Has Soccer Gotten “Faster”?

With the 2014 FIFA World Cup over, now is the time to begin analysis of the tournament.  As a sport scientist, I am inclined to try to look at the games to see if there were any new or unique events or trends than can affect the way players must be prepared physically.  While some areas of the technical/physical side of the game may be debated (for example, is it better to play like Germany, with lots of ball possession, and a high pressing defense, or like Argentina, defending deep and relying on quick and efficient counter-attacks?), one aspect that has remained very consistent at this World Cup, as well as in the game in general over the past 5-10 years, is that the game seems to be getting “faster”.  

Considering how much of my time I have devoted to speed training for athletes (mostly using my preferred method of high speed/high incline treadmill training) this is a very interesting trend.  Of course, simply commenting that the game looks “faster” based on visual assessment is not good enough to stand up to scientific scrutiny.  I needed more information, so I decided to look through my notes from the recent 4th World Conference on Science and Soccer that I attended and presented at, which was held in Portland, OR, on June 5th-7th of this year.  One of the keynote speakers at the Conference, Paul Bradley, who has worked extensively with several different Premier League clubs over the past decade, gave a presentation titled “The Evolution of Physical and Technical Performance Parameters in the English Premier League”.  Of course, he did not present data from the World Cup, but because the English Premier League is one of the best professional leagues in the world, and because some of the best players at the World Cup (including Argentina’s Sergio Aguero, Holland’s Robin Van Persie, and World Cup Champion Germany’s Mesut Ozil) play in the league, data taken from it can be seen as valid in explaining trends both from the World Cup tournament, as well as the sport of soccer as a whole. 

The rationale behind Mr. Bradley’s presentation was that, although there certainly is a commonly held belief that soccer is becoming “faster”, there is presently a lack of evidence to support this belief.  He presented a longitudinal summary of a series of studies done in the Premier League, conducted using Pro-Zone software over the last 7 years, that examined a number of different factors influencing physical and technical performance of players and teams, and organized the findings according to players’ positions, league table differences, and compared UK vs. non-UK based players.  Here is a summary of some of the data:

  • while there has been no change in the average total distance covered over the past 7 years (10.7km per match in 2007 to 10.9km per match in 2013), there have been significant increases in both the amount of high intensity running (fast running) as well as the number of sprints performed per match
  • of the total number of sprints done per match, the average distance per sprint was shorter, but the total number of sprints was higher, and also the average speed of the sprints was significantly higher
  • technically, Premier League players completed more passes per match (25.3 to 35.4 per match) from 2007 to 2013
  • players’ pass success rate (measured by looking at total number of successful passes divided by total number of attempted passes) has also increased
  • by 2013, only 9% of English Premier League players completed less than 70% of their passes per match (as compared to 26% in 2007)

Overall, Mr. Bradley’s presentation definitely supports the idea that the sport of soccer has become faster, as both the physical and technical demands of the game have steadily increased over the past 7 years.  The challenge now lies with coaches and fitness coaches, to develop newer and more efficient ways to train their players in order for them to meet and exceed these increased demands.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

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