Space recognition in Association Football

By John Cartwright

No, this isn’t about viewing the ‘glorious Heaven’ above us, it’s about recognising space around us when playing the game of football.

Recognition of space in all aspects of one’s life is absolutely vital. Without space recognition, living would be an impossible task; we would have no appreciation of time and distance, speeds-slow or fast to enter or exit or to ignore the space all together. Decisions on spaces in our everyday lives is something we do almost automatically—almost without really thinking too much about it. A great example of space recognition is how, on a crowded pavement, it is unusual to see people collide with each other; there is this seemingly ‘automatic’ perception of space, speed and timing that’s required as people move in opposite directions to one another. This ‘natural’ space awareness displayed by ordinary people must transfer into playing football. However, there is a difference when playing a competitive sport and walking along a pavement – the game of football requires ‘all-round vision’.


So often I see players receive the ball and turn into an opponent behind them, or on receiving the ball, pass it backwards because they don’t know how much space they have around them to allow them to turn with the ball. This problem occurs because the receiving player has not positioned him/herself on the ‘half-turn’. As I have mentioned in my book ‘FOOTBALL FOR THE BRAVE’, the difference in playing ability by being able to adjust to ‘half-turn’ positions prior to receiving the ball can open the opportunity for greatness. By achieving a receiving position that provides as much vision of the field of play as possible is a vital playing priority for coaches and it should be introduced at an early stage in the development ‘pathway’ of young players.

The ‘passion’ for possession football that has infiltrated the game tends to lack penetrative opportunities. Much of the ‘robotic’ sameness we see in the game features spells of ball possession that fails to produce a positive ending. This problem relates directly to players not appreciating spaces when they become available when they are on the ball or, when they position themselves to receive it. Consequently, turning and going forward becomes a gamble that too often is a losing bet. Possession football has, in the main, become ‘safety-first’ football – players don’t recognise spaces to penetrate and exploit nor do they have a ‘visual picture’ of turning opportunities, so a negative, simplistic playing reaction becomes the simple answer.

I love watching LIONEL MESSI, in action. When off the ball he is constantly assessing spaces in which he can receive the ball; when on the ball he scans situations for opportunities to run with the ball or, should space not be available he passes the ball simply. However, if space is available he recognises it immediately and has the confidence and ability to penetrate it with a great deal of success.


Messi, does not produce a host of tricks when on the ball. On receiving it he generally tends to move across the field at speed from right to left with the ball ‘nurtured’ with his left foot. He is rarely seen in a static position when on the ball, he uses his eyes to see spaces and his speed and control to exploit them. He moves across defenders in the main and whilst ‘en-route’ his sideways movement opens up a multitude of options for him – to decide whether to continue individually, or to bring supporting players into the game. Whichever decision he makes will be the result of his seeing spaces and to be prepared to exploit them.

For me, the development of Messi, is a superb example of how greatness can and should be developed. He has been allowed to fail but continue to try to make positive decisions on and off the ball throughout his whole playing career.  This developmental continuity has made him incredibly aware of space-time and to produce positive responses whenever possible.

I am continually told that Messi, is a one off in terms of playing talent. This may well be true, but I believe it is because of the introduction over many decades of so much ‘imposed’ coaching methods that players of his like are not being produced. From a child he saw a way of ‘winning his football battles’ on the field and he has been allowed to continue along those lines to become the greatest player the game has seen in my opinion (makes goals and he scores goals). I’m certain there are young players out there who, given the right development ‘pathway’, could reach the high playing standards we desire but fail to achieve.


34 thoughts on “Space recognition in Association Football

  1. John makes excellent pints but for as long as I can remember, playing on the hand-turn has been in the lexicon of football clubs. Perhaps not emphasized enough.

    In the robotic Charles Hughes days the need to make angles and receive in midfield , via playing through the thirds was not so important. With more possession based styles more angles, half-turns, and perhaps English players/coaches still see this as a fallback option to readily used. Certainly the best of the Europeans still played though the team. The French has a term for English football .. angleterre non-prepare… the English play the long bal without preparation…it’s a mindset so many coaches and many players STILL have and REALLY affects every country that has been influence by the dark-dark-days of the coaching scheme.

