Physical Performance in Elite Soccer

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“ 75% of Earth is covered with water and the rest is covered by N'Golo Kante” is a joke going around about the holding midfielder after France won the World Cup 2018. Physical performance is a key part of the modern game of soccer. France had a lot of qualities including insane running output like Kante, but also blazing speed in Mbappe, agility and speed in Griezman, and pace all over the pitch that helped the skill and tactics come to life. Russia had crazy running outputs that seemed like part of their success in going deep, at least according to pundits. Here are some studies shedding a bit more light on the importance of physical parameters in soccer. Is running a lot high on the list of importance? Let’s see.

Muscle Mass

Physical parameters have been the focus for several studies on match analysis. At the elite youth level, greater muscle mass and lower body fat percentage were found in players from successful teams compared to unsuccessful teams (Lagos et al. 2011).  In the English Premier League, first team players had greater lean mass than U-18 and U-21 players (Milson et al., 2015) and differences in strength and power measures were found between elite and amateur players (Arnason et al. 2004; Cometti et al., 2001; Wisloff et al. 1998). These findings suggest a focus on proper nutrition and strength training for increased performance.  Basically, why I wrote Soccer Dominance.

Speed and Agility

In more specific work related to speed and power, Faude et al. (2012) found that compared to other physical tasks, straight ahead sprinting is the most frequent action involved in goal scoring actions and that coaches should evaluate, train, and utilize players accordingly. In another study examining the attributes of goal scorers, Metikos et al. (2013) found that zig-zag sprinting in order to evade defenders is a key aspect of creating scoring chances.

Running Output in a Match

Investigating physical output on a team level has shown that the team’s playing formation affects the spatial distribution and the amount of high intensity activity performed (Bradley et al., 2011). Reviewing the impact of the opponent’s playing formation in the French Ligue 1, Carling et al. (2011) found similar results, but found no effect on physical performance across individual playing positions.  In the second half, players covered less distance at low to moderate intensities, but total distance and high intensity performance were unaffected. As the match progresses and athletes fatigue, comparisons between the first and second half showed a reduction in player performance. This included a 5% reduction in the total distance of the second half compared to the first (Bangsbo, Norregaard & Thorsoe, 1991; Rienzi et al., 2000; Stolen et al., 2005). In contrast, Carling et al. (2011) found total distance covered and high intensity performance were unaffected by the half, but players covered less distances at low to moderate intensities in the second half.

Studies on physical output and final league ranking showed correlations in England (Di Salvo et al. 2009) and Italy (Rampinini et al., 2009). In contrast, Carling et al. (2013) also discovered that non-successful teams covered greater distances in high-speed movement activity, suggesting that factors other than physical performance are more important in achieving success in a football match. Furthermore, total run distance was not associated with the final result in the 2010 World Cup (Jankovic et al. 2010) or the 2014 World Cup, indicating that physical performance was not the common nominator amongst successful teams (Rumpf et al., 2017).

Looking below at distances covered at the World Cup 2018 before match day 3, we cannot conclude that running a lot is correlated to winning as a team. On some individual match comparisons, England ranked seventh from bottom with an average of just 7.3 km per player, per game, but destroyed the competition's least-mobile side Panama (6.7 km) 6-1 in 30-degree temperatures. Mexico covered a total of 89 kilometers in their loss to Brazil, the lowest of all the last 16 sides. France outran Argentina covering 97 kilometers to their 94. Uruguay covered 106km in their 2-1 victory over Portugal. But there were other matches were the winning team didn’t run more. Ie. Croatia who seemed to hardly sub in extra time in Russia, covered the least ground with a total distance of 132 kilometers as they still found a way to go through on penalties.

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Running outputs do not correlate very well with match outcome, but may indicate something about playing style, positions (holding mids like Kante probably need to run a lot). While warrior type players who run a lot are needed in some roles and admired, at the end of the day, intelligent use of energy and skill and execution matter most.