How important is the physical component in football?

Non-s(ci)ence

Having the UEFA Champions league best of 16 around the corner, I would like to post some more or less random thoughts, however still crucial for coaches, sport scientists and/or S&C staff.

So how important is the physical component in football – which can also be rephrased into: can physical components be game decisive?
With that question I don’t mean if one single sprint and a finish can decide over winning and losing (and we all know the answer to this question). I meant if aerobic/anaerobic endurance, speed (in general) or strength will win games and/or Championships. This question is a little bit harder to answer in my opinion.

Lets pretend physical attributes are a major factor, we would then assume that the more successful team is superior in those factors. Is that the case? Probably not, however, I would like to give some thoughts about differences in players in different levels of competition and furthermore if players within the same level of competition differ with regards to physical and/or physiological variables.

Significant differences were seen between top-class (UEFA Champions League players) compared to Danish National players in performance parameters (high-intensity running and sprints during matches) and YYIRT level 1 performance (9 - see references below). Sprint and repeated sprint performance was significant different between different levels of play in Portugal, with the higher the level of play, the faster the players, who also inherent greater sprint endurance (1). The Literature also suggests physiological and performance differences in Serbian national league players compared to Serbian amateurs from 3rd division (11). The professional players had a higher VO2max, better jumping performance and greater estimated percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers. Furthermore, Swedish national players experience greater strength compared to other professional and amateur players (10), in addition national players had better proprioception/balance ability (12) compared to lower level players.

Knee flexor strength and 10-meter sprint were also significant different in French professional players compared to amateur players (2), with the professional players experiencing greater strength and higher running speed. However, the amateurs had significantly greater peak torque in the knee extension in low speed.

Investigation in female footballers showed differences in anthropometric variables between recreational 3rd division female players in Spain compared with Primera division female footballers. The lower level players showed greater body mass, more fat and less muscle percentage (16). Starter showed superior sprint and maximal aerobic velocity compared to non-starters (8) in New Zealand international female football players. Furthermore, eccentric strength discriminated between starters and non-starters in female NCAA Division I soccer players (5).

Youth national players showed superior performance in strength measures, jump and sprint performance to sub-elite and recreational players (4), despite no significant differences in anthropometry.

As a result, it seems that there are (some) differences in physical and/or physiological parameters between players in different levels of competition and between starters and non-starters.

However, I doubt that the physical performances were the only variables that differed. So what about the technical and tactical aspects. Well with regards to only the technical and tactical aspects I was not able to provide some literature, however, there were differences in French international players vs. amateur players with regards to the influence of the physical component on the technical and tactical aspect. For example, there are differences in performance parameters (successful passes, RPE, greater amount of loss of ball possession, less distance coverage in sprint and high-intensity running) between the two groups in SSG (3), which shows only that players from the higher level perform better (more connected passes), with less effort (RPE), are more efficient (fever loss of ball possession) and perform more repeatedly at a higher pace.

As it seems differences between levels are not only seen in the physical aspects but also in technical (and maybe tactical) elements. However, (and unfortunately) it is unresolved if the superior skills are just because the players in the higher competition level are just more skilled or maybe if the physical capacities (or also the delayed/lesser fatigue) influenced the skills. It seems established that fatigue from football match activity affects skill performance (15). Muscle fatigue influenced technical outcome/passing ability measured with the Loughborough Soccer Passing Test in college soccer players (7) and youth players form an Italian professional football team (13). However, the decline in passing ability was less in fitter players (13). There were also differences between successful teams and non-successful teams in the technical and physical aspects of Italian Serie A teams (14), with the more successful teams showing fewer decline in physical variables (such as total distance covered with the ball and high-intensity running with the ball) and also technical variables (such as successful short passes and dribblings and shots on goal) from the 1st to the 2nd half in a match.

Another quite interesting study investigated the role of stress, skill and fatigue on penalty outcome in FIFA World Cups. The study states that psychological stress seemed to be a greater factor, compared to skill and fatigue, in penalty outcomes (6).

 

Conclusion

In my opinion, the higher the level of competition the lower the importance of physical components (between teams). Well I have not worked on an UEFA Champions League level, but from my impressions it seems that physical fitness sets the foundation to be able to play at this level, but it is NOT a decisive component (obviously with the exception of having a Christiano Ronaldo finishing a counterattack after an opposition corner for a 2:1 win). Basically if the player is not fit (however this is defined), the player cannot play. If he/she is, then its more a matter of other qualities/individual class (technical, tactical, psychological aspects under high Champion League match speed) the player can add to the team.

 

Coaches of teams in “lower” divisions need to decide through measurements, experience or game analysis if the physical fitness is sufficient to compete on their level successfully. Due to the analysis the coaches can then decide if technical and/or tactical and/or psychological aspects of the game are “more” decisive compared to their players physical fitness and train appropriately/dominantly one or the others.

 

References
1. Abrantes, C., Macas, V., and Sampaio, J. Variation in football players' sprint test performance across

different ages and level of competition. J. Sci. Med. Sport. 3: 44-49, 2004.


2. Cometti, G., Maffiuletti, N.A., Pousson, M., Chatard, J.C., and Maffulli, N. Isokinetic strength and

anaerobic power of elite, subelite and amateur French soccer players. Int. J. Sports. Med. 22: 45-51, 2001.


3. Dellal, A., Hill-Haas, S., Lago-Penas, C., and Chamari, K. Small-sided games in soccer: Amateur vs.

professional players' physiological responses, physical, and technical activities. J. Strength. Cond. Res. 25: 2371-2381, 2011.


4. Gissis, I., Papadopoulos, C., Kalapotharakos, V., Sotiropoulos, A., Komsis, G., and Manolopoulos, E.

Strength and speed characteristics of elite, subelite, and recreational young soccer players. Res. Sports. Med. 14: 205-214, 2006.


5. Jenkins, N.D., Hawkey, M.J., Costa, P.B., Fiddler, R.E., Thompson, B.J., Ryan, E.D., Smith, D.,

Sobolewski, E.J., Conchola, E.C., Akehi, K., and Cramer, J.T. Functional hamstrings: quadriceps ratios in elite women's soccer players. J. Sports. Sci. 31: 612-617, 2013.


6. Jordet, G., Hartman, E., Visscher, C., and Lemmink, K.A. Kicks from the penalty mark in soccer: the

roles of stress, skill, and fatigue for kick outcomes. J. Sports. Sci. 25: 121-129, 2007.


7. Lyons, M., Al-Nakeeb, Y., and Nevill, A. Performance of soccer passing skills under moderate and

high-intensity localized muscle fatigue. J. Strength. Cond. Res. 20: 197-202, 2006.


8. Manson, S.A., Brughelli, M., and Harris, N.K. Physiological characteristics of international female soccer

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10. Oberg, B., Moller, M., Gillquist, J., and Ekstrand, J. Isokinetic torque levels for knee extensors and knee

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