    The hardest thing is taking the Englishness out of the Englishman regards to football..many try but just can’t do it !! If that’s not fair – Take the Britishness out of the Britain…

    There’s a clip on twitter doing the rounds of a recent movement from the back by Napoli in preseason against Athletico…and even the die-hard might struggle with the insistence of playing football out from the back… But they are not an English team, and are not coached by an Englishman…hence the value system of Wenger and prehaps more importantly some success of Guardia at man City is vital.

    I have said before on here…’I wonder HOW many hand on heart Belief …if they are British or under the influence??

  2. always remember attending a coaches assoc session with an academy director doing the demo, we don’t teach players to play on the half turn, we are here to produce players for the championship not the champions league.

  3. Head turners! Xavi was always looking over his shoulder to assess proximity of opposition players and Messi,Iniesta are the same. Simple thing to coach I would have thought but you don’t see a lot of it in British players. Ball watching as well rather than scanning the pitch looking for players in/out of position. Good article

  4. Bill, I wrote a response, and then thought, ‘Nah’… I’ll let Steve Haslam reply as I’m sure he’ll have an interesting point of view.

  5. Hi all. If one watches Inesta, you will see that he mostly positions himself at an angle to the Barca. player on the ball. From these angles he is able to open up a broader vision of the field and so gives himself a much better chance to receive the ball and produce a positive outcome. He, like so many of his colleagues have had the benefit of a superb football upbringing.

  6. Hi John it’s always been apparent that Iniesta makes excellent angles and takes up excellent body positions often down the pitch, but of course Messi does, and Xavi did.

    I do think rather than constantly hammering coaches and coaching; however fair that may be, young players need to realise that self-coaching is desirable, but I suppose like with reading for many boys, it is a turn off, or something they are not aware of in English speaking countries like Britain and Ireland…the Europeans and South Americans just seem so much more educated in the way they understand football !!!

    Perhaps as people they value learning in a different way….irrespective, of this, Charles Hughes’s damage was profound, and still lingers in the minds of the ‘thick’ Brit!!! Sorry !

  7. They don’t know how to ‘self-coach’ and where’s the local small areas in which to ‘Practoce/Play as in the past?
    When was the last time young kids were seen playing football in the street? Those practice hours have gone and our football bosses have never been able replace them.

  8. I have just spent ten days in France, watching matches from Ligue 1 and Ligue 2, (the two national divisions), Academy and development teams’ matches and viewed some training. I didn’t see the leading teams like PSG and Monaco but I got a good cross-section. My impression was that there are players of good technical skill in the French game but the pace of matches is very slow, pedestrian compared to the English game. This means that the all-important transitions are done too slowly and the emphasis that coaches like Mourinho puts on this aspect of play, would mean that players coming from the French League into either the English or German game, would be in for a big culture shock. Many coaches in England talk about the intensity of the matches and the need for that intensity in training. I did not see that intensity in the matches or training in France and probably explains the reason for many French players taking some time to adapt when they first come to England. Taking the case of Pogba at Man Utd, he had the benefit of several years at Juventus before coming to the Premier League, (disregarding his previous stint as a youth player at Old Trafford), but Martial came straight from Monaco and has struggled to establish himself in the United first team.
    A number of French coaches expressed the view that England has the best young players in Europe at the moment. This belief has largely sprung from the success our various youth teams have had in tournaments this summer. But the lack of first team opportunities in the Premier League In the opinion of many who I spoke to, is what is holding back the development of these players.

    • Hi Steve. Glad to read you’ve had an interesting few days in France.
      The point you make about slower playing speed is correct but this relates to their preference to concentrate more on the acquisition of skills and developing a more in depth understanding of the game.
      We are caught in the passion and win,win playing style and although this makes us formidable opponents at the younger ages it leaves us alarmingly short of playing aspects as our players move up to senior levels of the game. We continue when maturity occurs without the full playing qualities needed. Our foreign opponents however, in the same situation are more able to combine their earlier development priorities with physical maturity as it occurs.

  9. Hi John, as you said yourself, ‘ If one watches Iniesta, you will see that he positions himself at an angle to the Barca player on the ball.’

