For a game in which mastery of the ball is ostensibly the main focus – the very name ‘football’ suggests as much, after all – it has always been striking just how simple many important goals appear to be.
A tap-in here, a defensive error there, often a set-piece or an unfussy slide-rule finish. For all that spectacular important goals are rightly venerated, they are venerated precisely because, more often than not, important goals do not display any great technical mastery. So simple do many of them seem, in fact, that one is almost tempted to dismiss the other 89 minutes of charging about as little more than a particularly aggressive form of window-dressing – all pomp and bombast from 22 entertainers who, let’s face it, are routinely made to wear kit not unlike that worn by medieval jesters. The ‘acting’ ability of footballers has never been in doubt, after all.
Yet, as much as it would be weirdly amusing to discover that the charging about is just a ruse, there is a method behind the madness. This method is – to put it very crudely – the exploitation of space as effectively as possible. Hence, important goals generally look simple because the players who score them have, if only for a moment, found the space in which to operate. For all that football is, well, ‘foot’-‘ball’, it is essentially far more chess-like in nature than its name testifies to. Which is why, as much as the historic resonance of Frank Lampard’s late equalizer against Chelsea has been rightly emphasized, his goal also stands out because it epitomizes Lampard’s career-long mastery of football as chess. For a player not blessed with great natural technique, and as he himself has admitted, never having been born “a Lionel Messi”, Lampard’s appreciation of space prevails. Manifested supremely in the timing of his runs, it is itself a timely reminder of football’s final frontier. In this rarefied age of footballing athleticism, those players who can both find and exploit space are, ultimately, the ones who will reach the moon.
Against Chelsea on 21 September, the spin, the sudden burst of pace and then the check to take James Milner’s lay-off in his stride all exemplified Lampard’s career long space odyssey. The look of anguish on former team-mate John Terry’s face as the ball slipped past Courtois suggested he knew as much would happen all along. Most striking of all, however, was the fact that, when Lampard made his quick burst, he was already in considerable space. His sprint was, therefore, not simply an attempt to escape a marker; rather, it was an attempt to find space within space, to narrow the margins even further. In this way, it is easy to think of Lampard as a sort of human ‘subtle knife’, able to carve space from space itself, much like the eponymous knife in Philip Pullman’s fantasy novel. Indeed, conceiving the exploitation of space as a sort of ‘fantasy’ quality already seems firmly established in footballing parlance. The phrases “ghosts into space”; “glides into space”; “conjures a chance out of nowhere”; are all employed routinely by commentators, and all convey a sense of the sheer esteem in which players who can exploit space are held.
By the very same token, the meteoric rise in the last four years of Thomas Mueller is no coincidence – from a player whom Diego Maradona mistook for a ball-boy in 2010, to one of the world’s most feared players in 2014. Since well before his rise to superstardom, Mueller has considered himself not a forward, not a midfielder, nor even an ‘attacker’ in the loosest sense of the term. Rather, he describes his playing position as a “raumdeuter”, or, “interpreter of space”, which in a sense is to ascribe himself no position at all. Simply put, wherever there is space in the opposing half, Mueller self-consciously seeks to exploit it. What exactly this self-styled “interpretation of space” involves, though, is – to extend the ‘fantasy’ analogy even further – something quite mysterious, inexplicable even. Which is presumably why players such as Mueller and Lampard, conspicuous by their lack of any outstanding technical or even physical attributes, nevertheless inspire such fear, and such awe. Not forgetting, too, it is presumably why they both score so many goals.
Many would argue that humanity’s final frontier, space, was conquered with the moon landings in 1969. Yet Frank Lampard, in securing an equalizer against Chelsea when Mourinho’s bus seemed firmly parked in front of City’s 10 men, showed space to be the only way forward as far as football is concerned. There is nowhere else to look when up against players whose athleticism effectively reduces the pitch to little more than a back garden. Indeed, perhaps unlike outer space, it is probably fair to say footballing space has never seemed more mysterious or awesome. As for players who can exploit footballing space? They’ve never seemed more awesome.