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Expression in Football: On and Off The Ball

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Expression in Football: On and Off The Ball
(Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

Above is Michael Ballack; one of the best midfielders of his generation but some one who I think is a symbol of what I am going to attempt to discuss today.

You see, Ballack is not the fastest player on the pitch, nor the most technically sound, nor the strongest, and maybe not even the most creative. Sure, he has a lot of these attributes in spades, but he is not a Zidane or Ronaldo or Kaka.

No, Ballack is not really one of those players that you think of immediately when you try to translate a player's expression into team success, for he experience the Treble Nightmare in 2002, and heartbreaking late tournament losses in two World Cups, a Champions League, and a European Cup.

So why is it that I chose him as my symbol for what expression is?

The fact that any of those teams made it to those late tournament stages is pretty incredible considering their line-ups compared to the line-ups of their opponents.

I mean, Bayer Leverkusen vs. Zidane Madrid?

The German National team vs. their Spanish counterparts?

On paper, neither of these matches should have ever been in doubt, but one player arguably kept each team afloat and fighting.

Ballack while capable of playing enforcer and defender, is at his most natural when flying forward and creating chances. He is at his best when he can express himself both on and off the ball.

Like with creativity, there are two basic types of expression on the pitch: On the Ball, and Off the Ball.

On the ball expression is what comes to mind for most people when they hear the term expression. It is what a player does when they have the ball whether they cut, dribble, or pass and has a lot of intersection with creativity.

Off the ball expression is slightly more complicated, but is most definitely as important as on the ball. It is the way a player slashes and screens and rolls and calls for the ball all with the purpose of getting a better position to win the game.

Both of these descriptions are rather abstract, so for the purpose of this article I will break it into two more measurable ideas and hope to defend them.

First, is how long a player gets to hold the ball when they gain possession.

Second, where are the player moves on the pitch and what the coach calls when they do move.

For example, the amount of time Ballack is allowed to hold the ball for the German team and what he can do is entirely different from what he is allowed to do for Chelsea.

When playing at the European Championship he is allowed to move forward to his heart's content and hold the ball while directing the likes of Klose and Bastian all around the pitch before making one of his patented cutting through balls.

For Chelsea however, he is used almost as an enforcer, playing much deeper and given very little time and space to move with the ball unless Lampard or Drogba are already in shooting position.

Is it any wonder that his form for the Blues has been so radically different from his form with the German team?

At Chelsea he is not allowed to truly express himself. While he is still very very good at what he does, this lack of expression is akin to only letting a person take left turns while driving. Sure, that person will be able to figure out how to get to their location eventually, but is it really the best use of their time and resources?

Then again, individual expression must always work for greater team accomplishments, and I sincerely hope that Ballack wins a big medal with the Blues, especially if he is given a chance to express himself in a magical Champions League Final.

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