Saturday, 1 December 2012

What is Creativity in Football?

We all know what creativity is-yes? It is something which allows you to create. Ok, that's not quite the description that gets me any closer to answering this rather complex and simple question. Wikipedia tells us that creativity is the invention of something new which has value. That is a very broad answer and is open to interpretation. No doubt scholars and philosophers have debated and reshaped this concept of creativity for thousands of years and as far as I'm concerned haven't truly defined in a single statement what creativity actually is. This is because creativity is one far reaching intangible concept in which it is impossible to definitively encompass all of its aspects in a single definition. With this, I will now attempt to create my own definition of creativity. Creativity, that is, in football.

If I were to ask you which are the ten most desirable attributes you would want in a football player, you would probably give me six or seven answers. You would pause, think hard, struggle due to thinking too hard, but finally give me a total of ten attributes. I would list those attributes you gave me and write them down on a piece of paper and stare at them. I would guess that there would be a good chance that I had noted the word 'creativity' somewhere on that list. Moreover, if I were to repeat this process with another nine people, I would find the word 'creativity' nine times. So what is my point. My point is that we must first establish how people think about creativity in terms of imagining a perfect player. Done. We've now established that creativity is something which is valued by all the stakeholders in football, that is the fans, players and others. Since creativity is a highly desired attribute, it would make sense for it to be something quantifiable- but it isn't. Creativity (until someone discovers an algorithm) is an intangible quality, something which cannot be analysed through statistics like we can possession or passes for instance. Funnily enough, by attempting to find some kind of statistics to define creativity, we might be systemetising a trait which stands against the very systemisation which attempts to define creativity. If this is the case, how can we possibly define what creativity is in football? Well, John Cleese, one of the most creative comedians in history once said that "[Creativity] cannot be is literally inexplicable."  Now that we have established the value people see in creativity in a player, we can now start to answer our original question.
Image from
To answer this it is perhaps wise to start by explaining some fundamentals of the game. Fundamentals such as the objective is to win. This is achieved by scoring more goals than the other team. This in turn is manufactured in the two most basic aspects of the game: defence and offense. The defending aspect is concerned with preventing the other team from scoring while the offensive aspect is concerned with scoring goals for your own team. I think at this point it is fair to make the statement that creativity can only be achieved within these two aspects of the game. If your team has the ball, you are generally attacking and vice-versa. We all know that people generally associate creativity with attacking players, but can creativity also come from defenders? This is a hard question to answer but I believe the answer is no. Let me explain.

If we go back to our definition "creativity is the invention of something new which has value", defenders do not invent. They respond to what the other team is doing. Since reaction is in response to an outside stimulus, the "invention" has already been made by the attacker. The defender is simply responding to, and acting for a solution to the attackers' invention. However, (and this is where it gets complicated) one could argue that in the act of preventing an attacker from scoring or making any meaningful offensive play, the defender has "invented" a solution for his problem. I must admit that is correct. However, this is where the second part of the definition comes into play.

While the defender has had to invent a defensive play to counter the offensive play, his invention is not of a great value. In other words, the defenders' options to invent were restricted by the position of the ball and the opponents. This means that a part of the defenders' choice was actually chosen by the circumstances to which he could fully exert his creative thought over. This is where a a defender differs from an attacker. The attacker, unlike the defender, has the ball. This means that the responsibility is for the attacker to create in order to generate chances to score. Since the natural instinct of a defender is to react to the opponents' movements, their is less of a limit on what options an offensive player has to create goalscoring chances, than a defender has to limit goalscoring chances. The implication of this is that an attacking player with the ball has to create in a situation where he is, arguably, the player with the most pressure on his next decision. He is the reference point in the game at that moment in time and he controls the destiny of the next phase of play. This is why I think the player with the ball has to make a decision which holds a greater significance and value than a defender who does not have the ball.

Even though the player with the ball is supposed to be the most creative player on the pitch at that particular moment, there are a lot of players who do not display their talent sufficiently enough to be called creative. There are two viewpoints to try to explain why this is. The first possible answer is that certain people are born with creativity and others are not. The second possible answer is that all people are born with creativity but only a few have the ability to display their natural creativity. Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognised leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation according to his website. He once said that "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original...adults have lost that capacity...we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it." He suggests that all children have a natural talent for creativity and argues that the modern day educational model frowns upon mistakes and fosters an environment which does not encourage creative thinking. Applying this to football, we can say that a football club or academy is much like a school and a coach is much like a teacher. A child can enter an establishment which creates an environment which can help creativity or deny it. 

Arsene Wenger once said that "a coach can stand in the way of creativity or he can foster it. But true creativity comes from the player himself. It's the player and not the coach who's creative. The coach can only help a player discover creative solutions a player wasn't aware of." It is an inspiring way to look at why children are more creative than adults. A famous psychological test is one where children and adults are asked to come up with as many uses for a paper clip that they could think of in one minute. Over and over again, children came up with significantly more ideas than adults. On the other hand, Cleese has a slightly different interpretation of creativity suggesting that it is as much about how one chooses to seek out creativity in one's life. According to Cleese, "Creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating...Creative people get into a particular mood to allow their natural creativity to function." He talks about how creative people get into an 'open mode' in order to think creatively while being in a 'closed mode' is only to be used when you have the solution to the problem in order to effectively implement it.