    A young player with internet access can find a clip of Iniesta – and virtually anyone else- and ‘self-coach’. In education terms this is an exemplar and the kid will be aware of this idea.

    We as coaches just have to make them aware.

    They can re-run and re-run the clip, ad nauseum…if need be at home, find a chair, put the ball to one side, and even in a lounge or in garden -permitting- with a phone COPY the movement.

    Or practice a and watch and watch…re-run…if still not sure ask the coach.

    I don’t see a problem with this approach at all.

    The kid just needs a good pair of eyes!

    • Hi Brazil 94. Viewing a situation is fine, but unless this is followed with REALISTIC practice it will be of little significance.
      There are many important aspects that are involved in producing skills and tactical awareness in competitive sport. Unless the practical work contains a high degree of actual game requirements it is unlikely that any real improvement will occur.
      Technique, is an action without interference. Skill is an action with interference. Football is a game of interference so practice should coincide with the requirements of the game.
      There has been too much emphasis on unrealistic practice and classroom teaching. The balance between unrealistic and realistic practice must return in favour of …….practice how you play .

  10. Kids have always wanted to copy and play like their favourite star players. But in the past, having seen Matthews, Puskas or Pele in action, then the young player endeavoured to reproduce those skills in street games. So opposition and space constraints were present with immediate effect. There is plenty of opportunity to study the skills of today’s stars on the internet and DVD but, as John says, realistic practice is the key. Limited space mini pitches on every estate and suburb should be produced and get children playing in these kind of areas again. There are some around but they should be close at hand in all urban areas.
    Unless I’m mistaken, many of the traditional areas for producing talented young players seem to have dried up in recent years. I am thinking of the east end of Glasgow, the north east of England, Merseyside, Birmingham and east London. These and other densely populated areas need to provide numerous mini pitches within easy reach of every child who wants to play. With so much money circulating around at the top end of the game then some should be put aside to give British football a future.

  11. Hi Steve. I have mentioned the points you make many times over the past decade in numerous ‘blogs, about he need for small sites, of little or no use for housing etc. to be made available by county councils for use by local kids—all near enough for families to keep an eye open on their children. There must be thousands of such sites all over the country—the Norwegians have them; they are about 15mx15m with a surrounding wall about 10 foot high, concrete flooring, an entry/exit door and one light for evening use set up on a wall above the playing area. Simple structure, maintenance limited and open at all hours for kids to play all types of ball sports. —- a modern answer to lost ‘street football’.
    But we can’t think in basic terms when it comes to our national sport, we have to build expensive ‘Hubs’ that are not cheap to use, maintain and are not available for local ‘kick-about use’. —- in fact, a waste of time and money….. BUT THEY LOOK NICE!! ……..will we ever learn?

    • I have heard now in inner London that street football in council estates has come back and numerous players have been spotted.

  12. Last season I noticed how central defender, Harry Maguire, so often broke forward into midfield for the club he was with then, Hull City. Having been transferred to Leicester City during the summer, he is still playing this way and, judging from TV highlights last Saturday in the match against Brighton, from his defensive role he even goes all the way into the opponents’ penalty area on several occasions.
    I believe that this play from a defender Is to be commended, encouraged and, above all, coached. We have been developing purely defensive ‘stoppers’ for far too long and, apart from John Stones, Maguire is the first young English player to show he has more in his locker than just defensive qualities. I wondered if he had a similar background to Rio Ferdinand, i.e. a player who came into the Academy system as a forward, gradually moved further back in positioning but always liked to display his attacking ability. However, after looking into Maguire’s background, it seems he has been a defender ever since entering pro football as a youth player and so it would appear that his abilities were noticed and developed at one of his clubs, (he started as a youth player at Sheffield United).
    I always felt that Ferdinand’s attacking skills were not fully exploited as his professional career progressed. Let’s hope that Maguire is developed to his full potential.

  13. Steve, they weren’t and despite his medals…in his heart of hearts surely he has a career of regrets…because you can never go back!!

