[STATE OF THE GAME] I was in Cairo -- nearly two years ago -- to watch the World Cup qualifying match between Egypt and Algeria. Other than feeling the exhilaration of witnessing an unforgettable match, there was one incident in particular that stuck in my mind -- an incident that should have been unrelated to the match, but wasn't.
I always have interesting conversations with taxi cab drivers and in this occasion an en passant comment made by a veteran driver struck me as an all too apt description of recent trends in men’s soccer: paralyzed by a massive traffic jam, the driver spat that the streets of Cairo were "like a busy parking lot with no roof."
The idea that in a few years the soccer field is going to resemble the busy streets of Cairo, where space to move is practically non-existent, is not farfetched. In fact, the physical characteristics of the game have already changed radically over the last few decades as a result of players’ increased physiological capacity. Players can now cover more ground, at a higher intensity, in less time. Consequently, the field has become congested. There is less space available for the ingenuity of a star like Lionel Messi to develop or show his skills.
I recently spoke on the phone with Brazil’s most respected football announcer, José Carlos Araújo ("O Garotinho"). He reminded me that in the 1970s, the game was narrated at a mellower pace unknown today. Nowadays, he told me, announcers move rapidly from one play to another in order to capture the frantic nature of the game. On any given play, players are not able to keep the ball as long as they did in previous decades. There is no open space in the field, and as soon as a player gets the ball, an opponent rushes in to steal it.
The traffic in Cairo and a congested soccer field are both nightmarish scenarios that we want to avoid at all costs. If the fitness of players continues to increase, and the existing data suggests that it will, then we will be heading toward a situation in which the game will become nearly unrecognizable. No longer will it be characterized by the flamboyantly skillful play of previous decades. Inevitably, the dormant FIFA will have to create rules to open up space, for example, enforcing the offside rule only in the offensive zones or sending players off when a team commits a certain number of fouls. As a player’s fitness increases, failure to impose rules of this nature may even make the game unbearable to watch.
Tracking Distance Covered. Professor Thomas Reilly, a world-renowned exercise physiologist from Liverpool John Moores University pioneered the research in motion analysis in soccer in the late 1970s. With the help of his students and aides he tracked the movement of the Everton players, relying on field markings and visual cues around the field boundaries. For each player, the studies required a separate observer, who tracked the player’s movements and spoke into a recorder to catalogue findings.
Most recently, newer technology using multiple synchronized cameras linked to computers have enabled the collection and tracking of movement information for all players on the field. Over the last decades the total distance covered by a player has increased significantly, from about 8,500 meters (5.2 miles) in Reilly’s studies of the late 1970s to between 10,000 (6.2 miles) and 13,000 meters (8.1 miles), depending on the country being examined, today.
However, over the last few years the total distance covered during a match has only increased marginally. The astounding change in the physiological capacity of the players in recent years is clearly more attributable to the ability to perform a higher quantity of high and ultra high intensity work over the course of a match. The fact that currently such work is being performed and that we are far away from a limit is just astounding.
High Intensity Work Quantified. The ability to perform high intensity bouts of work in the field has significantly increased in the men’s game. Previously unpublished tracking data, made exclusively available for this article, from the international match analysis company Prozone Sports, shows a staggering increase in the ability of players to perform or engage in high-intensity bouts of activity (high speed running and sprinting) during a match. Over the last 7 years in the Premier League there has been a 46 percent increase in the total number of high intensity activities (movement above 19.8 km/h [12.3 mph]). For example, in the 2003-04 Premier League teams on average performed a total of 287 sprints (movement faster than 25km/h [15.5 mph]) during the season. Last season, however, the average total number of sprints was 487; almost a 70 percent increase in the number of sprints over the last 7 years.
Full Potential Not Reached. Soccer is a sport played in high intensity intermittent fashion. It requires a unique methodology of training to perfect multi-faceted fitness related elements, which are crucially important for playing the game at the highest level. The ability to recover quickly during the course of a game, indicative of a robust aerobic capacity, and to engage in subsequent multiple short bursts of high-intensity activity, is of the utmost importance. At the same time, a high anaerobic capacity and the ability to buffer the acidic environment in the blood and muscle are also vital.
Some players are endowed, more so than others, with the genetic predisposition to produce energy metabolically specific to the diverse physiological demands of the game. Exercise physiologists have been able to design and implement training methodologies that tap into or stimulate such genetic predisposition to an even greater capacity. At present, such methodologies specific to the energy demands of the game, are only being implemented in a limited number of clubs worldwide. As a result, the potential to increase this capacity even further is far from being reached.
Over the next few years when this information -- already at the disposal of exercise physiologists -- becomes more readily available to head coaches worldwide we will see additional increases in the physiological capacity of soccer players. Consequently, the less physical and more skillfull game of the 1970s may very well become a relic of the past.
The continuous upward shift in the fitness levels of players is inevitable and a part of the natural evolution of the sport. However, higher fitness levels don’t necessarily have to mean a field of play with less skill. The skillful character of the game will continue to disappear as long as FIFA is paralyzed and unwilling to act in implementing rules that will create open space in the field. In such a scenario we are headed to a field of play that may very likely one day resemble the forever congested streets of Cairo.
(Ricardo Guerra is an Exercise Physiologist. He has a Masters of Science in Sports Physiology from the Liverpool John Moores University. He has worked with several clubs and teams in the Middle East and Europe, including the Egyptian and Qatari national teams. The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)