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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.