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Jeffrey Gamby-Boulger looks at the changing state of the beautiful game, specifically the increased importance of athleticism in football and wonders if it is beginning to overshadow technical ability.
The start of the 2016/17 Premier League season was hotly anticipated for two reasons. The first and most obvious is the ocean of wealth now cascading to every Premier League team in light of the new record £5.14billion TV rights deal. The English top flight is now so flush with revenue and potential that 13 of the 20 Premier League teams broke their transfer records this summer. But this only tells half the tale.
The other shining light that has drawn audiences back to the Premier League after a summer saturated with international and Olympic sport is the influx of some of the world’s most gifted and charismatic managers now lining up as adversaries for the first time. Liverpool enticed Jürgen Klopp last season to reignite Anfield and return the famous club to former glories. Manchester United, a dismal disappointment under former charges David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal, relented in their quest for silverware and opted for the tried and tested José Mourinho, an almost guaranteed winner. Meanwhile the blue half of Manchester rejoiced in the appointment of arguably the greatest coup of them all, as former Barcelona and Bayern manager Pep Guardiola arrived on English shores to continue his own phenomenal coaching career.
As Mourinho and Guardiola continued their personal rivalry, this time in the Premier League, in one of the most eagerly anticipated local derbies for some time, it was Manchester City who prevailed, as the Spaniard once again tasted victory against his old nemesis with a pulsating 2-1 win. But while all eyes were drawn to the battle of the Premier League’s latest super powers, a closer look at the game itself reveals the subtle nuances of this fascinating tactical encounter and sheds more light on one of the game’s fastest growing debates.
During their win over United, City players covered a total of 119.63km, whereas in comparison Mourinho’s team covered only 111.34km. Clearly, for all the adulation and praise for his tactical innovation on the field, and rightly so, Guardiola also demands total commitment off the pitch, ensuring his players are at peak performance and are capable of fulfilling the exhaustive physical demands that his relentless possession based system requires.
And the Spaniard is not the only manager to place his faith in a high octane approach. Tottenham have been taken to a new level under the tutelage of Mauricio Pochettino, with a blend of astute transfer dealings, a few phenomenal young players beginning to flourish and an intense pressing style of football aimed at recovering the ball as quickly as they lose it and harassing their opponents into mistakes. Leicester won the league last season utilizing a formidable counter-attacking approach that specialised in them sacrificing possession in return for a lethal and devastating break of speed to intercept their opposition and a ruthless streak to ensure they capitalized on their chances when they came.
Liverpool have also begun to foster the now infamous ‘gegenpressing’ style that became the hallmark of Klopp’s supremely talented Dortmund team. A high intensity, rock n’ roll approach to football aimed at retrieving the ball, using the ball, and attacking at high intensity. Harass and pressurise the opponents and eventually they will make a mistake.
And these teams are not alone in their physical sentiments. Pochettino’s Argentinian counterpart Marcelo Bielsa is one the game’s most cherished innovators and characters, and is well known for utilizing a similarly taxing strategy. Diego Simone’s Atleti are regarded as arguably Europe’s hardest working team, absolutely resolute defensively and capable of reducing most teams to a shadow of their former selves, broken by Atleti’s physical superiority.
It’s not just a European trend either. The roots of this fast and furious obsession reaches as far out as South America, where managers like Jorge Sampaoli adopted and fostered the energetic approach of his predecessors with the Chilean national side, with great success.
Football, it seems, is evolving. Gone are the days when players could float through games as effervescent talents. The gentleman’s game, when goals were technically proficient and physically adequate. Nothing more, nothing less. But the game is changing. Society is changing and so is our understanding of both the human body, and what a professional sportsman can and should achieve.
Sports science has pushed the boundaries of what is physically possible beyond previous limits, and nutrition has evolved so drastically that it is beyond recognition compared to the former glories of previous generations. Ice baths are now common past-match tonics, not pints of milk.
In the modern game, every single element of a player’s pre-match, post-match and everyday life is scrutinized down to the minutest detail to ensure a player is capable of turning in their best performances when it matters. Diet, weight, even sleep are all constantly monitored and recorded in the hope of providing the faintest edge against the competition. One example of this obsession being taken so seriously is in 2013, when Real Madrid went as far as to invite elite sport sleep coach Nick Littlehales to the club to deliver a workshop to then manager Carlo Ancelotti and his squad to explain the benefits of guarding against fatigue.