  14. Hi all. I saw Rio play up front for West Ham in an FA Youth Game. He looked extremely comfortable on the ball and his physique allowed him to dominate on the floor and in the air. It was so unusual that he was considered for a defensive position. I was expecting him to be more adventurous and break forward from the back but he never really added this part of the game to his playing style enough ……. safety first i expect. We don’t seem to develop the all-round player in central def. positions which is a shame for they could contribute far more than they do at present.
    I have always encouraged my back players to be ‘starters ‘ of attacking play as well as ‘stoppers’. They have excellent opportunities to overload situations and be far more influential in games than we see at present. For this to happen more frequently, there is the factor of ….who rotates in to the empty position if the back player leaves the gap? We don’t also seem to produce players who are able to fill the gaps …it’s called rotational play. What replaces individual cleverness and thrilling, combined team- play is just simple, boring football played by simple, boring footballers.

  15. Even after just three matches of the new season, rumours are appearing in the press that certain managers/coaches are in danger of the sack. Add to this the startling announcement from Chelsea boss, Antonio Conte, that he is short of players. Yes, so short of players are Chelsea that they have about 36 players, many young, talented and products of their Academy, out on loan at other clubs, many in Europe!!
    These factors make it difficult to properly develop young English, or British, talent. I have been impressed with West Ham’s 18 year old central midfield player, Declan Rice, especially at Cheltenham last week in a televised League Cup tie. He is a young player in the club’s best traditions – good passer of the ball, reads the game well and shows vision. Apparently he had also played well in the two League games prior to the League Cup tie. But at Newcastle last Saturday, in a match in which West Ham were extremely poor, he was caught in possession by Newcastle’s pressing and a goal resulted and West Ham never recovered, Newcastle going on to win comfortably.
    Rice was substituted at half time and West Ham manager, Slaven Bilic, is one of those where the bookies are evidently taking bets on the possibility of him being the first manager to lose his job, West Ham having lost all three league games. When West Ham play their next match after the international break, Bilic will face the dilemma of whether to stay faithful with Rice, or leave him out in favour of a more experienced player.
    I believe that you have to accept that young players will make mistakes, but you have to live with this and keep them in the team if their overall performances continue to be good and show steady improvement. The club owners have to back the manager up here and show that they are behind him in this approach,but these days there are few who will back the manager to pursue such a policy. Bilic wants to re-engage with West Ham’s former reputation as a developer of the best of English talent but he needs assurance of those above him that he can continue this development without the fear of the sack.

    • Hi Steve. I admire your feelings about young talent being given a chance. That’s all they’re likely to get —one chance, for if they don’t perform or make vital errors they will be replaced. Money, not compassion controls selection and losing isn’t acceptable—-bye, bye the production of home-bred youngsters!

  16. It was surprising to see the problems that Italy had in their televised World Cup Qualifier on Saturday night against Spain. The studio pundits working for ITV4, Tim Sherwood and Leon Osman, and the co-commentator, Danny Higginbotham, drew attention to the problems the Italian defenders had against a team that did not play with a orthodox striker who stands up against a centre half and therefore easily marked. Instead they had players breaking into spaces with runs from midfield. In addition, Italy played just two in the central midfield positions and so were hopelessly outnumbered by the Spanish.
    Italy have always been regarded as the masters of defence and defensive tactics, but their approach was naïve to say the least. in fact, this is the kind of defensive ineptitude that England are so often criticised for. The Italian coach, Ventura, never did anything to change his tactics and get Italy back into the game. It’s true that Chiellini was missing from their line up in defence, but they had enough players from leading clubs who you would have thought must have been faced with similar problems before.
    It was also disappointing that the pundits, whilst identifying the problems which Italy were faced with and could not solve, did not properly analyse the precise solutions which were required. If the TV companies are really serious in offering a tactical breakdown of matches then more detailed analysis is required.

  17. Hi all. Last night England beat a team (Slovakia) who displayed the problem of over-possession. Slovakia, in my opinion were outstanding with regards their passing quality —– the best in tight situations and exceptional with regards to their passing speeds. All of this however, was wasted because they were unable to pass the ball peneratively. England produced the bettter all-round display and deserved their victory.

  18. Hi all. The game against Slovakia was a perfect example of what I have been saying about the importance of having a variable game-style. The pass-pass-pass mania without penetration— both of the ball and by offensive players is NOT the way to success……..look at Holland’s demise!

