When players move between competitive levels, both the physical and technical demands clearly change. This is often the case with youth players who “move up” to a higher competitive team or league as well as professional who compete at various domestic and international competitions. This may be the result of several factors such as physical capacity, skill and style of play. Researchers affiliated with several British universities and European professional clubs performed a detailed comparison of the movements and technical performance of players competing at the three highest level of English professional soccer. Players in the Premier League performed less high-intensity running but showed greater technical abilities that their lower standard counterparts. The researchers suggest that these differences may be linked to the style of play used at the different levels.
The data were collected on players participating in the English Premier League (PL), Championship and League 1 using a multi-camera system and a Prozone analysis package. The analyses provided quantitative information on running speeds and distances as well as several technical markers such as passes attempted and completed.
There were several key findings. First, players in the PL covered less total distance than did players in the Championship and League 1 divisions. The total distances covered per match (averaged across all positions) are shown in the left panel of the figure. League players covered nearly 1000 m more than those in the PL (11.6 vs 10.7 km or 7.2 vs 6.7 miles). This increased distance held for all playing positions. As for movement speeds, lower division players covered more distance sprinting and high-speed running compared to PL players. In contrast, PL players covered more distance walking. A previous study that showed players in the PL and Championship make the same number of sprints and high-speed efforts. Thus, Championship and League 1 players likely execute longer sprints and longer high-speed runs during the course of a match.
The investigators also found that PL outside backs, central and wide midfielders covered less total distance in the second half of matches compared to the first period. This was not the case in the Championship and League 1 players. What is interesting is that the lower standard players maintained their efforts despite covering more total distance than the PL players. This led the authors to speculate that players in these PL players in the most physically demanding positions are not optimally conditions. However, the point out that they did not make any physiological or metabolic measurements on the players that might provide more insight in to the level of fatigue experienced by players at all three levels.
The second key finding was that the technical indicators of PL players were superior to those of players in the lower two divisions. PL players executed more passes, more forward passes and completed a greater percentage of passes than the Championship and League players (right panel of the figure). For example, PL players completed nearly 25% more forward passes than the League 1 players. On the other hand, lower division players intercepted more passes, executed more headers as well as clearances.
That professional players competing at higher divisions run less than those at lower divisions is not surprising. This has been reported be previous studies of physical performance in players of various competitive levels. What are unique about this study are the measurements of technical ability along with physical. The authors speculate that the lesser running and increased technical aspects are indicative of greater possession tactics used by teams competing in the PL. This is opposed to more direct, long ball play used in the Championship and League 1. The authors point to previous studies that show within the PL, unsuccessful teams cover more distance particularly without ball possession than more successful teams. Also, playing against strong opposition is associated with lower ball possession and more running, possibly due to attempts to close players down and regain possession.
Thus, direct play seems to encourage greater sprinting and high-intensity running (specifically longer runs) and likely results in fewer passes attempted and completed as well as more headers and more intercepted passes. On the other hand, a possession style of play results in lower physical demand, shorter intense efforts coupled with greater technical execution. Add to that, less ball possession results high-intensity efforts to defend and regain ball possession.
The results of this study also have important implications for training players. Understanding the physical and technical demands of playing at various competitive levels allows coaches to construct appropriate fitness training programs. Programs that match the efforts needed during a match. It also raises the possibility that improving technical skills and execution might lower the physical demands of the match. By properly executing a possession style of play, the extent of high intensity effort might be reduced. This, in turn could result in players experiencing less fatigue at the end of the match.
Bradley PS, Carling C, Gomez Diaz A, Hood P, Barnes C, Ade J, Boddy M, Krustrup P, Mohr M (2013) Match performance and physical capacity of players in the top three competitive standards of English professional soccer. Human Movement Science, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.humov.2013.06.002.