Bundesliga Ekphrasis from Matchday 12

Ancient Greek Urn

For a while now, I’ve been playing keepie-uppie with the idea of applying ekphrasis to sports writing, especially football writing, my native land. This idea comes from my impulse to expand the repertoire of what’s possible in sports writing. (Check this space for a Pindarian-styled imitation Ode on whoever wins die Meisterschale this season–I promise!) Ekphrasis is a rhetorical device in which a writer usually describes a work of visual art. Notable examples of this device are John Keat’s immortal “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi.” Please, please, please make no mistake about it! You will most decidedly not see Keatsian or Brownian treatment in this piece! Just me and our good ol’ Bundesliga.

Here’s my idea: use ekphrasis to describe moments that struck me during Matchday 12. First, I should make something clear: doing ekphrasis does not mean simply describing moments from the matchday in the clearest, most precise, and most “realistic” (whatever that means in this context!) words possible. Such slavish transcription isn’t the point of ekphrasis. Otherwise, what’s the point? I might as well do this instead:

<insert clever gif>

<insert highlight video clip loop>

<insert diagrammed image>

Nope. Ekphrasis involves words. The idea is to translate a visual experience (i.e. viewing a football match) into a different medium (writing about it). Words open new horizons when applied to the visuals (moving, static, or otherwise) of sporting events. This point is beyond obvious. Why else would we have a well-defined and impressive tradition and practice of sports writing across the globe?

1.FC Union Berlin’s Back-Three

Die Eisernen‘s back-three is a living organism.

Neven Subotic. Keven Schlotterbeck. Marvin Friedrich. Three nearly anonymous tall men. Three men with 10 football clubs of experience between them. Three garbage collectors.

These three men are one.

An organism that collapses around invaders in the box, that dilates across defensive space, that erects the foundation of a defensive wall, that is only one pass away from the nifty boot or forehead of Sebastian Andersson, that–above all–moves as an organism. Invisible cables binds them. When one of these three nodes initiates contact, the other two silently compensate elsewhere. 6.3 inches they average, perfectly adequate to terrorize any opponent’s box on corners and free kicks. But always they goat-hoof it back in front of keeper Rafal Gikiewicz, mostly well in time to stretch taut their invisible cables across the box.

SC Paderborn along the Touchline

Football’s touch lines are under-appreciated. Surely, they are a proverbial “market inefficiency” to exploit, like Pulis throw-ins, sweeper keepers, or too swiftly-taken corner kicks. Of course, I speak of exploiters, not us spectators, who probably see something wholly different of football’s East-West tightropes.

What do I see? Well, not enough until watching Paderborn shockingly “lose” with the 3-3 draw in Dortmund on Friday. Streli Mamba, Streli Mamba again, then Gerrit Holtmann. Yes, Yes, Yes. A three-nil halftime lead for the guests. Say what you will about BVB getting murdered on airy defensive play on counters. It was Paderborn’s touchline work that earned a series of small gasps from me.

For Holtmann, Mamba, and Kai Pröger, the touchlines were Autobahns, white-lined lanes incomprehensibly squeezing out BVB defenders, especially poor Nico Schulz. Because here’s the paradox, we all know what every U8 kid playing football knows: touchlines are second defenders, constricting attackers. But not under Paderborn’s feet, which seemingly shift into higher gear each time they flick along these white stripes. All straight runs are straight, regardless of their angles relative to our visual markers in sport (touchlines, “keys” in basketball, hash marks in American football, base paths in baseball). Yet for Paderborn the touchlines defy this logic.

In which Borussia Dortmund Occupy Space

Pep Guardiola will tell that all occupation of space is not equal in football. The sport itself revealed this insight starting with the passing game of the Scottish in the late 1800s and continuing through Dutch Totaalvoetbal in the 1970s to the present day. Space, space, space.

BVB gets it. Die Schwarzgelben lived on the precepts of space (converted into time) in the days of Jürgen Klopp’s gegen-pressing scheme. But against Paderborn, as has been the case too often this Hinrunde, BVB’s use of space was a perimeter around a void. In attack and on defense. In each case, a perimeter of yellow shirts surrounding … usually nothing.

BVB was a Benzene ring against the league cellar dweller; fullbacks and wingers orbiting around that perimeter. The center remaining empty throughout. To me, these shapes speak of a side riding its skill superiority–vainly willing itself to a home win over the relegation sure-bet.

On Matches Unseen

A bevy of matchday fixtures pose the antithesis of ekphrasis: describing that which was never seen in the first place. We all have these gaps in our weekly matchday viewings. For me? Eintracht Frankfurt 0-2 VfL Wolfsburg.

I didn’t touch this match on the MatchPass today. Just didn’t get around to it. I found what I wanted in the Union-Gladbach and Leverkusen-SCF matches.

