Sports Analysis: Creating space the name of the game
Like top musicians, great sportsmen know the score when it comes to that key area
Dennis Bergkamp: found the Italian attitude to space frustrating in his years at Inter Milan. Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Sport and music are easy bedfellows. Theme tunes to Match of the Day, BBC Test Match Special and The Sunday Game are etched in the collective memory, associated with dark winter nights or warm, sunny garden days.
The joy of hearing that brass band kick in at 5pm on Saturday via crackly BBC radio medium wave, signalling the imminent arrival of James Alexander Gordon’s voice to read out the day’s football results. Sweet agony, as a sudden change in his cadence while getting to your team’s scoreline might signal joy, or doom.
Music can be a great aid for sportspeople, both in terms of preparation and motivation. One might also consider the possibility of music as non-pharmaceutical performance aid.
The “central governor” theory, first put forward by Tim Noakes, promotes the concept of physical exhaustion not being down to physiological tiredness alone but also about the control of mental fatigue.
What if you can distract the brain from sending signals to the nervous system to say that the body is feeling tired? More than one earbud-wearing road runner might attest to the value of getting lost in music as the pavement is pounded underfoot.
The problem with space is that in these analytical, data-gathering sporting times it can be hard to measure.
It requires measurement of not only geography but time, two things not always available to analysts in sport when, due to constraints of technology, people or interest, the compilation of on-the-ball actions is often the first port of call.
Although, with the multi-camera data supplied for leagues like the NBA (a sport that places particular importance on spacing) and the Bundesliga that is changing.
In terms of creating scoring opportunities, the ability to find space is perhaps the primary goal in all team sports. In his book with David Winner, Stillness and Speed, Dutch footballer Dennis Bergkamp said that when he played at Inter Milan he found the Italian attitude to space frustrating.
“When I think of Cruyff what he always says is “it’s about distances”. It’s the space between players. Sacchi used to train with ropes, and shadow playing, with eleven against zero. We did that with Arsene as well. It’s all about distances. So you learn that if your left-winger moves to make an attack, your right-back must also move . . It was all based on keeping the distances correct . . . . At Inter I always thought, “I’m on an island here!””
This rigorous attitude to fixed spacing was particularly interesting as part of the genius of Bergkamp – apart from his exquisite touch and technique – was his ability to operate between those same rigid lines. To take full advantage of the rules, to break them, one must know them absolutely.
Violinist Isaac Stern described music as what happens between the notes. He was not alone in holding this view, with pianist Artur Schabel perhaps putting it best: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that’s where the art resides!”
Eric Cantona might agree; the artistic French footballer often drifted into places that the orthodox defender of the time would not expect. In GAA, perhaps the same is true of the deep-lying role of Donegal’s Michael Murphy. Space is all, as anyone viewing the spread of the blanket defence through Gaelic games can attest.
At least initially, rugby union has now become a game of anti-space with ball carriers coached to deliberately run at defenders in order to suck as many opponents in as possible. Defences know this and in some circumstances don’t engage at all after the tackle is made, instead preferring to ignore the ball and concentrate on depriving the attacking team of that more prized asset: space.
The ability of some teams to quickly recognise space, whether in a box five yards square on the touchline or half a field away, and then exploit it is one of the key differences in how rugby in the two hemispheres is played.
As with so many things from far-off countries and cultures, there is neither a direct nor wholly adequate translation.
But a good summary might be to think of negative space, the emptiness that exists inside and around a placed object, rather than solely of the object itself. Space between things, to be valued and exploited.
Perhaps that’s what the great exponents of space, both in music and sport, can appreciate more than most.