I always like the idea that Lionel Messi is such a good player that he creates more space by standing still than other players do running around. Space is a premium on the football pitch as it is, so being able to manufacture more space is a great skill to have. I should clarify, space in important areas of the pitch is a premium. There is actually lots of space on the pitch, it’s just that the majority of it isn’t contested as is considered unimportant. Exactly where these important areas are is up for debate, but generally accepted is that the areas close to each goal are more important than others. Being able to manufacture space in these important areas of the pitch is a great skill to have, and one that ultimately determines how well a player and team will perform.
This is the first part of what will likely be a few entries on my thoughts about Space and Structure’s importance in football.
Football is a simple game; the opposition players make it complicated. Putting the small round thing in the large rectangular white thing is a pretty simple concept, and is easy to do when there are no other players trying to stop you. For example, it’s much easier to score an open goal than it is to score in the resulting play from your own goal kick. Aside from the distance, the main obstruction is other players actively preventing your progress up the field towards their goal.
Denying the opposition comfortable possession in important areas of the pitch is a desirable feature of a well working defensive system, whilst gaining comfortable possession in important areas of the pitch is desirable when attacking. Whole styles of play are designed and implemented with both of these dimensions in mind.
- Guardiola’s Barcelona used quick, short passing to probe and pull a defence out of shape before exploiting the available space to create high probability goal scoring chances.
- Simeone’s Atlético Madrid employ a disciplined low block where defenders deny space and cover each other, whilst not over extending.
These are two opposite extremes of the same coin, both systems have an established structure which maintain control over the space in important areas of the pitch.
Guardiola’s Barcelona worked so well for many reasons, but partly because they were able to consistently pull defenders out of position and distort the structure that the defending team had employed. Once the structure was out of shape, it became much easier to manufacture space where they wanted and create goal scoring opportunities.
Simeone’s Atlético Madrid consistently denied goal scoring opportunities partly due to their individual and structural discipline. They maintain their structure and ensure contingency plans are available, such as double teams and covering defenders, and effective when required.
It’s clear that managing and controlling space in important areas of the pitch is crucial both with and without the ball. The best attacking teams seem to make defensive efforts obsolete, whilst the best attacking teams make defending look so simple. Quantifying contributions to attacking play is a more well established due to individual measurements such as shots, goals, assists and now also ‘Expected’ metrics. This is since scoring goals has been considered an individual achievement and readily quantified by how many goals a player scores themselves. Defensive contributions are harder to quantify and much more nuanced. There are individual metrics such as blocks, tackles and interceptions, however these don’t always correlate with reduced goals conceded. Weaker teams are put in positions to perform these actions more often than stronger teams, but they also concede more goals.
As individual contributions are less important defensively, it seems more reasonable to seek to quantify defensive efforts using team-oriented measurements. In different phases of the game, teams will adopt a shape to their team which reflects both what they want to protect and how they want to protect it. For example, a team may retreat and allow the opposition to carry the ball out of their half but as soon as they enter their own half, they will immediately apply pressure. This suggests that they see the important areas of the pitch in their own half and want to protect this area. Whilst a team may adopt a high press and immediately press the opposition in their half, with the aim of winning the ball back and countering nearer to the opposition’s goal. This approach suggests that their important areas of the pitch cover a much larger area of the field, with a lower emphasis on their own half. These examples are specific to a point in time and will evolve as the ball moves around the pitch, constant re-evaluation of important areas and reactions between teams are the decisions that individual players must make throughout a match.
Without the ball, a team will want to ensure that their intended structure is maintained. With the ball, a team will try to break the defensive team’s structure. The assumption here is that it’s much harder to create goal scoring opportunities when attacking a defence’s intended structure than once you’ve forced them out of their comfort zone. Great attacking teams can force defences out of their structure more easily, usually by precise ball movement or individual skill moving the ball past opponents. Great defensive teams avoid being disrupted from their structure, usually by being comfortable in a wide array of structures and so effectively always in an adequate defensive shape or forcing the attacking team to play by their rules.
It seems obvious that the team which controls the space on the pitch will control the game. When watching football matches, we can get an intuition about how each team sets up and how that affects the flow of a game, however it’s hard to quantify that intuition. It’s hard to determine exactly what make Barcelona and Atletico Madrid’s use of structure and space so good as they appear to have completely opposite styles. In the proceeding parts to my thoughts on structure and space, I’ll take a look at potential ways to quantify or measure their use of space and structure.