The full article is available in the new issue of Champions, official magazine of the UEFA Champions League, which is out now.
Watching Lionel Messi dribbling through a defence or playing a slide-rule pass through a narrow space at an acute angle is one of the most thrilling sights in football. It is almost as if he has a bigger picture of the game than anyone around him. Eyes in the back of his head, if you will.
Now academics in Germany and the Netherlands have decided to put this theory to the scientific test. "We were interested in the underlying mechanisms of expert performance in sport," explains Professor Norbert Hagemann from the University of Kassel. "Footballers are active on a huge field and have to attend to, or view, so many people on the field that we believed the best player could attend to more players at the same time."
In layman's terms, the researchers believed the best players had a broader visual span that enables them to see more of the pitch and the position of their opponents and team-mates at any one time than less skilful players. To test this belief, they studied the behaviour of amateur footballers when they were shown various football situations. However, the results actually contradicted the theory.
"In general, we were not able to find a broader visual span in skilled players," says Hagemann. "They do not extract information from a broader visual area. However, we found a longer fixed duration. Such skill-related differences in 'gaze strategies' are thought to be functional in terms of more efficient information pick-up."
So while the best players may not have a greater field of vision than average players, they pick up more information from a single glance. This finding supports the 'chunk theory', based on the discovery that the best chess players could remember a board, not in terms of 32 pieces, but as five or six groups of pieces.
Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, has his own take on this phenomenon. Drawing on the experience of firefighters who can sense when a burning house is about to explode, he suggests they develop something he calls 'expert intuition', an instinctive method of solving a particular problem. Could this describe Messi's innate ability to make the right run or play the right pass?
Players who are not as gifted as Messi could be trained to improve their 'fixation duration', but Hagemann is not convinced this will directly improve their performance: "The less skilled player has to learn the structure of play, the patterns of the movements and so on. They have to build a knowledge base that helps them discover the relevant information in the current situation. To train less skilled players, it would be more helpful to orient their attention to the relevant features of play. Fixation duration is a by-product of knowing where to attend."
Whether you refer to this as a knowledge base or expert intuition, this quality helps more skilful footballers predict upcoming events much more precisely – the greater the knowledge base, typically the better the player.
"If the best footballer already knows what is going to happen then they will know where to direct their attention," says Hagemann. "Players like Messi are great at decision-making. They have anticipation abilities that help them solve complex problems in the best possible way."
Now the team are aiming to get to the bottom of the underlying mechanism that allows Messi to solve these complex tasks with such consummate ease. The defenders' union will be waiting with bated breath to read their findings.
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