'Traffic Jam' problem threatens the Beautiful Game

[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 rvcgf@yahoo.com.)

8 comments about "'Traffic Jam' problem threatens the Beautiful Game ".
  1. Andres Yturralde, July 8, 2011 at 10:26 a.m.

    Great stuff, Ricardo. Very informative and concise. Thank you very much!

  2. Amos Annan, July 8, 2011 at 10:57 a.m.

    Change the rules to play with 10 men. This will improve the flow of the game and counteract the increased fitness level of players today causing the congestion.

  3. Allison Mclean, July 8, 2011 at 1:46 p.m.

    I agree that developments in fitness are interesting and relevant, but how then does Barcelona play beautifully against what must be teams with the highest levels of fitness and resources? I don't have the answer myself, of course; I'm just wondering how to account for the exception.

  4. David Sirias, July 8, 2011 at 1:48 p.m.

    Let's assume the premise is correct. More fitness = more congestion. Skill is the kryptonite of congestion. See, Barcelona. Notwithstanding, I agree that the rules must be changes to open up the game. Simple evolution much as the NFL changed its rules over time. My suggestions:

    1. "professional" fouling that interrupts an attack, no matter where on the field, should equal a yellow and hence;

    2. Send off to the Penalty Bin, like in Hockey. Say 10 minutes for such "professional" fouls.

    3. Going through a player, even if you get the ball is an auto red with 2 game suspention.

    4. Offsides only if there is "space" between the attacker and defender. The "tie" rule that is supposed to favor the attacker is never called. Quite the opposite; tie = offsides in most every league.

    5. In exchange for #4, no calls on handballs unless truly intentional. How many teams have been penalized because the ball hits a defenders arm that's limp on the side of his body. Geez. The defender is human. He has an arm dangling there.

    5. Finally, Goal line cameras wi-fi straight to the 4th referee's iPad. Boom. Problem solved.

  5. Ramon Creager, July 8, 2011 at 2:53 p.m.

    I don't buy that "full potential is not reached." The argument is that most clubs aren't using these training methods. But that means that some are. What we'll see is more jumping on the bandwagon and catch up, but those who already use these methods won't achieve much more. Also, the argument doesn't consider injuries. The more the body is stressed, the higher the injury rate will be. At some point the injury rate will negatively balance the supposed gains. Finally, the author has to explain why Barcelona is playing the most beautiful soccer evah! in this age of congestion. And I'm unfortunately old enough to remember the era of skill he's talking about. It wasn't all that it's being cracked up to be. As David points out, "skill is the kryptonite of congestion." Less congestion, less skill required.

  6. Roger Gomes, July 8, 2011 at 4 p.m.

    I completely agree with the author with his arguments. Barcelona is basically an outlier.Dont be deceived by the way they play. It is an exception to the trends in international soccer these days. They have the best players in the world! and the genius Messi....a complete anomaly in international football....a creature from another universe....an alien....Nobody else plays that kind of soccer. Go to the south american league or look at Inter and the way they play....ugly soccer. For sure only the very skillful can survive in a field with no space. But can you imagine if there was open space in the pitch? The current very skilfull would do serious damage.Look at Martha...the brazilian player....with space in the pitch skillfull players would be able to display their brilliance even further.Nobody can deny the fitness of the game is increasing by the day!! Just look at the numbers.....

  7. Tris B, July 8, 2011 at 8:26 p.m.

    Good idea, but I disagree because the numbers back up his statement and my contention even though they diverge. I argue that it isn't that players are more physically fit and thus there is less skill but rather that because coaches are now looking at the archetype of athletic players akin to the idea seen in basketball "you can't teach height". In soccer, that has translated to "you can't teach speed and endurance". Coaches bring in athletic players because if they fail at marking or tackling, their speed and power can make up for that loss and muscle someone off the ball. Look at the converse of your Barcelona argument by using the USMNT. No one can say players like Frankie Hejduk are skillful by any means, but he's fast and has endurance. In the 80th minute, do you want someone running 100mph and still able to execute a marginal pass or do you want a Valderamma type who is gassed and tripping over his shoelaces? We all idolize that skilled player that despite these physical beasts they face, are able to dribble through 5 players and score the goal. We should instead be looking to push our coaches to train that kind of player rather than make sure they can run 30 segments of the yo-yo test without breaking a sweat. Tactics change to fit the opponent (unfortunately, less so with the US, but that is an aside) so a good team should adjust with its skilled players rather than toss out 11 6ft4 200lb runners onto the pitch. That's just lazy coaching and waiting for the other team to run itself into the ground to give up the goal.

  8. James Madison, July 8, 2011 at 11:27 p.m.

    An increased capacity for anerobic work, i.e., sprinting in defense demands an increase in technical and tactical speed to cope. Barcelona has adapted to this new reality. Maybe other teams will; maybe they will not. If they don't, the game will suffer. And by the way, David, it is "offside," as in a player being off his or her side and, thus, being ineligible to play, and not "offsides."

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