Stoke City in Europe! England vs. The World! Absolute vs. Relative Space?!

Arguments about space have been part of philosophy since Ancient Greece. The philosophical models of Aristotle, Descartes and Leibniz depend upon their conceptions of ‘space’.

Johann Cruyff: Master of relative space

Space is an equally fundamental element of football. Footballing cultures are defined by their relationship with space. In Holland, for example, Johann Cruyff and Dennis Bergkamp were venerated for their manipulation of space. Likewise in Spain, Xavi Hernandez is today rightly feted for his phenomenal ability to create space for others.

In philosophy, the debate about space is essentially two sided. In the early eighteenth century, the Continental rationalist philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and the Empirical Englishman Simon Clarke, a disciple of Isaac Newton, conducted their famous Correspondence arguing, respectively and respectfully, for a relative or an absolute conception of space.

Philosophically, it’s hard to say really which position is more satisfying.

On the one hand, Newton’s absolutist claim that ‘space is logically prior to bodies’ grants his theory of gravity legitimacy – which is good.

On the other hand, Leibniz’s relativist counter that ‘absolute spaces have no physical meaning’ seems intuitively valid – also good.

Totaalvoetbal‘s revolutionary contribution to football tactics was to relativise the game’s relationship with space. Here’s David Winner writing about Ajax’s 1972 European Cup final victory over Inter Milan in his superb Brilliant Orange:

the players were sophisticated and irresistible; they attacked cleverly and continuously, relentlessly and fluidly switching positions and appearing to overwhelm the ultra-defensive Italians intellectually and emotionally as well as physically and tacticaIiy. 

A system which allows the fluid switching of positions is a system in which the pitch is a relative space.

Barcelona and Spain, the inheritors of Cruyff, Michels, et al’s innovations see the pitch in the same way – but, it seems, play with less joy and greater ruthlessness than the Ajax and Holland teams of the 1970s.

This is a great thing and generally the teams we love to watch are those for whom the football pitch is a relative space. The problem, of course, as those with a background in British football have been made almost painfully aware over several generations, is that a football pitch isn’t, or at least isn’t completely, relative.

The actual spaces on which football is played logically, necessarily and absolutely exist prior to their occupation by bodies.

The Maracana, Rio: a logically prior space

In Britain, the country of Newton and the fatherland of the evidence driven empiricist school of philosophy, space has always been absolute, not just in football, but especially in football. With their vocabulary of ‘mixers’, ‘engine rooms’ and ‘wings’ British footballers have always played in absolute spaces.

In the 1950 and 60s, the football statistician Charles Reep analysed 578 matches from English football and World Cups. Reep’s findings (which Jonathan Wilson summarily dismisses as nonsense in Inverting the Pyramid: ‘anti-intellectualism is one thing, but faith in wrong-headed pseudo-intellectualism is far worse’) were, essentially, that, since only six percent of moves consist of four or more passes, long chains of passes and possession football are actually counterproductive to the end of scoring goals. This led Reep to propose that the most effective way to play football was to play as directly as possible, getting the ball into the danger area of the opponents’ half as quickly as possible.

This is absolutist football. The idea of a ‘danger area’, clearly the penalty box, is entirely Newtonian in its conception. It demands that certain types of player (qualified primarily on the grounds of physique) occupy certain positions – the Big Men go up front or in defence, near your opponents’ danger zones and your own – and perform certain roles – full-backs, in particular will look to hit the ball long.

Reep himself was most directly influential in Scandinavia (although he did help Brentford avoid relegation in 1951), and Egil Olsen’s Norway teams – whose full backs hit long cross field balls to John Carews and Tore Andre Flos – are perhaps the most obvious exponents of his absolutist football.

Reep, however, is as much a product of English football as he is an instigator, as Wilson sensibly objects: ‘just because long passing moves were rare in the English game of the fifties does not mean they were not desirable’. Newton did not claim to ‘invent’ absolute space, rather he discovered it, and the same is true of Reep’s absolute football.

This stereotyping is patently true.

Who does John Carew currently play for? Stoke City, England’s most absolutist footballers. They literally change the dimensions of the space in which they play in order to more effectively deliver the ball into the danger zones in front of their opponents’ goal.

See how long (and innaccurate) Stoke full-back Danny Higginbothams passing is?

Stoke’s directness is regularly praised in sections of the media for whom national pride is an agenda. In these same papers the eternal question of Leo Messi’s suitability for a hard night’s football in rainy Stoke on Trent is hotly debated.

Stoke’s pragmatic targeting of a logically prior space is, like the original theoriser of such a space, quintessentially English. Leo Messi’s relativist understanding of his centre-forward position is equally quintessentially continental.

Stoke City Manager Tony Pulis

They can’t both be right, but as with Leibniz and Clarke, it’s hard to say that either is totally wrong too.

Fortunately, thanks to yesterday’s ‘Reep’-ing (you see what I did there, Pardew?) of the Bolton Academy, Stoke have likely earned themselves passage to next season’s Europa League. Obviously the chances of them playing Barcelona are slim, but it will be interesting to see how those absolutist animals fare in relativism’s continental heartland: The Correspondence Redux.

Check back tomorrow for James on the upcoming FIFA presidential elections, and don’t forget to follow @gdfeet4abigman and @calumcm on Twitter.

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8 Responses to Stoke City in Europe! England vs. The World! Absolute vs. Relative Space?!

  1. Thanks for a great read.

    As a coach one of my fundamental tasks is to develop practices which help players transfer understanding of abstract concepts like space and apply them in the real spaces of the pitch they are playing on. Therefore having an understanding of the nature of ‘space’ is vital to developing good practices.

