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
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