Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Evolving Game Speed and Style of Play

Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." While Darwin was talking about species evolution, the concept of evolution holds true for sport, including soccer. Teams that fail to adapt to changes in the game, are often left behind, unable to take advantage of or respond to new strategies, player characteristics, training routines, injury prevention / treatment, player identification or rule changes. Compared to other sports, the laws of the game, equipment has remained relatively constant. However, many will argue that the game continues to change and evolve. The extent of change is shown in a recent study of past World Cup Championship matches. This study shows that over the past 44 years, the style of play has evolved to one that emphasizes speed, technical skill, decision-making and set pieces.

The Australian researchers analyzed the championship matches of the last 12 FIFA World Cup finals, from 1966 to 2010. They reviewed the broadcast video of each match and analyzed variables such as the number of passes attempted and various stoppages of play. They also utilized TrakPerformance software to calculate the ball speed and player movements and positioning.

The first key finding is that the number of stoppages was consistent across the 12 matches. On average, there were ~120 stops during each match. There were no major changes in the number of free kicks, corner kicks, goal kicks or throw-ins. However, the average time taken during these stoppages steadily increased by about 7 seconds. For example, while the number free kicks at the goal remained consistent, the amount of time spent setting up the set piece increased from 38 to 63 seconds.

Second, the increased stoppage time decreased in the average amount of play time between stoppages from 29 to 25 seconds. This in turn, reduced the percentage of the match spent with the ball in play, from about 70% to just a bit more than 52%.

Third, game speed, determined by both ball speed and the number of passes per minute increased from the 1966 match to 2010. Ball speed increased by about 15% while the number of passes attempted per minute increased by 35%.

Lastly, the researchers found that the game “density” has increased. That is, the number of players in the vicinity of the ball grew over the 44-year analysis period.

What does all of these results mean? Despite the amount of work pout into this study, it analyzed only 12 matches, played at the highest level. So, the results may or may not be applicable to other levels of play.

However, the authors raise some interesting ideas based on their results. The increased duration of stoppages has led to a change in the work-rest ratio during the match. Coupled with increased game speed, matches have evolved from one of continuous motion to one characterized by shorter intervals of high intense activity, followed by longer recovery periods (stoppages). Sprint speed also seems to be a premium. Whether trying to separate from a defender and create space or closing on an attacking player, high speed sprints with longer recovery periods is more commonplace today compared to the 1970s.

Increased game speed, ball speed and passes per minute coupled with greater player density emphasize an increasing need for technical skills and decision-making.

The authors also point to the emergence of “specialists”, particularly for set pieces. Teams seem to spend more time setting up set pieces for set piece specialists, attempting to capitalize on an uncontested service.

All of this has important implications for training young players. First, in terms of fitness, emphasis should be placed on developing the ability to perform repeated sprints with short recovery intervals. While recent studies show that soccer has a major endurance component, the ability to execute high-intensity sprints and recovery quickly is increasingly important. Second, developing sprint speed is an increasing necessity. Third, technique and decision-making should be emphasized. The ability to play in and out of tight spaces is critical as is the ability for teams to quickly organize themselves in defending and attacking situations. Finally, set pieces are increasingly seen as scoring opportunities. The ability to create scoring chances and the ability to defend against set pieces can affect the match’s outcome.

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” (Stephen Hawking). Recognizing how the game has evolved is the first step in adapting. Seeing change as it is happening will help ensure that your team stays ahead of the game.


Wallace JL, Norton KI (2013) Evolution of World Cup soccer final games 1966-2010: Game structure, speed and play patterns. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2013..0.016