Introducing space space space

John Muller • 6 min read
Introducing space space space

A goal, a mission statement, and a letter about making soccer make sense.

We’re going to officially launch a newsletter here in a minute, but first I want to talk about a goal. It’s the first one from the famous 5-0 Clásico, the goal where Xavi flips an Iniesta throughball up over his own shoulder with a backheel—wait WHAT how—and casually volleys it over Iker Casillas, who throws up his arms to the linesman in a gesture that reads less as an offside appeal than a simple bro are you seeing this shit?!!?

Xavi's goal sequence starts at 8:54 on the game clock (13:31 in the video).

Highlights don’t do this goal justice. Where would they start? You could show a million slow mo angles on Xavi’s technique in front of goal and no one outside the Spanish capital would complain, but that wouldn’t really explain what a guy who scored three league goals in 2010/11 was doing there in the first place. You could rewind to Messi dropping into midfield to drag the defense out of shape, opening the channel Xavi would finish in. For my money, though, the key to the move is Xavi’s signature turn in the center circle at the start of the buildup. He’s already through the first line of pressure, he’s got options in front of him, but instead of hurrying the attack forward he wheels around for a panoramic view and reroutes the whole play to the right. Without that turn, Messi never gets involved. Without that turn, the spaces where the goal develops don’t exist.

A couple months after the goal, right at the peak of maybe the greatest team that’s ever played, Xavi described his style to Sid Lowe in an interview that was practically a mission statement. “That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I'm always looking. All day, all day,” he explained, gesturing as though he were scanning the pitch. “Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realize how hard that is. Space, space, space.”

Goals? Not even in his job description. Xavi’s purpose was that unexpected turn to discover an open half of the field. Space, space, space.

There are a lot of ways to think about this sport but they’re oriented on just five things: the goal, the ball, the player, the team, and space. Conceptually and developmentally those five tend to come in that order, a pyramid we scramble our way up (or don’t), like Maslow’s hierarchy but for soccer. I’ve always thought one of the tragedies of Xavi’s career, if a guy who singlehandedly kept the global trophymaking industry afloat could experience tragedy, was that it came too early, at a time out of step with his space obsession. Blame analytics, I guess.

“Analytics” meant something different to most soccer fans a decade ago, of course. In those early days of Opta numbers popping up on World Cup broadcasts and WhoScored tables in our browser tabs we were starting to move past goal-oriented stats (i.e. goals themselves, which plenty of people will still noisily inform you are the only stat that matters, and assists, which FIFA had only started counting in 1994) but got stuck on ball- and player-oriented stuff. We couldn’t help it. All we had—all most of us still have—was event data about what happened on the ball, usually aggregated at the game or season level. Anyone could see that Barcelona was special, but we didn’t really have the tools to quantify how or why. We talked about possession percentages until you wanted to puke. We scrutinized Xavi’s pass counts and completion rates like they were what made him great. Space, the thing he actually cared about, was invisible.

The fact that space has always been important in tactical thought—how could it not be?—gave rise for a while to a supposed rivalry between tactics and analytics, as though you could solve soccer by scribbling some arrows on a whiteboard or copy-pasting an Excel formula but might spontaneously burst into flames if you tried both. And yet even among coaches, the ascent of juego de posición as a buzzword, if it means anything at all, means a shift from team-oriented to space-oriented thinking. Xavi just missed that trend, too.

I remember the morning I realized soccer analysis had entered its space age. On February 17, 2018, almost exactly seven years after Xavi’s interview, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference published that year’s papers. One of the soccer entries was by William Spearman, a former CERN physicist who would soon be hired by Liverpool. Another was coauthored by the Barcelona data scientist Javier Fernandez. Both papers dealt with “pitch control,” using tracking data to model which players could do useful stuff in which patches of grass at any given moment. The nerds were looking for space.

A still from a video illustrating Fernandez and Bornn's pitch control model.

It’s fair to say 2020 has been a less than stellar year in every other possible way, but it’s actually a great time for soccer analysis. Most folks doing public data analytics still don’t have the tracking data they’d need to catch up with the best club and academic work, but thanks to the outstanding Friends of Tracking initiative and possession value models like VAEP and goals added, there’s been a wave of cool new stuff that captures more of the game than ever before. On the tactics side, old favorites like the German theory site Spielverlagerung and the writer Michael Cox, now at The Athletic, along with newer voices like the crew at Between the Posts and Joe Lowery, have pushed the conversation way beyond numbered formations and position stereotypes. Even highlight videos have gotten more sophisticated thanks to Wyscout and InStat and the occasional off-ball player compilation. All the ways that we think and talk and obsess about the game feel, to me at least, like they’re converging on attention to space.

Which brings us, finally, to the newsletter.

Ahem.

Welcome to the official launch of space space space! Officially, this project is about “making soccer make sense” or “what makes the world’s best soccer teams tick,” taglines broad enough to include pretty much anything soccer-related that looks interesting. Unofficially, though, it’s about the space race. I don’t have the coaching or technical education to be much of an authority on tactics or analytics, but I do have an abiding interest in how they can come together to help us understand soccer, and lately it’s seemed like the smartest people in and around the game are headed toward some kind of final frontier. Let’s tag along, shall we? Space space space is about appreciating teams that play really good soccer, but it’s also about trying to figure out what good soccer even means and how we know it.

Like I told readers yesterday, the format will be a “letter” (there’s no real news here except what’s going on in this week’s games) every Tuesday and Friday. The letters will look a lot like the back catalog you can check out from last month’s Champions League soft launch. Some of them, probably on Fridays, will be just for paid members; some will be free to read as long as you’re on the email list; and others will be public so that people can get a feel for space space space before typing their email address in anywhere. I know that’s more complicated than it should be, but this is how the newsletter business works, and the newsletter business is what allows space space space—as well as some of my favorite soccer writing like Ryan O’Hanlon’s No Grass in the Clouds, Mark Thompson’s Get Goalside!, Adam Snavely’s Dead Ball Daily, Grace Robertson’s Grace on Football, and Tiotal Football’s Absolute Unit—to exist.

So sign up for the email list if this sounds like something you’ll be into. Become a paid member if it sounds like something you’ll be very into. Tell friends, tell followers, get the weird logo symbol tattooed on your neck, whatever—we can keep this thing going as long as it finds readers to sustain it. As for me, I’m just looking for space to write about soccer. All day, all day. ❧

Further reading:


Image: NASA, Enhanced Hubble Image of Comet ISON

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