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.