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Time and space: Football's critical optical illusion

Saturday 8th July 2017
To the naked eye, an empty football pitch appears massive. It doesn't look much smaller when occupied by 22 men battling for control over a single ball. Yet, there may be less time and space available to a footballer than any other athlete competing in an enclosed space in a team sport. The optical illusion that there is time and space is the magic behind the Great and Powerful Oz's football curtain.
To begin, let's deal with two minor semantics. First, I am not a bad man. Second, a football pitch can be the largest enclosed playing surfaces on which two groups of men play a game with one ball (or similar object). Dimensions vary from venue to venue but are roughly equal to its main rival, a rugby pitch, in area. If there is slightly more width on a rugby pitch, that breadth is compensated by there being two more players per team in rugby league, four more in union.

The most common Premier League pitch size is 7,140 square metres, slightly less than the 8,400sq m RugbyHow.com lists as typical for its game, although both the KCom Stadium (8,436sq m) and Old Trafford (7,140) are used for both sports. Consensus holds rugby union's rules and larger number of players make it the more challenging version of international football played with one's hands. Yet, despite its more expansive pitch, the math suggests rugby union has much less space per player (280sq m) than football (324.5sq m).

On the other hand, you can score a try by carrying the ball across the goal line anywhere between the two sidelines, roughly 70m apart. Plus, there is the secondary option to kick the ball through the infinitely vertical plane between the two uprights. In football, scoring can be accomplished in just one manner. The ball must be delivered into a much smaller, finite rectangular area.
Oh, and you can't use your hands. Nestling a rugby ball in the crook of one arm in order to run with it takes a fraction of a second. Sliding it back into one's hands to lateral to a teammate can be accomplished without breaking stride. Conversely, settling a football at one's feet, to either run or shoot, freezes a player in time for an agonisingly long instant, allowing defenders to close.

Combining a smaller target area with the need to use one's feet to both run and control the ball limits time and space in football more so than it appears at first glance. To score, therefore, you'd expect a player would need to be especially precise.

Apparently not. Zonal Marking's Michael Cox, appropriately enough on the Fourth of July, wrote for ESPNFC that striking the ball perfectly isn't the best way to inspire fans behind the goal to set off their fireworks.

When ideally struck, the ball's flight is more direct and accurate. Limits on time and space, however, do not allow a striker the luxury to aim for the upper or lower ninety to either side at will. He or she must rush to get the shot away, instinctively aiming for the middle of goal. Too often, a well-hit ball settles right into the goalkeeper's arms.

Instead, coaches are teaching the best finishers to hit the ball slightly off the sweet spot to cause it to curl and dip unpredictably. Such movement will make the ball curve away from the keeper. Miss the sweet spot too much, though, the ball soars embarrassingly wide or over the bar. From a free kick, it may also smash into the wall. From a skilled foot, however, it often enough bends just inside the post or under the bar. Cox noted how Gareth Bale, at the Euros, was able to fool both Serbia's Matus Kozacik and England's Joe Hart with erratic movement even when the ball looked within their reach.
Knowing how difficult it is to strike a ball perfectly, it's frustrating enough to listen to pundits several times per match, game in and game out, say Ronaldo or Ibra or Sneijder or Carli Lloyd "could have hit that better." With the knowledge players are trying to miss, hearing the phrase becomes even more maddening. Most have played the game. You'd think they know what is happening.

There's another phrase you're bound to see in any article on any sport regarding any team's prospects. Lord Buckethead knows I've written it often myself. This law of sporting nature dictates scoring wins games but defending wins titles. It's true, as well. The reason for its truth is simple: defending is predicated on work ethic and determination whereas scoring demands skill and precision. The former comprise the shepherd's pie of human DNA, common staple building blocks. The latter are as rare and delicate as Kobe beef. Anyone can defend. A precious few can score.

Thus, the best coaches in every sport, if their names aren't Pep Guardiola or Steve Kerr, build their squads on defensive fundamentals. In football, Sir Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein, Sir Matt Busby, Helenio Herrera, Bob Paisley, Bill Shankly, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Udo Lattek, Louis van Gaal, Walter Smith, Jose Mourinho, Jupp Heynckes, Fabio Capello, Diego Simeone, Zinedine Zidane, and Antonio Conte all knew or know how to park the bus. Metaphorically speaking, Reg Varney is the patron saint of titles.
Ice hockey is a sport similar to football. You have to put the puck in the goal. There are forwards, defenders, and goaltenders. Attacking players must stay onside. Everyone plays defence. There isn't much scoring.

On the other hand, the surface is only 60m x 26, or 1,560sq m. Four and a half NHL rinks can be fit on a Premier League pitch. A rink is walled in rather than painted, making it more difficult for the puck to go out of bounds, in turn meaning defenders have one less avenue to escape high pressure. Players wear skates, to reduce friction on an already icy surface, moving twice as fast as a footballer in cleats that grip watered turf. The goal area is eight times smaller than in football, at 6'x4' compared to 24'x8', imperial measurements being more illustrative in this case. The netminder wears thick chest and leg pads, blocker and glove, and carries a stick with a wide panel and blade. In volume, a puck, which fits in one's palm, is roughly nine times smaller than a football (8.8 using a 70cm mean for a size 5 football and this handy volume calculator).

All the other information suggests hockey players have less time and space. The nearly one for one ratio (8/8.8) between the goal area and ball/puck size, however, is interesting.

As Michael Cox explained in his piece, using Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes, and a young Cristiano Ronaldo as examples, Premier League coaches have encouraged shooters to strike the ball slightly off center since the competition's early years, to play the percentages in finding the twine rather than the keeper's midriff.

Similarly, the NHL went through an evolutionary change in the late 1980s and early '90s. Goaltenders such as Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur adopted the butterfly technique. Rather than standing to face shooters, they dropped to their knees with their lower legs spread, thereby covering all the goal area along the ice, leaving only the top corners open for shooters. Because well positioned NHL goalies needn't dive to either side to stop shots, goalscorers are challenged to be more precise. In today's NHL, every netminder is a butterfly goalie. Not much can get past even the worst among them.
One game solved its scoring problem by turning to luck, the other to technical ability. On its face, that would seem to make football's challenge as an athletic test less genuine. This is where you must pay attention to the man behind the curtain. The optical illusion that suggests footballers have more time and space to shoot at goalkeepers in yawning goals than skaters have against heavily padded goalies guarding nets not much wider than themselves all comes down to one simple fact. As with the comparison between football and rugby, hockey's faster movement and more compact, congested playing surface are offset by not needing to control the puck with one's feet.

To bring in another sport, Americans will tell you the most difficult athletic act to accomplish is to hit a spherical baseball with a round bat. Yet, a batter has all the time and space in the world to try. A footballer must stop, then control a football before shooting, rarely with the time necessary to do so accurately when one, two, or more defenders are closing on him like a pride of hungry lions. Putting his or her shot in the net may, in fact, be sport's toughest proposition. That difficulty is certainly what makes football more compelling than any other competition.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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