Isaac Stern made a living playing the violin. If you don’t know anything about classical music, you probably still know that you have to be pretty damn good to make money at it. So what does it mean that a guy who measured his paycheck in up- and down-bows claimed that music is “that little bit between each note – silence which gives the form”?
Artists refer to it as negative space, the stuff in the artwork you think you’re not supposed to focus on (Think the road behind The Scream). Call it filler or background noise, but the reality is that the subject of any painting or photograph cannot exist without a backdrop. The positive and negative are in harmony with one another. They are equally important because they are equally indispensable. But the negative space is inherently passive, and so we are inclined to ignore it – or, at least, to pay it less mind.
That same balance of positive and negative exists in soccer. The focal point of the game is the ball; it draws our attention and piques our curiosity. Everything else (the field, the crowd, the other twenty-one players) exists in the background, occupying a peripheral attention circuit in our occupied minds. Though we acknowledge the reality of the game’s context, the beingness of the environment, all we really care about is the pleated spheroid and its trajectory up and down the field. And in many ways, that’s how we learn to play the game, because in the most general terms, the key to winning a soccer game is retaining the ball (moving it up the field and putting it in the net comes later). So, with our eyes drawn toward the ball, we learn to dribble, to flick, to backheel, to roulette, and occasionally, to pass (at least when all else seems to fail), because these are the most logical things to do with it. Like an uninformed visitor to an art museum, we focus on the subject while ignoring what’s around it, although the two are inseparable. Without appreciating that fundamental connection, our efforts to improve are largely wasted.
Here’s an analogy. In billiards, the best players are familiar with a number of techniques above and beyond making head-on contact with the cue ball. This skillset includes not only one’s stance and stroke, but more sophisticated tricks ranging from applying English (left or right spin), to jumping balls, to the elusive Masse shot (in which the cue ball does an about face without ever touching a rail). There is an entire circuit of events dedicated to showcasing such bravura at the table. Yet, in a game of eight- or nine-ball, these techniques are circumstantial; they are not necessary to win a game, nor do they fundamentally guarantee success. Before any professional pool player begins to think about the ways in which s/he will contact the cue ball, s/he analyzes the geometry of the table. That is because the slate is a Cartesian plane – it contains both points (the balls) and empty space (the felt between the balls) and in order to execute the perfect shot, the player must find an ideal path within that empty space so that, after contact, the two points briefly become one, until their elastic collision pushes one point off the plane entirely and into the corner pocket.
In other words, what good is lining up the Masse shot if it’s going to dovetail for a scratch?
For many pick-up players (and a number of professionals, truth be told), this same gap in emphasis between action and awareness exists. Footballers, as individualists, tend to develop specific arrays of skills toward the end of controlling the ball – among these, first touch, shielding, and dribbling. This developmental trajectory seems to be a source of tunnel vision for a lot of players who, upon receiving the ball, limit their options to include going one-on-one with the defender or playing the most proximate pass. The game revolves around the momentum of one entity – the soccer ball – an object toward which we feel inclined to direct our attention in the most direct possible ways. This works in both our on- and off-the-ball imaginations. We obsess over the ball when we have it, cradling it near our feet, dribbling futilely before finally succumbing to a defeatist back pass; when we don’t have possession we move as close to (or far from!) the ball as possible to signify our readiness to accept the same responsibility.
In both situations, we strive for an immediate, ideal case, but it amounts to little more than lazy geometry. The biggest challenge in soccer, and one we are apt to ignore, is exploiting the relationship between points and space. It is as fundamental to the game as angles are to billiards. We take it for granted, and that means we don’t feed off the relationship nearly enough. A player like Xavi is successful precisely because he is aware at all times of the mercurial relationship between himself, the ball, and twenty-one other players. Dribbling to beat one’s marker may be an effective intermediary, but is a solution to the player-marker relationship only, and ignores the dynamics of every other player on the field. Xavi didn’t become the world’s best midfielder with guile and dexterity – he did it with vision and movement, passing to the open man when the option is available, dribbling into the open when it is not, and finding empty spaces off the ball.
It seems a bit hackneyed to employ here the Cruyff quote that appears in our colophon and inspired the blog’s name, but it’s nevertheless appropriate to this point: “What do you do those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball…That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.” The framework for soccer is the relationship between players in a bounded plane, and the game’s outcome is driven by the intricacies of movement and moments of interface over 7000 some-odd square meters. When we treat the ball as if it is the subject of the image, by aggrandizing it and analyzing it and talking about its aesthetic value or lack thereof, we treat it as if it is different from any other point on the plane, although frankly, it is not.
Composer John Cage believed his most important work was 4’33”, a piece for any instrument in which the performer is instructed not to play anything, but to sit in silence. For the listener, whether s/he expected it or not, the performance is comprised of the ambient music s/he may not have heard if an instrument were actually playing. Cage (we can talk about his artistic merit another time) seemingly wrote the piece so that the negative space could displace the positive, and those imperceptible noises (the shuffling of feet, an audience member’s cough) could come to the foreground.
It’s soccer without a ball.