  19. Hi John…Yes, it’s very sad to see the decline of Dutch football, especially when you consider all that they have given to the game with their outstanding club sides, their National Team and their innovative and imaginative tactics during the last fifty years. I think that they have diverted from the path laid out by Rinus Michels and Johann Cruyff. Like a number of English teams, they have copied the successful teams in the international game without considering whether it exploits their natural strengths and technical skills. When teams like Ajax and their National Team were at their best, they retained possession brilliantly but cut open opposition defences with penetrative passes and incisive running with the ball.
    Germany never forget the importance of varying the game styles, so they keep on producing brilliant attacking players. I like the Leipzig team who have emerged as a serious threat to Bayern Munich’s domination in the Bundesliga. The striker, Werner, is a typical German forward with strength, pace and intelligent running to back up his goal scoring skills in and around the penalty area. Germany seem to have been producing forwards like that for years, going right back to the days of Uwe Seeler and then Muller, Rummenige, Hrubesch, Allofs, Klinsman and a whole host of others. With such an array of strikers present in almost every generation of players, the Germans make sure that the attacking principle of penetration is always at the forefront of their game.

  20. Hi Steve. Germany’s playing consistency relates directly to their vision of the game. This vision pervades their domestic football and follows into their international game. Their beliefs on how THEY should play and WIN contain the use of German culture — a physical attitude, along with skillful individualism that is able to combine to achieve successful team-play. They have continued with this ‘playing-style’ for decades and have had little need to make unnecessary changes to their approach to the game.We on the other hand, seem unable to construct a successful English game-style and lurch into ‘copy-catting’ playing methods of other nations……..Brazil…..Holland…..French…..Spain, but, surprisingly, not Germany. I wonder why?

  21. There was a nostalgic photograph and article in the Daily Mail last week. The photograph showed West Ham players training under the direction of Ron Greenwood in the car park outside the old Upton Park ground in 1963. This was the winter of the big freeze, when matches were postponed week after week all over the country. West Ham’s training ground, like all grassed areas, was covered in thick snow but Ron Greenwood got the car park cleared and you can clearly recognise Moore, Hurst and other first team players of the time, training on the concrete surface. It is hard to believe in this day and age, but the snow clearing was actually done by the players themselves! One of the youth players at the time was Harry Redknapp and he says:
    “I remember the terrible winter of 1963, clearing the snow off the forecourt at Upton Park with the rest of the players so we could train. Job done, we would play on it for two hours in silly little plimsolls, sliding everywhere. These days, the medical staff would have conniptions about the damage you could do to your calf muscles – but nobody knew, or cared about that side of the game then. Even Bobby Moore trained on the forecourt at Upton Park.”
    But the quote from Harry Redknapp which I really liked was:
    “As apprentice professionals we had to do the chores. We trained in the morning and then returned to Upton Park to get the first team kit ready for the next day. The laundry would stink with sweat or be caked in dry mud, but you had to make sure it was washed, dried and rolled up ready for use. After that, we were free, but we were all young and football mad and would often go on to the forecourt for a kickabout. That was the beginning of what would be an outstanding West Ham youth team, although Ernie Gregory, the first team coach, saw us as more of a nuisance. He came out one day and moved us on, told us he had to get home, and we should go home, too. When Ron Greenwood found out he gave Ernie the most frightful bollocking. ‘As long as they want to stay out there, as long as they are doing something useful, as long as they are playing football, we’ll stay here with them as long as they want,’ he said. He loved the fact that all his apprentices just wanted to play. We weren’t going off down the snooker hall or into the bookmakers, so what was wrong with that? He was a proper football man, Ron.”
    I think that Ron Greenwood’s reaction to Ernie Gregory’s admonishment of the youth players for playing on after the end of the official training, (I must point out that Ernie was a massively loyal West Ham servant giving practically a lifetime to the club), speaks volumes of his attitude to coaching and developing young players and is probably even more relevant today than it ever has been. As coaches, it is vital that we always remember that we are here for the benefit of the players and not the other way round. The players must be encouraged to practise and play at every available moment and not just in the allotted times that a school, club or academy provides.

