Thinking About Space

The finals of Euro 2008 start in a little more than an hour, and watching the last couple of games has set me thinking to the relationship between tactical play, individual greatness, and field size. Soccer - perhaps more than any other sport - seems to have a really unique blend of all three elements.

If you think of the field and the rules of the game as a kind of frame, certain things happen. In the first place, the movement and play of soccer is nearly continuous, which demands a kind of fluid rhythm. Its closest ally in this sense is probably hockey, especially when you watch the way that hockey teams reset to attack the opposing goal and the similar way in which soccer teams reset their attacks by playing the ball as far back as the goalie. In some ways, basketball approaches this level of fluidity - in particular teams that play a really attacking style (think Mike D'Antoni's Seven Seconds or Less or Roy William's secondary break) - but basketball seems to be at a very transitional point in terms of its rhythm of play. Given a really physical game or overly assertive referees, the flow of the game can be broken rather easily. Games like football and baseball (or even cricket), I think, are built around a very different set of assumptions: Even though they're all ball sports played on a field, the fundamental action of the game seems to be the delivery of a ball to a target, after which point the action resets and play begins all over again. So because soccer is such a continuous movement, it demands a unique approach to the field, a kind of field sense unparalleled in other sports. Watching a Spanish defender, for example, track the ball back with a Russian forward in pursuit, and the kind of effortless grace with which he traps, turns, and passes, it seems clear to me that soccer depends on a kind of unique awareness.

That leads into this question of space. While I don't have any figures for the size of each pitch relative to the number of players on, my suspicion is that soccer requires each player to cover a fairly expansive area during the course of the game. As such, the game seems played best when teams play to that space: putting balls forward and letting the forwards or attacking midfielders run them down, the give and go, giving players space to create on the wings, and so forth. While I think sports like basketball and hockey have a similar mentality - at least in certain systems - the relatively smaller sizes of the court or rink require playing to the man far more than space. Basketball is further changed by the need to have the ball in a player's hands at all times. Soccer and hockey, on the other hand, allow teams to play the ball forward and run to it.

The relatively large size of the soccer pitch also emphasizes the value of tactics. To be sure, hockey and basketball require coaches who understand their players, who understand their opponents, and everything like that. However, because of the relatively small size of the rink or court, transcendent players can impact the game far more easily than a transcendent footballer. True, Boston's defense during the recent NBA Finals showed how team play can surpass individual skill, but there's only so much that tactics and managing can do on the basketball court. On the soccer pitch, however, it seems fairly clear to me that the manager's formation and tactics can put their own players in a position to succeed and completely take another team's key players completely out of the match. Spain's victory against Russia a couple of days ago seemed to throw that sharply into focus. Russia's Arvashin, who had been pivotal in Russia's dispatching of Holland, was completely taken out of the game. Between Spain's defenders and their midfield play, Russia never seemed able to get the ball to Arvashin in a space where he could create. That played no small part, I think, in Spain's dominance of the game. One of the pleasures of the other semifinal was both team's ability and willingness to put the ball at the feet of players who were able to play the ball to space. While I wasn't thrilled to see Germany go on, both teams showed an impressive ability to place the ball with players who were able to distribute. I remember reading some of the critiques of Portugal's Ronaldo; most seemed to turn on the issue of how well he was able to create opportunities for his team. Some people felt that his occasional absences on the pitch were inexcusable for a player of his caliber. Others argued that it was other teams' decision to blanket him with two and three defenders that made it so difficult for him to really affect the game with his touches on the ball. For my own part, I'm not really sure.

This is something I might like to come back to with a little more clarity, but the match starts soon. Germany seemed really surprised by the Turks in their semifinal victory, but as the match wore on, their talent (and a couple of Turkish miscues) won out. Spain's victory against Russia didn't have the drama of the first semifinal, and I can't claim as much of an emotional investment in their match. I'm just hoping for an open game today, with space open for the attack. Thinking back on Spain's game against Russia, play really opened up once Spain put in their first goal, as the Russians had to start pressing forward more than they had been up to that point. An early goal - like the Turks put in against the Germans - might force both teams to attack more than has been their wont in the past.


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