The next angle of enquiry is to find out exactly what separates the best from the rest-the most creative players to the rest. Can we just assume that players who make assists and score goals are the most creative ones? Or is that too simplistic. By now, you should know that I like to go deep into any analysis, so naturally I think this is too simplistic a view to take. For example, Jason Puncheon from Southampton has five assists this season so far. Santi Cazorla has four. We all know who the better and more creative player is with all respect to Jason in the event that he is reading this post. So what is it which separates the best from the rest.
Image from Source: Michael Regan/Getty Images Europe

I often wonder if people think a player is creative simply because of his skill and a stereotype. If I asked you to choose who is the more creative player between Iniesta and Lampard the majority would probably choose Iniesta. Why is this? Lampard has greatly outscored Iniesta in his career and also had more assists than Iniesta, and yet, people usually refer to Lampard as a 'box-to-box midfielder' while Iniesta is a 'playmaker' or a 'number ten'. Could this categorisation of Iniesta and Lampard in creativity terms simply be because people think Iniesta is a skillful player. Or that Iniesta is a smaller player than Lampard, and that he's Spanish and Lampard is English. I think it is quite reasonable to suggest that skill/technique and public stereotyping have led people to believe that Iniesta is a more creative player than Lampard even though there is no statistical evidence to suggest so. Perhaps the reason people view Iniesta as a more creative player than Lampard is because Iniesta has the ability to make a play which surprises us, which was unexpected. With Lampard you get the feeling you won't get any spontaneous plays, it is all methodically efficient.

A player can be highly creative but cannot display his creativity because he lacks the skill to do so. It is no coincidence that the most creative players are also the most skillful ones. A truly creative player is one who views the game with curiosity rather than a series of inconveniences. Like both Cleese and Robinson say, a creative player does not fear mistakes and play as if they were kids. Be curious for the sake of being curious, without a conscious plan to seek a solution. It is players who can shield themselves from outside pressure so that they can get into the 'open mode'. Arsene Wenger puts this nicely- "This necessity [winning] can become a constraint that spoils everything. When you're obliged to do something, you do it badly. When you enjoy something, you do it with more conviction but also with creativity." The next time you watch a game, ask yourself which player is making mistakes but does not seem bothered. Who seems he is enjoying his football, who is not affected by the jeers he receives from the crowd. Which player does things which make his manager unhappy because he was not supposed to do that, but he wanted to try it so see what would happen. These are the things which should point you to the creative players.
Three amigos. Image from

One area of curiosity for myself is to ask whether a team can be considered a creative one when there is a heavily systematised approach, that is heavily tactically orientated and planned. Consider Arrigo Sacchi's famous AC Milan team which dominated world football in the late 80s and early 90s. To this day, that team is considered one of the most creative and attacking teams who were successful. However, this particular team is a paradox. Although they had wonderfully creative players like Van Basten, Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit, their team tactics were highly organised and planned and were led by a coach who was famous for his ability to structure a team to play a highly organised and structured system with strict patterns of movements. Aldo Serena, AC Milan 1991-1993, said that "Sacchi had imprinted some tactical concepts and that Milan side almost played on memory. The movements were perfect at the back, the midfielders came back to help and all of this was because of Sacchi's maniacal work, which actually ended with him stressing and exhausting all the players." In this light, was that Milan team truly creative, or just very well drilled? Perhaps the secret was that Sacchi had found the perfect balance between system and individual, as Thierry Henry explains- "If you have a player who's creative on the pitch, someone who's different from the rest, he has to blend in with the unit, but also be allowed to do what he wants. For a coach it's a tough job to allow an individual player to do what he wants and still integrate him into the team. In moments like this I'm glad I'm not a coach." Sacchi had three such players which he had to balance and he did so. Perhaps thinking that Milan were not a creative team is naive, because they were. It could just be that Sacchi had created an organised system, a stable platform to allow his three amigos to function at their creative capacities. Or perhaps that Sacchi himself was creative, maybe more so than his players were. Franz Beckenbauer believed that "A coach has to be more creative than a player. After all, a player's creativity only takes place on the pitch."

In the end, creativity is like water. You can put water in a jug and the water takes the shape of the jug. It is what you want it to be. It is hard to explain and hard to control.  Whatever you may think of it, creativity is like gold. It is precious and highly valued. I leave you with one last gem of a quote from John Cleese. "Telling people how to be creative is easy, it is being it that's difficult."


  1. Great post - especially appreciated the example from Lampard vs. Iniesta.

    I do also appreciate the nuanced argument for your definition of creativity - though I believe a good defensive unit actually forces the offense to react. In this sense, a defender can make a creative play which predicates the offensive play, giving the defender the chance of BECOMING the offensive player through a creative take-over of the ball. Lest we think that all defenders are the 'unthinking' players on the field, I have seen many tackle possessing great skill and flair.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  2. Thanks a lot Zach. I don't disagree with your point about defenders not being creative. You are correct, defenders can also be creative and creative in how they defend, win the ball back etc. All I'm saying is that the the player with the ball has to be more creative because he is the one under the greatest pressure.

  3. If there were no defenders then attackers would run straight to goal. Defenders CREATE obstacles so that attackers have to react to their movement. Just because you don't have the ball doesn't mean you can't be creative. It's a biased view to say that attacker are the sole owners of the creative potential