Are we witnessing a paradigm shift, speed over talent and skills?

Opinion

The Vision- Spotting your teammate’s run put that perfect ball in for him…Spot a gap between two defenders enough for you to pass, go for it.

Goalkeeper is out of position or not covering a corner, go for that cracker…

The vision makes the player…Speed and skills he’s born with, like everyone!

Companies like Stats Inc., which has the technology to track player movement throughout a match, concluded soccer players run between 6 and 7 miles per game. Essentially, soccer players cover the distance of a 10k run each time they play. That amounts to so much more than the average distance covered by players involved in other major sports. Some players can cover up to nine miles per game and reach speeds of up to 25mph over a nine-month season.

So is football now about running less distance but sprinting more, trading the good old dribbles and skills that has entertained and delighted us over the years gone for running ability and pace?

Speed or skills, which one is more important? Some coaches will say ‘by far skills training is more important’ while a host of others will vehemently disagree.

The round leather game is a sport of complex strategy and tactics. A game plan; that basic strategy every team adopts for a game, with hundreds of play variations and strategies that are worked out well ahead of time to avoid a loss or losing.

They are so dynamic that some coaches don’t even wait until half time before they re-adjust to another tactics or strategy to be able to nullify the other team’s game plan too. Often or not how well these adjustments are made and the quality of their players will determine its effectiveness and outcome of the game.

In the last six years, sprints have increased by 80%, while the total distance covered have reduced by 2% and high speed actions are up by 30%. A glossary below makes this stark contrast when you compare football to other sport-

Tennis- 3-5 miles
Basketball- 2-3 miles
American football- 1.25 miles
Rugby- 4-7miles
Hockey- 4-5 miles
Football- 7-9.5miles

Football, a skilled team based sport, is all about technique, decision making and creative play ability. A continuous, multi-directional, multi-paced, explosive sport, with a global audience of over 7.5 billion never fails to divide opinions and court controversies.

Picture this-that time when your player’s first touch is good and sets up the pass that ends in a great goal – Game Won! Or, a bad first touch gives up a goal in the back; Game Lost-skill deficiency.

A teammate makes a great pass behind the defense and your player is able to out-pace the defender, but just does enough to get his foot on the ball redirecting it into the goal – Game Won- Speed. You are the team defending in this situation and your player gets out-accelerated, the opponent slots the shot into the goal, wham – Game Lost due to speed deficiency.

When people talk about ‘speed’ they are mostly referring to the physical speed of the player which is the most obvious of all the speed variants and the one that even the part time or rugby fan can relate to, however it’s not the most important quality that tier A players (pros) must possess to succeed or standout from the pack.

As much as all the other forms of speed are important, running speed would be considered the least important. The ‘’Speed of recognition’’, is second to none. This is only possible when a player understands his teammates and their movements with the ball technically and off the ball.

For clarity it’s sacrosanct that we break this “running” down- Technical speed; which is the ability to dominate the ball with all parts of the body-clean ball control, quickly passes and dribbling with precision. We also have the “thought speed & recognition’’…self-explanatory as it’s the ability to read the game based on the knowledge you have of your teammate and opponent alike. Like a radar picks up signal, one must be aware, focused, concentrated on what is going on around you on the field of play. Thirdly is Physical Speed.-Acceleration and deceleration, with directional change.

Reading the technique is important and you need to be able to identify the technique before a player chooses the technique they will use and what type of movement will enable them to make the connection (Diego Costa & Cesc Fabregas), now this is sounding like a science class right? Technique is the ‘foundation’ on which everything is based upon.

In terms of the overall playing demands across a season, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. A game is played on average every five days for nine months. There are literally no teams that can put up ‘’speedy’’ performances all through the season, as they will tire out towards season end. Jürgen Klopp and his heavy metal football couldn’t have illustrated it better.

In today’s game, speed has become an obsession with most coaches and trainers who have placed a premium on it. It has also been encouraged by coaches who thrive on winning, many of whom would rather see their team physically dominate and win games rather than develop a lesser physically developed player for longevity reasons. Mark Hughes, Sam Allardyce, even Jose Mourinho comes to one’s mind when you think on this. We hear and read too often- ‘I would’ve signed him but he’s too small’ or ‘too slow’ or ‘they can’t back track to help the defenders out’.
Little wonder players like N’Golo Kante and Juan Mata found it a bit difficult establishing their careers earlier, even after winning Chelsea’s POTY, Jose Mourinho relegated Mata to a bits and piece player citing no pace and defensive duties shortfall.

Now having said that, it’s crucial we understand the importance of speed with and without the ball in possession. A player’s main objective on the pitch is to be as fast as he can, with and without the ball. Pure and absolute linear speed has limited value these days.