Please don’t tell me you actually match every second of every match on replay. Because you don’t. We miss matches. It’s a basic bandwidth problem. On bad matchdays, life intrudes and I miss, like 85% of the Bundesliga fixtures. Don’t even ask me about this upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

So many things to wonder about with these unseen matches. The Wolves, hmmm, they finally win one. But how? And why? The Eagles insult themselves by losing at home to the lupine club, who’s mostly been losing lately. But was it this bad? What ho, Bas Dost? Where art thy header, O Martin Hinteregger?   Why so goalless our dear Admir Mehmedi? Do you still dream of America, Mr. JA Brooks?

Seeing a raw, unadulterated scoreline invites questioning about game states and psychology, but mostly triggers automatic hypothetical description for me. I imagine the Eintracht ultras roaring at the insulting scoreline. Bas Dost looking clueless. Oliver Glasner, gesturing toward the wings. You could easily write a whole match report this way. It’s really no different than President Ronald Reagan’s radio baseball commentary.

On the Little Satisfactions of Not Watching Bayern Munich

Also unviewed: Bayern Munich’s strangling of fragile little thing, Fortuna Düsseldorf. Nobody needs to see that. It does nobody any good. It just ruins moods, at least my mood. Watching this match would have been the equivalent of popping my fingers out of my ears and stopping the “lalalalalala, I can’t hear you” routine. Sometimes, I need the self-delusion that Bayern is (vaguely) out there (vaguely) playing a match with a (vaguely) happy result for me (i.e. Bayern suffering). I don’t need reality wrenching me toward the likelihood of, despite all our fun with Foals and Bulls, Bayern WILL WIN THE BUNDESLIGA AGAIN.

(I lied. Actually, I watched about 120 seconds of this match; I did a brief check-in early in the first half, then a mid 2nd half check in with the score 0-3 and my mouth curling in disgust. We all need these small allowances, please!)

Milot Rashica, Curling

The three minutes I watched of Werder Bremen desperately losing 1-2 against Schalke 04 at home were this: the little genius Milot Rashica curling a dribbled run around the Schalke box. My heartbeat picked up with his flicking feet. In goes the pass. Eventually, (a bald?) avuncular Claudio Pizarro fumbles around with the ball, and Schalke steal it and danger away. It turns out, Pizarro has inexplicably dyed his hair a fatally invisible blond.

At least Rashica curls toward his opponents, which the man has been doing all semester. And we were all the better for it.

Boy, I f*****g hope till hurts like hell this 23 year old will remain in Germany for a few more years.

The Thing about Leverkusen and Freiburg

The thing about Bayer Leverkusen hosting SC Freiburg in a 1-1 thriller was the drama, which is one of the toughest things to describe from any sporting event. The other thing is that sporting events are compelling viewing because of drama, because, well, the whole thing is a damn competition, which is drama. Which is a tautology that we all need from sports. And football.  And especially “Bosz Ball.” May it live forever.

What should I say about this match? I watched much of it, yet it resists me in latching onto describables. My failure, yes.

Karim Bellarabi, I can still picture your angles and flick-passes around the box. Charles Aranguiz gesturing straight up into the air before a free kick. But this is all.

What I know about this match is that I really enjoyed it. And enjoyed it as a self-contained experience. Some matches are like this.

Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig Is the “Two Bishop Advantage” in Chess

I’ve spent probably too much of my life at the chess board. Unfortunately, I began studying the game and playing competitively in my early teens, which was too late to carve out enough of those expertise hours before the time-scourge of one’s college years hit. I’m still afflicted, which means I still play online and study the game a bit. Like football, chess can be an overlay for interpreting other things. Like football.

For instance, take the classic “two bishop advantage” in chess, which means you have the two bishops and your opponent doesn’t. This advantage can allow you to infiltrate both white and black square color complexes on the board, usually to decisive effect. A gruesome dissection. Under Julian Nagelsmann, RB Leipzig are playing football like this. Football of dissection. Football of the “two bishops.” Or, to take another “two bishop” variant from chess, former World Champ Vishy Anand’s murderous “twin guns.” This was Leipzig against feckless Köln today.

It’s a football of angles, that is, of chess bishop diagonals. All dissecting angles. This is the Nagelsmann trademark, in the year of our Lord 2019. Amen. In tactics talk, it’s play in and through the coveted “half spaces,” those angled alleys on the football pitch that visually upend defenders’ spatial perception. When the “two bishop” is whirring, it’s Anand’s twin guns: bisection, dissection, and checkmate.

Ekphrasis-derived prediction: RB Leipzig will be the club that threatens Bayern’s sevenfold-stranglehold on die Meisterschale come March and April.


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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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