    It’s interesting to consider that Barcelona also target passes into certain parts of the pitch (for example, Xavi’s inside-out diagonal pass to Alves) and – though I’m no fan – it is to do Stoke a disservice to suggest that they don’t adjust the angle and weight of their long passes depending on opponent’s back-line.

    Therefore, like in most philosophical discussions, reality probably lies somewhere between the two extreme positions.

    In terms of developing “English” or “Continental” players I think the more important factor is actually about recognition of space coupled with calculations of risk vs reward.

    Without skilful players, short passes in the defensive third are much riskier (see Robinson’s awful pass to set-up Stoke’s first goal in the FA Cup semi-final). With technically adept players short passes are much less risky than hitting a 50yd+ pass and potentially inviting another wave of attack.

    • Calum says:

      Thanks for your comment Pavl – I pretty much agree with you, although I think risk v reward calculations are biased by environmental factors such as upbringing and culture and that these play into the debate I discuss above.

  2. mcgie76 says:

    As with Wilson, so much is wrong in this analysis of Reep, starting with a flagrant misinterpretation (or genuine lack of knowledge) of Reep’s findings. Reep’s statistics showed a clear relationship between the frequency of goals and the number of passes, the numbers of passes leading to the final ball, and the area most goals were scored from – findings which stand to this day. His analyses took into account over 10,000 games over time, and emphasized not only the parsimony of direct play, but the consistency of the findings not just in the English league, but also from continental teams as well. Furthermore, he didn’t just “help Brentford avoid relegation” – he was a major influence on Stan Cullis and his great Wolves team, as well as Graham Taylor’s Watford team. In reference to this, both teams are notable for not relying on big target men up front – rather, Wolves were famous for having one of the smallest forward lines in England at the time, and Watford were famous for utilizing an adventurous and innovative 3-4-3 with John Barnes on the wing (hardly the epitome of the long ball player).

    The statistical findings of Reep have been corroborated through decades time and again – by Hughes, by Bate, by Pellerud, by Larsen, by Doucet, by Olsen et al. What tarnishes them is not the statistics, which are solid and repeatable, but their interpretation by English managers such as Bond, Bassett and Slade. The fact that Trappatoni is an adherent to the principles arrived at by the findings of Reep et al, that Perreira used a lot of the ideas in winning the World Cup with Brazil in 94, and that Germany had most of their success playing a very direct game casts a dark shadow on those who would want Reep to be banished from the history books of English football

    • Calum says:

      Thanks for the comment, I concede that you are certainly considerably more in the know than I am regarding Reep’s overall findings – although I think I’m right in saying that Brentford was his only direct involvement in a football club?

      My point, in any case, was more that by demarcating physical areas of the pitch Reep was forwarding an absolutist agenda as far as football’s relationship with space goes. I think that remains true whether his methods prove to be effective or not. Further, I think the fact that they have proved effective in certain cases does not assert their universal viability – there remain other ways of playing successful football, as Barcelona and Spain have shown.

      The case of Brazil in ’94 is interesting. I think that Perreira took advantage of Rai’s injury/loss of form to shift the focus of Brazillian football. Rai’s replacement, Mazinho, was a far more defensive and predictable player and though, of course, Brazil went on to win the World Cup in ’94 I’m not sure that the legacy has been beneficial.

      I’d be interested in hearing more!

  3. mcgie76 says:

    Thanks for commenting. Parreira is relatively well-known in coaching for having been seen with a copy of the Winning Formula by Hughes in the lead up to the 94 WC. It’s almost like a dark secret, haha. There were plenty of other reasons why Brazil won it that year, as you point out, but the influence of Direct Play and the Direct Play stats cannot be discounted.

    RE: Absolute space – by necessity of the game, space is always relative. This is due to the offside law and the players on the field. This law demarcates usable space for a team. If the opposition defense pushes up, there is more usable space behind them than if the defense sits deep. If they play flat, there is more usable space relative to if they employ a sweeper behind the defense, who changes the dimensions of the space and when and how that space can be used. Simi9larly, space is relative to the zones occupied by players – hence the need to consolidate in defense and cut out passing lanes. By the same token, the movement of players away from the ball thus creates space that didn’t formerly exist. A forward checking away and at an angle to the ball creates a pocket of space in a matter of a second that can be exploited by a team-mate – space that didn’t exist a second ago. The Dutch understood this, as did the great Liverpool side of the 70’s/80’s. This is why we coach mobility to players – so that they understand the relationship between players and space, and space and time, and tmie and good decision making.

    Re: Spain – in Euro 2008, a statistical study showed that one team played mre direct passes and long balls than any other team.

    Question – What was that team?
    Answer – Spain

    Direct Play, contrary to the disbelievers, does not equate to lack of skill. It actually better equates to an understanding of space and time, risk and reward, and options

  4. Calum says:

    Again, I protest (too much most likely).

    I don’t think that space (either philosophically, physically or on a football pitch) is wholly relative nor wholly absolute.

    You’re quite right to point out that space appears and disappears relative to players’ positions on the field. However, there remains an undeniably absolute dimension to that pitch – which is physically limited, has areas in which different rules apply and of course has the ‘danger zones’ from which goals are made and scored.

    Stoke are an excellent example of a side who interpret football this way. Take their trademark set-piece routine. This is a tactic which actually creates HUGE amounts of space on the field – since most players are in the penalty area – but Delap ignores all that fluid space in preference for the danger zone.

    Regarding Spain, is that proportionally or a pure number?

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