Messi: The Master of Space

You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.
— Johan Cruyff

Football boils down to one concept: space. Create the space, occupy the space, and exploit the space. All of the tactics and formations we discuss, the technique we teach our players, and everything else we do to give us the edge in tight matches, essentially comes down to creating enough space to perform actions to score. However, in a game that places 20 field players in a space that can be as small as 30 yards, creating space and identifying that space can be one of the hardest things to do.

Luckily for us, we are privileged enough to watch one of football’s spatial experts at work every week. Pep Guardiola once said, “Messi is the player who runs the least in the Spanish League, but when he gets the ball he has a complete spatial x-ray of his surroundings. He knows where everyone is… and boom!” The current City, and former Barcelona, manager has always praised Messi for his technical abilities but on many occasions he’s said what actually makes Messi the player he is is his spatial awareness.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to watch the Argentine live, the first thing you’ll notice is how much he walks, and to the untrained eye this might come off as laziness. However, Guardiola acknowledges this aspect of his game as his most impressive quality; identifying space. He is always scanning his environment so that when he receives the ball, “BOOM”, he knows where everyone is.

Personally, having grown up and played in the U.S. youth soccer system, walking and football seem counterintuitive. As a young player, I was always told that making runs was the only way to find space. My coaches would drill into my head the idea of running off the ball with phrases like ‘pass and move’, ‘run to get open’, and ‘don’t just stand out there’. But what if standing in one place was a more efficient way of finding space?

On September 19th, Barcelona hosted Eibar when they put six past the visitors. After the match, Eibar manager José Luis Mendilibar said, “He’s (Messi) very smart, because he parks himself in places where it’s very difficult to mark him because he goes behind the outside back who’s gone into the attack, he finds all the spaces between lines, he goes behind the backs of the midfielders so it’s difficult for the backline to mark him because he’s too far away.”

Mendilibar’s tactical analysis of Messi’s movements gives us a concept that we can work from to re-evaluate our approach on creating, identifying, occupying, and exploiting space. Maybe there’s another way other than the unspecific ‘get open’.

There’s three parts to Mendilibar’s observation; the first, “he parks himself behind the outside back who’s gone into the attack…” It’s more likely that this movement was specific to this match due to the position Messi was playing and to the movements of the defender. Messi had the tactical awareness to recognize the outside backs were pushing up into the attack, thus leaving space in the back line. The outside back’s attacking positioning created possible space for Messi, and to exploit it Messi simply stayed in that space. He didn’t have to sprint, or even run there, but merely walk there. When his teammates receive the ball he’s already in space and ready to attack.

The second part of Mendilibar’s statement points out that “(Messi) finds all the spaces between lines…” Again, he doesn’t waste loads of energy getting unmarked, he just walks between lines and waits. It’s imperative to point out that he doesn’t go there and just stand but instead is always moving a few yards to either side to keep an open passing lane.

The final part of Mendilibar’s points out Messi’s awareness of positional superiority. (For a review of positional superiority check out our post on superiorities here). Mendilibar says, “ he goes behind the backs of the midfielders so it’s difficult for the backline to mark him because he’s too far away.” Messi positions himself directly behind the midfielders to avoid them marking him. Again, he does so expending minimal energy.

It’s important to mention that in order for there to be space for Messi to exploit, he needs the assistance of his teammates. In the accompanying video, you can see how on several occasions his teammates’ movements create space for Messi. There is a very clear instance when Paulinho’s positioning forces the centre back to step up leaving Messi in space to go towards goal. The play ends up in a goal. Deulofeu also makes a run towards the centre back which allows Messi to free up and occupy space.

The following video depicts clear instances of Messi’s off the ball movements and how it’s not necessary to run yourself to death in order to ‘get open’. In football, being tactically aware is more efficient than running like a chicken with its head cut off.

 
 

It’s time to start teaching our players from a cognitive starting point. We need to shift from coaching from absolutes to coaching in context. Teaching our players that sometimes they might need to run find space, but it’s possible that they are standing in the space they need to be in. As Todd Beane from TOVO Academy says, let’s teach them how to perceive, conceive, decide, and execute. I’ve used Messi’s tactical awareness as an example that sometimes the correct run is simply a few steps away. Let’s teach our players how to identify space before they ‘get open’.

As always, if you have any questions about any of the material discussed in this article you can reach me on Twitter, via our contact form, or on Facebook

If you're interested in effective team coaching, head on over to our training session section to get some ideas.

David Garcia