidity doesn’t exist merely to tire opponents but to completely remove them from the game while their mark floats across to the opposite side of the pitch. Teams have gradually come to appreciate this use of space and modelled their responses accordingly.

It’s quite a fantastic time to be a football fan intent on understanding why games are won, beyond the simplistic ‘this team was better’. With the rise of well-written statistics-based blogs (think: Zonal Marking, Ghost Goal, On Goals Scored etc.) and concerted efforts within the industry itself to promote the study of data (MCFC Analytics playing a huge role in this), the future of football tactics looks very bright indeed. So what comes next? Withdrawn wingers? The return of the libero? Whatever it is, we’ll be right here, analyzing the hell out of it.

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