A few years ago, both Ronaldo De Lima and Michael Owen, some of the fastest to have graced the game made a huge impact by scoring so many memorable goals amongst them. With similar qualities in that they were nearly as fast on the ball as they were off the ball; they went on to win top personal and collective accolades. We can now see that Messi is the best amongst the few modern day players who has these rare qualities. No wonder he’s Messi-less to opponents. As Ronaldo and Owen got older they modified their game, simply because most of their opponents knew the way they played and adjusted tactically, there-by reducing their threats.

Luis Figo, Rivaldo and Zidane, all won the World Player of the year award in consecutive years, and none of them were considered fast. These legends in their repertoires possessed the very art of deception and displayed a mastery of the ball bordering on perfection. Zizou as popularly known once said he admired the Uruguayan Enzo Francescoli nicknamed El Príncipe as a player, mainly because he was fast. Am sure Francescoli wouldn’t have minded a skill set swop with Zizou either!

However, none can argue ‘their pace’ on the ball and their ability to mesmerize players on the dribble; the drop of a shoulder, or a step-over here and there to shake off a defender while looking at the next best option. All of them read the game exceptionally well, with tremendous first touches, change of pace and direction on the ball- indeed it gave us adrenalin rush to watching them. A few spectacular goal scorers they all were, but could change the game in a snap of a finger- a deft touch, flick or pass did the job.

Cesc Fabregas has seen his starting chances at Chelsea limited this season as he struggles to cope with the demands of the modern day game. He said “football is beginning to marginalise players who are skillfully blessed but who cannot keep up to the pace”. The Chelsea midfielder admits his lack of speed and physique are costing him dear as managers are now moving away from skill, focusing more on athletic ability. Fabregas’ stark admission comes in a season when he has seen himself down the pecking order, playing second fiddle to N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic in the Chelsea midfield, both notorious for their running abilities and tireless work rates. The Spanish midfielder has created a chance every 24.8 minutes on average, a league- high amongst regular players, whenever he’s on the pitch.
Most notably, Fabregas was the most prolific player in terms of carving open opportunities for his team-mates in Europe’s top five leagues in season 2009/10, setting up a chance every 29 minutes. Cesc has 102 assists to his name, only 3rd best to Ryan Giggs (131) and Wayne Rooney (104), a record he will most likely surpass before he draws the curtains on his illustrious Premier league career.

Fabregas has averaged 2.26 shots per game and posted a conversion rate of 20.3% (compared to the league average of 14.6%).

When you look at the above stats, you realise that speed does not matter at all, if you are not able to maintain it for the entirety of a run or the game. If you get the ball at midfield and can break away from the defense with a quick run, that won’t really matter if you run out of gas 15 yards later. But I must admit that Gareth Bale’s amazing breath taking solo goal in 2014 finals of Copa Del Rey against Barcelona typifies the essence and importance of speed and knocks off the perch any arguments about running.

Ultimately, vision and decision-making are the most important qualities that any player can possess. Soccer is a sport in which even the biggest, fastest and strongest doesn’t necessarily dominate, am sure Stoke City would have been top of the Premier league or won the Champion League, if that was the case.

The great Michel Platini was fairly slow and relatively weak, but had the mind of a genius and the technical ability second to none. Platini once said, “if you can master the ball you can get your head up and create what you see in your mind” – Picasso with a canvas! When, where, how, if and to whom one should pass, or when, where, how and if to dribble or make a run off the ball, you become like a god. Those are innate qualities that can be enhanced and perfected.

Take a look at the abundantly talented young players; that does not make it to the big stage, one would start asking what could be the problem. Chelsea for instance has a hoard of young bright talents tipped to rule the football world at one point or the other-most never fulfilling those potentials, because their decision making on the pitch, not speed; doesn’t match up with their talents yet, which have made the club adopt the strategy of loaning them out, so they can horn their skills and talent before making it back to the first team. That ability to take the optimal decision at crucial moments surely makes the difference. It could be as simple as knowing when to pass or shoot at the goal when the ball is with you and maybe the keeper is off his line, or hold up play, even to kick it out of play to avert danger.

Mesut Ozil is another player that easily comes to mind when I think of this, so unselfish when it comes to scoring goals, skillful and with an eagle eye for passes; of course we all know speed is not one of his forte. Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t that fast, but being United’s highest scorer this term, with over 20 goals at the age of 35 in the Premier League is phenomenal.

