I think it’s true that in chess, the battle within the battle is to control the centre of the board. Intuitively, I assume the same is true of boxing. If you are in control of the board, or the ring, then you can force the action. Your opponent, backed into a less desirable situation from the off, can only then react to what you’re doing.
How do you control the board? In chess this is in part a function of playing as white, but the black player will do all they can to neutralise white’s advantage and attempt to establish control of their own. In boxing I’m not sure of the technicalities, but it must be partly to do with strength, timing and presence. If Mike Tyson stands in the middle of the canvas you’d have had a bit of a job shifting him, after all. From the centre of the ring you’re on the front foot; your opponent is moving backwards, side-to-side, in short, not where they want to be.
This all relates to what I mentioned about Mahmadou Diarra the other day. Somehow, when he’s in midfield, he sets the tone. While others react to what’s happening around and in front of them, Diarra seems somehow to have that something that allows him to be the player in charge. Like a boxer, part of this must be strength, part of this must be nous, knowing where to be and when so as to maximise his advantage and minimise what an opponent can do in return.
This all comes back to space, again. We used to talk about space a lot here, notably when Martin Jol took over and our players seemed to have things backwards, creating funnels and crowds in attack rather than space and options. The centre of midfield is not somewhere you can find space easily. Danny Murphy used to make it by knowing where everyone was, where he could find himself a moment, and then acting accordingly. Dickson Etuhu found space by simply dropping back from the crowds. Chris Baird does the same to a degree, usually finding himself a small pocket to operate in. Steve Sidwell seems more inclined to bulldozer his way through – he’s not afraid to work in a crowd but I think sometimes this shows in what happens when he gets the ball. (In some ways what looks like untidiness is a function on what can be quite brave and aggressive play.)
Diarra I can’t figure though. Someone mentioned body position in the comments, and I think this is an area where he and Sidwell differ. Sidwell in a crowd can look on the edge of control; Diarra is like a statue in there, the ball not in a place where an opponent can do much to tackle, which means Diarra, with his neat control and surprising vision, can do what he chooses without being on the verge of a mess. He’s dominating his area, like a boxer in the middle of the ring.
Part of creating space in the midfield comes from creating space elsewhere. If Fulham’s full-backs don’t attack then the opposition can play narrow and crowd the middle of the pitch. But under Jol our full-backs attack like mad things, and when you couple this with the wide midfielders’ abilities you realise that our opponents really can’t afford to crowd the middle of the pitch – there’s too much to worry about elsewhere.
I think this is where we see such promise in the team – it can, as noted in Alex’s excellent post below, attack from all angles. It has the players to make and to control space.
I think it’s a measure of how good the team has become that it seems most vulnerable when faced with chaos, which is the game’s great leveler (and why the canny Sam Allardyce places such emphasis on set pieces). In a straight up legit footballing challenge we are as good as most teams. When faced with a 22 man penalty area and a kitchen sink approach, we appear vulnerable. This feels like it ought to be a decent position for us to be in, chaos being unfortunate but presumably defendable with a bit of practice and, yes, luck. On balance, it feels like we’re getting good at things it’s good to be good at.