Monday, March 15, 2010

Running with the Ball: How Much, How Often?

Several research studies have documented the movement patterns of both professional and youth players. The distances covered, movement speeds and directional changes during a match are all fairly well understood. However, less is known about the characteristics of ball possession during a match. How much time is spent with the ball? What are the characteristics of each possession such as the number of touches, speed when running with the ball and space created? These questions are addressed in a new study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. Chris Carling, Science Director of Lille Football Club, describes the activity profiles of running with the ball in French professional players. He shows some very interesting patterns of ball possession and how they vary by position.

A total of 30 French League 1 matches were analyzed over a period of two seasons. A computerized tracking system was used to characterize the movement patterns of each player. Match analysis software was used to determine each player’s performance with the ball. These systems provide information about movement speeds, distances and direction as well as the characteristics of each possession.

The results show some interesting patterns. The total distance covered by these professional players was slightly more than11 km per match (nearly 7 miles). This is in line with what other researchers have reported. Central midfielders covered the most distance while central defenders covered the least (although the difference was only about 10%). Outside midfielders and forwards tend to sprint further than they jog whereas central defenders tend to do the opposite.

Players had, on average, 47 possessions per match. Central forwards had the fewest possessions (35) while outside defenders had the most (56).

Of the 11 km covered, only 191 m was run with the ball (1.7% of the total distance covered). This translates into about 53 sec of the match spent in possession of the ball (less than 1% of the time played). During each possession, the player covered 3-5 m, held on to the ball for slightly more than one second and averaged two touches per possession. Outside midfielders tended to hold on to the ball slightly longer than the other positions, covered more distance with the ball and took more touches per possession.

Players took possession of the ball with about 4m of space. Outside midfielders received the ball with more space (5m) while outside defenders had the least space (3m).

The average running speed when the player took possession was 10.3 km/hr and their speed during possession was12.9 km/hr (light speed). Peak speeds during possession reached nearly 25 km/hr (high speed / sprint). Thus, players generally received the ball while running, then accelerated before giving up possession.

When placing the results in the context of player training. Carling emphasizes four key concepts regarding player training. First, given that the movement patterns during the match vary by player position, fitness and technical training can be tailored for individual players based on the specific positional demands of the match.

Second, only a small percentage of the match is spent with the ball and the greatest percentage of movements with the ball are undertaken at a fairly high sunning velocity. This suggests that fitness training should be carried out both with and without the ball. Also, running with the ball during training could be performed at high speed to simulate match demands.

Third, the speed at which players receive the ball suggests that passing drills designed to improve first touch and ball control could be carried out while the player is moving not in a static position. Dribbling and ball control drills should be executed as both low and high speed. Again, emphasis could be placed on simulating match conditions.

Lastly, the importance of creating space and good ball technique should be emphasized in order to make the most of the limited time each player is in possession of the ball.

In addition to these recommendations and conclusions, this study emphasizes three additional points. First, one must realize that this study reports movement patterns and ball possession characteristics of high level professional players. Thus it is sometimes difficult to translate the results and recommendations directly to the youth game. However, the general concept of limited possessions and time spent with the ball over the course of a match is probably applicable to both youth and professional matches.

Second, the professionals clearly do not hold onto the ball for long periods nor do they do a lot of dribbling. They average 2 touches per possession. They are receiving or winning the ball then quickly giving it up. This emphasizes the need to train players in these sorts of possessions - developing the ability to make a successful pass quickly after receiving the ball.

The final point is that the professional players average 47 possessions per match and 2 touches per possession. This translates to around 90 touches per 90 min match. Given the skill level of youth players, the reduced length of matches and the fact that most players do not play the entire match, their average number of possessions and touches per match is probably on the order of 20 and 40. This stresses the importance of training sessions to develop technical skills. Drills and small-sided games offer players many touches, accomplished at varying pace and under varying levels of space or pressure. Certainly more than a few dozen touches are executed during a typical training session.

This study has clearly broadened our understanding of player movement patterns during competitive conditions. The results can be used to vary training sessions in order to meet the match demands of specific positions. Also, it emphasizes the need for specific training as opposed to matches for developing ball skills.

Reference:

Carling C (2010) Analysis of physical activity profiles when running with the ball in a professional soccer team. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28:319-326.