Here’s a thought: how do footballers do what they do? | Gregg Bakowski

It is not often a footballer expands on what goes through their minds when they play at the highest level but when they do it is fascinating

The relationship between footballers and the media is usually a very simplistic one. Before a match a player is asked what their hopes are for the challenge ahead. Their answer invariably has them looking forward to the game while perhaps including a little deflection when steered towards a subject that could lead to controversy. In post-match interviews players are asked how they feel about the result and perhaps something they did in the match. Through lack of time, fatigue or media training, we often learn little beyond what emotion a player is experiencing at that moment. This is often no fault of the footballer or even the interviewer. Thoughtfulness is not encouraged in football. Consequently, it is rare to truly understand how a player does what they do.

What are they thinking when they are moving their body in a way that enables them to open up space where a millisecond ago there appeared to be none? We take for granted, whether sat high up in the stands or when watching on television, how quickly a footballer is able to calculate movement and time. Our perspective is a false one. The difficulty of what they are doing is skewed by distance. When a truly remarkable goal is scored, such as Mesut zils exquisite winner against Ludogorets, it is often accompanied by hyperbole or platitudes. When deeper thought is given to how a piece of footballing brilliance is crafted, the players take on it is usually overlooked, perhaps because were not used to hearing anything from them that tells us something new. Even after reading a 75,000-word autobiography we can be left wondering, beyond fitness, technique or tactical understanding, what it is that a player contains that gives them an advantage over others. Relationships, challenges, achievements and altercations help build narrative within their life story, not introspection. There are exceptions of course, such as Andrea Pirlos I Think Therefore I Play, which knowingly plays up to Pirlos reputation as a cerebral midfield maestro.

On the subject of passing he paints a picture of a playing arena that isnt so much a fraught mass of moving limbs and testosterone but a series of shapeshifting gaps of which it is his job to thread the ball through.

Ive understood that there is a secret: I perceive the game in a different way. Its a question of viewpoints, of having a wide field of vision. Being able to see the bigger picture. Your classic midfielder looks downfield and sees the forwards. Ill focus instead on the space between me and them where I can work the ball through. Its more a question of geometry than tactics. Andrea Pirlo

Dennis Bergkamp, one of the games great thinkers, has alluded to exhaustive modern-day coaching as one of the reasons players dont use their own powers of perception enough. They dont have to think for themselves any more, he told Amy Lawrence. It is all done for them. Its a problem. If they get a new situation, they look to someone as if to say, What do I have to do now? And while Bergkamp was talking specifically about the ability to think critically in the midst of a game, his comments give us a clue as to the lack of faith footballers have in their own ability to self-reflect.

Throughout his more youthful years, Wayne Rooney was pigeon-holed as an instinctive street-footballer, fearless and reliant on playing off the cuff. Hed have been the last person you would have picked to give careful consideration to how it is that he has been capable of doing things on a pitch that are beyond the vast majority of other professionals. But in a revealing interview with David Winner he explained that he relies heavily on visualisation to prepare for matches and his thoughts as moves develop can often stray into the future. Winner opened up that rarest of things: a window to the in-game footballers mind and gave us a fascinating glimpse of how the cogs move.

I go and ask the kit man what colour were wearing if its red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks. Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring goals or doing well. Youre trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a memory before the game. I dont know if youd call it visualising or dreaming, but Ive always done it, my whole life. When I was younger, I used to visualise myself scoring wonder goals, stuff like that. From 30 yards out, dribbling through teams. You used to visualise yourself doing all that, and when youre playing professionally, you realise its important for your preparation. Its like when you play snooker, youre always thinking three or four shots down the line. With football, its like that. Youve got to think three or four passes where the ball is going to come to down the line. And the very best footballers, theyre able to see that before much quicker than a lot of other footballers you need to know where everyone is on the pitch. You need to see everything. Wayne Rooney

Did Wayne Rooney visualise this goal against Manchester City or just anticipate the cross quicker than anybody else did? Photograph: Matthew Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images

I once tried to tease this depth of thought out of Alan Shearer when asking how he scored a goal that he considered to be his greatest but, even after knocking on the door in as many new and interesting ways as I could muster, he wouldnt let me in: That volley was one in a hundred I think, he said. Its an answer that could have been given by thousands of other footballers who perhaps dont realise that what they are able to do and the speed at which they do it is extraordinary.

In the same way that flies see the world in slow-motion, the very best footballers are often spoken about as having this hyper-developed sense when it comes to digesting multiple movements. Anyone who has ever played with or against a former or current professional who has taken a step down to play an amateur game, can see this first-hand. A player such as Jan Molby, even when bulging out of his shirt and years past retirement, can run a game without moving. This is all part of the art of understanding space. Xavi, while being a much more energetic proponent of this craft, made football sound like a manic game of Tetris in a brilliant interview with Sid Lowe in 2011.

Think quickly, look for spaces. Thats what I do: look for spaces. All day. Im always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who havent played dont always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space. Its like being on the PlayStation. I think shit, the defenders here, play it there. I see the space and pass. Thats what I do. Xavi

With socks down round his ankles and his game seemingly lacking the gloss of other upper-echelon players, Thomas Mller can give off the impression of being a forward who plays in the moment, never stopping for long enough to consider what it is that has made him so effective. But in fact the opposite is true. In a piece for Eight by Eight magazine by Uli Hesse, the Bayern Munich player spoke astutely about the importance he places on timing. And although he clearly sees his role as being different to a metronomic passer such as Xavi or Pirlo, he views his near-perfect punctuality in the six-yard box as being a product of his ability to calculate distances in a razor-sharp fashion. In fact, he has thought about his role on the football pitch to such an extent that he has invented a name for it.

Im an interpreter of space. Every good, successful player, especially an attacking player, has a well-developed sense of space and time. Its not a phenomenon you only find in two or three people on earth. Every great striker knows its all about the timing between the person who plays the pass and the person making a run into the right zone. Its nothing new when you make a run, you dont always do it for yourself. Often you do it to open the door for a team-mate. Thomas Mller

So it would appear that some of the very best footballers, when made to feel comfortable and asked the right questions, view their visual understanding of space and time as being vital components in putting them at the top of their profession. But what about one of the best, a player who floated around the pitch in the unhurried fashion of someone who had been there and done it a thousand times before, even at a relatively young age. In the fascinating documentary, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, the Real Madrid legend and World Cup winner conjures an image of himself as an ethereal presence on the football pitch with psychic powers.

Zinedine Zidane knew exactly what was going to happen.

I can imagine that I can hear the ticking of a watch I remember playing in another place, at another time, when something amazing happened. Someone passed the ball to me, and before even touching it, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew I was going to score. Zinedine Zidane

There are millions of words written and spoken about football and footballers every day. Some good. Some bad. On subjects of tactics, emotions, hopes and dreams, were well catered for. So when one of the games greats, such as Zidane, lets us into his head mid-match even for just a moment it stands out. Well done to those journalists who get us there. And kudos to the footballers who take the time to think.

Read more: