The Abstract Attribute of Footballing Intelligence

footballing intelligence

It is as intangible an attribute as they come in football. It’s not like technical prowess, where it can be easily seen how well a footballer manipulates the ball to his advantage or his physical adeptness enabling him to overcome his opponent via speeding past them or brushing them off with their strength. No, footballing intelligence is one of the hardest qualities to quantify in the game. There seems to be much subjectivity to how many assess the excellence of a player’s footballing intelligence. This makes it an even more intriguing topic to investigate.

What he highlights is football intelligence. I know he will be a coach one day because he can understand football concepts easily.”

If you were to guess whom this quote would be attributed to, you would not be castigated by the majority for thinking that it was Vicente Del Bosque once again praising Sergio Busquets as a footballer or Pep Guardiola commenting on Phillip Lahm’s seamless transition from a marauding full back to a technical defensive midfielder. Yet, those words came instead from Roberto Martinez’s mouth. More surprising is the fact that he was speaking of Steven Naismith, in the wake of the 3-1- victory over Fulham the latter inspired them to win. The assumption that many would make presents an interesting viewpoint on how footballing intelligence is perceived by many. Could it be that many often link the intelligence of a footballer to the how proficient, in particular his technical ability, a footballer is instead of a stand-alone attribute in itself?

First, a clear definition for the term has to be established. In search of this, American Football and Horst Wein, an influential coach in football that has helped shape the conditions of the game that we know today, help me to a conclusion.

Those without in depth knowledge of the game of American Football would assess that much of the game is based on being a better physical specimen than your opponents are. However, the mental preparation that is undertaken in this sport is so much that it outstrips any, when contemplating this for, team sports. There is even a test, The Wonderlic test, to assess how well the players can be able to handle mental preparation required to remember the players and transmit them to on the field play in real time. Quarterbacks, for whom the test is most useful, average at the late twenties, something that is considered a good thing. Too high a score is seen as not being able to handle the fluidity of in game adjustments, whilst too low a score is pondered as being indicative of not being able to have the capability to handle the high amount of preparation. Oliver Luck, a former NFL quarterback, law graduate and now athletic director of West Virginia University, simplifies it all to a few words.

“(American) Football intelligence, to me, is situational awareness. The variables in football are so many. Every play is a decision and you do it at full speed.”

Horst Wein, a German coach that has been revolutionary for youth football, concurs. When interviewed by Paul Grech, editor of Blueprint for Football, he remarks that game intelligence, as he refers to it,

“…is that ability to “read the game” and make good decisions as quickly as possible.

He is a little known influence in the rise in dominance that the Spanish style of play has had on the world. A book he produced himself “Developing Youth Football Players” is the official textbook for Spanish Football Federation. A keen advocate of small-sided games to improve technical ability, especially for young children, his work may be seen in the ability of Busquets. Xavi says the 25 year old midfielder has the ability to ‘control, look and pass’ within one touch whilst others need two or three. Two or three is too slow. One is sufficient. They were taught in La Masia, the Barcelona academy, that even one is too much but rather they should be taking ‘a mig toc’ (half a touch).

Thus, it can be concluded that footballing intelligence is the ability to read the situation at hand and make the best decisions as quickly as possible. Yet, there remains the fact that this skill is extremely hard to quantify so as to find a link to how important it is for a footballer to have it. The first foray into exploring this however comes again in an interview from Blueprint for Football, this time with Geir Jordet, a sports psychologist. From a study of 64 games, looking specifically at players faces, he was able to determine that the more a player looks around him, the better he performs. This was achieved by where the player had looked behind his back to get the relevant information. Players’ visual movement was ascertained by the instances where ‘players’ faces were temporarily and actively directed away from the ball looking for teammates, opponents and scanning the environment.’ Jordet believes that the majority of players ‘tend to look at the ball’ more than the information that it provides for them. In essence, Jordet has been able to decipher that looking more builds up a better picture. These players have the relevant picture to make a better decision but this does not necessarily mean that all these players will make the same decision as, like Jordet explained, trying to measure what players are doing with or how they are process the information is of a much harder nature.

As players will undoubtedly vary in the way they process their surroundings on the pitch, this will mean that the same situation could present itself and different players will decide to do different things within the split second that the circumstances presents itself, as shown week in and week out. Therefore, it would be within reason that football intelligence is taking into account your best attributes but this is not often the case when many talk of players having intelligence. Most times, this critical acclaim is given to those that possess a supreme technical ability whilst those whose style of play are more synonymous with the physical attributes of the game are instead considered players who do not play with their brain. Quite often this simply the intelligence is brought about from an omission of having an advantage over your opponent due to, for example, pace. Per Mertesacker is an example of this, where he has honed his positional and anticipation skills to make up for his lack of pace.

Therefore, players in the ilk of Arturo Vidal, Aaron Ramsey and Frank Lampard will never be considered as having the footballing intelligence that rivals that of their more technically gifted counterparts, even if it is so. In the investigation of player’s perception by Jordet, two players were highlighted as being extremely aware of their surroundings by constantly looking about themselves. One was Andrea Pirlo and little would be surprised about this. The other was Lampard, the man synonymous with making timely runs into the box to latch onto balls crossed into there. Yet, Jordet said that out of the 150 players examined, Lampard came out as one of the top two for ‘seeing good passes and sensing where to pass the ball’. So not only was the Chelsea record goal scoring incredibly efficient in deciding when to make runs into the box, it can be shown that Lampard has vision that not many would say he had. The fact that he would not be immediately named by many of possessing capable vision is simply due to the label of him being as a ‘goal-scoring midfielder’.

So from this all, we can gather that footballing intelligence is in fact an individual attribute and  essentially situational awareness, perceiving your environment in terms of time and/or space and the understanding of its meaning, on the field of play. Johan Cruyff summed this up with something he said about being quicker than his opponents are.

Speed is often confused with insight. When I start running earlier than the others (do), I appear faster.

Along with this, perhaps there is an add-on to what footballing intelligence is really about. Analysing your strengths & weaknesses and adapting to it while being able to play effective, in terms of individual and collective goals in a game of football. It is not only the slow, but strong Mertesacker, who relies on his intelligence more than on anything else. Busquets is considered by some the best defensive midfielder in the world, for others even the best ever already, but he does not possess traits that many would associate with the greatest pivot of all time. He is not neither quick nor strong nor a tireless runner and worker. He is just one thing: Intelligent in playing football.

Special thanks to Rene Maric (@ReneMaric), Jed Davies (@TPiBMW) and especially Paul Grech(@Paul_Grech) who not only helped with ideas for this, as Rene and Jed did, but also allowed me to use quotes from his wonderful website, Blueprint For Football

By Elijah (@Aliqua Scripto)

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