  22. The damage being done to the game by the premature sacking of managers is incalculable, especially in England. Frank De Boer went into the job at Crystal Palace and part of his brief was to change their playing style. No matter how bad their results, he needed time. To lose his job after just three or four matches was ridiculous. The timing was also crazy because they had just lost at Burnley with a goal given away by a hopeless back pass and proceeded to have the lion’s share of the ball and territorial possession but just could not score. Sometimes there are things that happen in a match which just cannot be legislated for. The people who appointed De Boer were the same ones who sacked him. They wanted a different style and identity and so the least they should give the new man is a reasonable amount of time to show he can do the job.
    If England have another World Cup flop in Russia next summer, then we shall hear all the old reasons being put forward about our game lagging light years behind that of the best foreign teams. Frank De Boer had a stellar playing career and has coached in Holland and Italy. His methods and knowledge should have been respected and studied by those who worked with him at Palace. When they understood his objectives and learned his methods then they could continue his work whenever he left the club. But we waste these opportunities in this country because now, by all accounts, Palace have reverted back to type and gone back to playing the way “they understand”. But their results have so far not improved and so is it not possible that the players needed longer with De Boer and should have shown greater application to absorb his methods?
    Meanwhile in France, the highly acclaimed Argentinian coach, Marcelo Bielsa, is in charge this season at Lille. Their results are little better than those of Palace and they hover on the edge of the relegation zone. But everyone is keeping their nerve and not putting undue pressure on Bielsa by threatening the sack. Additionally, Bielsa has promoted a number of young players from the youth squad and is pleased with their progress. He explains that these young players will pick up his ideas more quickly than many of the experienced players he worked with when he arrived because their minds are more open and less regimented. At the very least the young players, the club’s future whoever is in charge, will greatly benefit from being coached by a man who is acclaimed as being one of the best coaches in the world.
    So French football benefits from having a coach of Bielsa’s quality in its League whilst, because of our impatience, we wasted the chance of learning from De Boer.

  23. England have made a good start in the Under 17 World Cup, currently being played in India, with two wins in their first two games. Their 4-0 win against Chile in the opening game was followed with a 3-2 win over Mexico. England nearly slipped up in this game though, because they were coasting at 3-0 and then made a substitution which seemed to unbalance their organisation and Mexico got right back into the game in the last twenty minutes, pulling back two goals. Lainez’s individualism on the left of the Mexican attack gave England’s defence a lot of trouble and scored both goals.
    It was a familiar scenario to what we have seen many times in the past because though England clearly have talent in this squad, that game-changing quality that Lainez provided still seems an elusive quality among our players. Sancho and Foden displayed the ability to make it at the top level but I’m not sure r they have the Mexican’s individualism.

  24. It may have escaped many peoples’ notice but we have just had the 10th anniversary of England’s crucial Euro 2008 qualifier at Wembley against Croatia, played in the month of October 2007. It may be recalled that England were beaten 2-3 on what is a rarity in top flight football these days – a muddy pitch. England needed a point to qualify for the finals in Austria/Switzerland and after trailing 0-2 they came back to two-all. But Croatia scored the winner in the closing stages and it was they who progressed into the following year’s tournament and England stayed at home. Amid a storm of criticism over his team selection and tactics, manager Steve McLaren was sacked.
    Two things surrounding this match stand out in my memory. First, there was the performance of a largely unknown Luca Modric for Croatia, by far the smallest player on the pitch, making light of the conditions and skipping over the puddles at the beginning of what has been a fine career. Secondly, this was the last time that England have failed to qualify for the finals of either the Euros or the World Cup. But this is no cause for rejoicing because it was the last time that England were placed in a qualifying group which produced matches which were actually worth watching. Besides Croatia, England also faced Russia and Israel and the matches at Wembley for once were worth the high price of admission. Since then England have been placed in groups with teams very largely from the international wilderness and their continual qualification has resulted in monotonous, early exits from the tournaments themselves. It would be better for both the paying public and our attempts to develop players and coaches of international standard, if we were again placed in qualifying groups of a similar standard as that of ten years ago.
    Unfortunately, the FA would most definitely not agree because of the financial considerations around qualifying for these tournaments, no matter how bad the results and performances prove to be when we do qualify.

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