Take a look at some of the best teams in the world- Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Juventus, and PSG. They are not necessarily the fastest, but they get the most out of their speed, moving the ball quickly to stay in rhythm and to throw defenses off. These are also teams that are great on the counter attack, simply because they have players who are willing to run with and without the ball. They are only able to get the end products (goals) because the ‘’speed stars’’ are also very skillful. Eden Hazard, Pedro Rodriguez typify this.

Arjen Robben looked as if he was embarrassing Sergio Ramos when beating the hapless Spaniard in a straight foot race as Holland humiliated the world champions during the 2010 World cup match in South Africa. The Real Madrid defender was left trailing in his wake as Robben stormed through; making Ramos appear leggy, only for FIFA statistics to later reveal that the 37km per hour sprint was the fastest ever recorded by a footballer. Iker Casillas could then only watch as the Dutchman danced beyond him to score his second sumptuous goal of the night. This rare feat was possible simply because Robben had the speed, skill and vision together, but notably the skill to manoeuvre defenders and leave them for dead.

Juan Roman Riquelme of Argentina, one time best player in South America, was a special player. He could elude faster opponents with a glance, a drop of a shoulder, a hesitation movement or arm gesture. He used his teammates as decoys to throw his opponents off balance or play a sublime look-away pass that deceives the most alert, speedy defender and even the cameras.

Even the slowest of sprinters can wrong foot the fastest defender. The speed of the mind, the ability to read the game, the art of deception and the ability to change pace and direction are far more important. The above mentioned can only achieved by how well a player and team reads the game.

Today when you look at Manchester City’s front line attackers, there are three key attributes they all share on common, speed, skill and youth. The speed, pace and power of the trio has been labelled as ‘the future of Manchester City’. In one of their matches against West Ham this season Sane was clocked as the quickest man on the pitch – followed by Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling. He and Jesus each made a game-high 73 high-intensity runs and no City player made more tackles and interceptions than the German.

Premier League and Spanish La Liga are by far the best football league’s in the world and we decided to compare both and see which league is the best football league in the world, using the on field performances and pure football criteria, as these two league typifies the skills and speed argument.

The quality of football in La Liga is unchallenged when compared to Premier League, easily the best league in the world for a mix of technical quality and entertainment. The key characteristic that typifies Spanish Football is Technique. Most teams in Spain’s La Liga place enormous emphasis on Technical Quality. The Spanish game in this sense is the perfect place for any footballer looking to improve his technical skills and quality on the ball. Statistically, La Liga have the fewest successful crosses per game average of the Top 5 European Leagues, which indicates La Liga teams prefer intricate play based on the short passes rather than to “get it out wide and get it in”.
Spanish football has been dominated in recent seasons by FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF, winning the title 54 times in the last 85 years between them. 13 Different Spanish Sides have competed in the UEFA Champions League since its inception in 1992/93, the most of any country. The fact that every single one of the last twelve European and international club trophies (Europa League, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA World Club Cup) have been won by La Liga clubs is sufficient testament to that. La Liga teams have won nine out of the last nineteen Champions League trophies-dominance!

English Premier League on the other hand can be defined in my own terms as ‘’kick and follow” football- the hurly-burly of English football cannot be denied, known worldwide for its pace and speed, competitiveness, commitment. The fans in the stadium, especially in old-school stadia like Turf Moor, Stamford Bridge where the supporters are seated very close to the boundaries of the playing field, cheer on everything, from ball control to hard tackles, headers, push, shoves and pace injection.

Even the Italian Serie A base their play on intelligence, dogged defending and excellent finishing. Serie A teams are not particularly creative, but they defend well and use one or two golden chances to kill off opponents. Because they prefer to defend and keep clean sheets to going all out and scoring, Serie A has one of the lowest goals ratios in Europe’s top 5 leagues-a fantastic place for Strikers to develop their finishing efficiency.

One way a center-half can be successful as a forward without being fast is physical play, using his body to shield the ball, or by being a playmaker with a great field vision and also able to distribute the ball to team mates better placed to score or wreak havoc.

“I’m more effective here because the culture is that people will praise you, appreciate you and understand you if you use your energy sparingly and intelligently. In England there is a general groan about players who didn’t chase a lost cause, but a roar for anyone who’d gallop after an opposition player to contest a meaningless throw-in.”

Could the words of Freddie Kanoute above be considered an emphatic conclusion, having played in both leagues or would the English game re-establish its dominance in Europe and the world again, laying credence to their style as proof that running is the “new” skill?

With the Premier League’s massive global audience, their “kick and follow” style is an easier sell, especially when you are bombarded with daily programs and highlight shows and analysis, arguing for-one would say at the end of the day isn’t it all about perception? One man’s meat is another’s fish!