And they are not alone in their obsessive attention to detail. Teams have been known to travel to away game hotels with specially tailored mattresses for each player to ensure they receive the necessary amount of sleep required to maximise their recovery between games.
Players’ performances in training and matches are constantly recorded to give the club an unprecedented amount of statistical data aimed at keeping them in maximum physical condition, and ensuring they can cope with the rigours that professional football places on the human body.
These are all examples of football’s recent pursuit of marginal gains as clubs are increasingly turning to the most unlikely sources, and focusing on the smallest details to give themselves an advantage.
And football is not the only sport where sleeping patterns and data analysis are quickly becoming the backbone of a player’s off the field regime. Other athletes such as Roger Federer and basketball star LeBron James are both known advocates of getting sufficient amounts of sleep per night, and their attitudes are supported by research showing that performance is indeed benefited by sufficient rest.
The message then is clear, and the benefits are becoming increasingly profound in a sport where even the slightest advantage can be the difference between winning and losing. For a professional athlete, taking recovery for granted inherently increases the risks of injury and reduces performances. And aside from being unable to perform to your peak, a restless night can also weaken the immune system and increase the risk of illness. If the trend continues, strength and power is also reduced.
Fitness therefore has never been more crucial for a player to succeed at a time when they are required to run further and harder than ever before. But what does this mean in practical terms for clubs currently operating in a cash rich and bloated transfer market?
To use a recent example, Moussa Sissoko’s £30m transfer to Tottenham this summer may raise eyebrows after a turbulent and inconsistent 2015/16 season with Newcastle was bookended with a personally reinvigorating Euro campaign with Les Blues. But it does correlate with the notion that players with a greater physical aptitude are becoming more desirable for their ability to endure the rigours of what is asked of them.
If a player such as Sissoko, an incredible athlete, a formidable physical presence and neigh on impossible to stop when in full flight, can be sold for £30m while his former Newcastle colleague Georgio Wijnaldum can leave for £5m less to join Liverpool for a fee of £25m, does that mean a player of Sissoko’s physical prowess has become more valuable in today’s market than his more technically proficient counterpart?
In light of the growing physicality of professional football, and the exponential growth of sports science in the preparation and recovery of a player’s short career, one must ask has the focus shifted in what teams now desire from technique to athleticism?
Are the physical qualities of a player, his stamina to endure and ability to match the rigorous demands of top flight football in the professional game now a more sought after commodity than the beautiful technique that has graced the game in previous generations, often matched disproportionately by their lack of physical conditioning?
Georginio Wijnaldum is the superior of the two in terms of technique, a fact that cannot be questioned. A technically formidable player with a footballing intelligence and resourcefulness on the pitch, he scored 11 goals for the Magpies during his maiden season on Tyneside. Able to play as an attacking midfielder either in a central position or out wide, and as a deeper lying playmaker, his signing was seen as a coup for Newcastle. Sissoko meanwhile is a different beast altogether.
A maverick in the sense that he has not nailed down one set position in his career to date, the Frenchman is able to play centrally both as an attacking and defensive outlet, whereas he has mostly been utilized as a wide right attacker, to best suit his physical skillset of pace and strength. But with just 11 goals in 118 Premier outings, it becomes clear that Sissoko, like others, is deployed for his athletic contribution, not his technical ability.
It is true however that external factors cannot be overlooked in each transfer. In this case the hard bargaining stance of a club which didn’t need to sell a player who just out performed his compatriot Paul Pogba in the European championships, resulting in a slightly skewed financial valuation. But the fact remains a player with a greater physical skillset has cost more than a player with a higher natural ability.
It is not an issue that is concentrated just in the notoriously intense English game or the European leagues either. Since its inception the MLS has often been a league derided for its lack of genuine technical ability, instead focusing more prominently on the physical aspects of the game.
And former Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo, himself well known for his incredible natural talent and simultaneous dislike of the physical side of the game, has said that U.S. players are not being taught technical skills at an early enough age which is resulting in a lack of quality in a league that is producing athletes but not superstars.
The 37-year-old goes on to say that more needs to be done at youth level to bring the sport up to standards seen in the European leagues. At an MLS promotional event, he said:
“It’s a very hard league to play in. It’s very physical, there’s a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play.”
“What I’m talking about is actually a system or culture. I don’t mean that the level of technical skills are low. I just mean there is a cultural void that needs to be filled.”
Whereas youth training in Europe has a more mixed approach, balancing a need for athleticism with technical skills to accompany them, the former AC Milan and Juventus midfielder says Americans who play soccer at college are already falling behind their European counterparts in terms of their development. Regarding standards in Europe, he said:
“They pick them and they train them in much more than just running.”
Indeed, without the subtle technical components found in the European game, the MLS remains a more physical and raw league, where a player’s ability to cope with these stresses becomes the prevailing attribute, ensuring a focus on athleticism rather than ability with the ball.
Players such as Sebastian Giovinco, home grown from Italy and therefore used to the European game, have shown the benefit of combining his technical quality with the physicality required to thrive in the MLS by delivering the most spectacular season in MLS history to date with 20 goals and 15 assists.
While a dependence on physicality as opposed to technical ability has been widely regarded as one of the overriding weaknesses of the MLS, it does highlight the growing importance in having the correct physical make-up to be able to succeed in the professional game, no matter which league, team or culture one adopts.
For this reason it is understandable why players such as Pirlo and Frank Lampard, supreme talents past their prime it must be said, have not dominated from the outset in the MLS as many expected.
It seems one of the biggest changes in the modern game lies in the conditioning of present day players to enable them to endure the increased physical demands and frequency of games required of them. Players such as Lampard, Pirlo and Gerrard had their ability to contribute in the MLS severely weakened by not being in the correct condition to apply themselves and adapt to the environment they surrounded themselves in. Technical ability will never be lost from the game, but like never before the physical component remains absolutely essential.
But for all the clamour for the latest scientific breakthrough in sports sciences, we must remember that the game was founded on an appreciation of technical ability. An appreciation for the ball and a feel for the game. One can be trained to run 11km twice a week, and the skills to score 20 goals a season can be chiselled and perfected.
But the desire and determination to be there when the ball arrives cannot be taught. Like the vision to execute the pass that splits a defence or the bravery to keep pushing forward. To have the foresight to anticipate when a player will move, or to have the imagination and speed of thought to execute the perfect pass, these are all raw instincts that cannot be taught and is what separates the truly gifted from the rest. In this respect, athleticism will always be secondary in terms of what makes a great player.
Indeed, while Pep Guardiola demands a certain commitment from his players, he was also able to accommodate some of the finest talents of their generation into his high intensity ‘Tika-Taka’ 4-3-3 that made Barcelona so successful. Lionel Messi, Iniesta and Xavi are amongst the greatest talents of all time, and were the cornerstones of Guardiola’s magnificent Barcelona team. Yes, the team relied on the incredible stamina of Dani Alves and Pedro, and the side was garnished with players who could act as a supporting ensemble, but the team was always based around the technical attributes of their best players, not the physical qualities of their athletes.
While the game moves into a state of perpetual motion, where every team is pushed to exhaustive methods to gain the slightest advantage in a cash rich era, we should never lose appreciation of the players that still grace the game because of what they can do with the ball, not without it.
While the game changes, so does our culture and attitude towards it. We expect more and more. Athleticism that would once make a man a supreme athlete is now the norm for players. But for every physical specimen, there is a player who will lift us from our seats through the joy of playing and nothing more. And while Pep Guardiola rightly celebrates City’s recent victory that puts his side top of the Premier League for the time being, one should take a brief look across to his counterpart Zlatan Ibrahimović.
One of the game’s most endearing and enigmatic figures, as well as one of the most naturally gifted, he has never fit into the high octane and physical template being adopted by so many, and the Swede famously clashed with Guardiola during their time at Barcelona. A fine specimen he may be, but he has never been an athlete in the same vein as a player such as Sissoko. But as a scorer of some of the most beautifully aesthetic goals of all time, one must ask has Ibrahimović ever suffered for his lack of outright athleticism? Not in the slightest.
The increased physicality of football must not be ignored, and it brings with it more potential than ever before as the game reaches new plateaus. But there will always be a place for the technically astute and talented. While the benefits of players becoming fitter than ever before cannot be ignored, the game was built on a foundation of ability before athleticism, and the purists among us will be pleased to see it stay that way for the foreseeable future.