If the Pep Guardiola years at Barcelona taught the football world anything, it’s that size isn’t everything. The greatest team of the 21st Century to date was, and still is, dominated by pint sized footballing magicians such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. These three players are the exception though and not the rule.
Consider this scenario, what if there was a second player with the exact same talent of Lionel Messi, but he had the frame of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. If you put them in identical teams, over the course of a season, who would score more goals? Logic would dictate the more physically dominant of the two. However, this may not be the case, for every defender that the Zlatan type could out-jump or overpower, there is a player the Messi type could go round or out-manoeuvre. When your natural talent base is so superior to your opponents, your body type is largely irrelevant.
Now consider this, instead of a player with the best talent in the world, what if there was a player with the talent of say, Steve Sidwell. Our very own Ginger Iniesta is experiencing something of a renaissance under Rene Meulensteen and he is certainly playing above and beyond his physical stature. However, were there a universe of infinite multiple Sidwells of different shapes and sizes all sharing the same underlying talent level, there would be an expectation that the faster and stronger incarnation would be the most successful.
The emphasis in that last statement is that it is faster and stronger, not taller and heavier, that would succeed. Being tall or heavy is no guarantee of success. But utilise physical prowess and turn it into athleticism, and there would be a correlation. Athleticism is the balance at play between multiple physical attributes not a product of any one on its own. The perfect player is strong but fast and dominant but agile. Complexities are abound and the perfect athletic player would have strength [requiring weight] but also be quick and agile [requiring lightness].
Given equal talent, the athlete will prevail.
In a sport where the margins between success and failure are often miniscule, something as simple as physical attributes must be taken into consideration when putting a team together. At the bottom end of the Premier League table, the difference in talent level between sides can often be so marginal that it will be the more athletic and fitter side that come out on top.
This was obvious with Fulham earlier this season. Fitness levels were clearly lacking and results suffered as a result. Regardless of fitness, Fulham lack athletes. We have various technically skilled and gifted footballers, but we are short on athletic prowess. It is rare for us to out-pace, out-muscle or out-jump other teams.
Of course, fitness is an attribute that can be improved and worked upon. Indeed, any look at the form of Adel Taarabt over the past few weeks would see a fitter player having more success as a result. However, given the assumption that all players receive the same level of fitness training, those players with greater physical prowess are likely to be the ones who excel athletically.
Unfortunately football doesn’t record a uniform set of athletic statistics. Short of height and weight, it is rare to see a physical or athletic characteristics charted in the public eye. This can make a lot of the analysis surrounding athleticism highly subjective from a scouting perspective. Once a club gets their hands on a player they can ProZone them till their heart’s content but until then there is a lot of guesswork and the patching together of statistical information that may or may not infer a measure of athletic performance.
American Football, where athleticism is placed at a particular premium, has a stringent set of methods for measuring the athletic ability of potential players entering the NFL. Whilst not by any means a conclusive judge of future success, the NFL pre-draft scouting combine forces players to perform a number of athletic challenges and tests which are used to define a players’ on-paper athleticism statistically. These challenges, such as a 40 yard sprint, single rep and multiple rep bench pressing and agility courses can give scouts an idea as to whether a player’s athleticism synergises with their physical characteristics. This can then be used, along with technical and talent scouting to determine whether or not a player is desired.
If we return to football, where there are no such openly available measures of athletic performance, we can look at the basic physical stats of height and weight as a crude measure of potential athleticism.
Take four clubs as an example: Fulham, Newcastle, Southampton and Swansea. Three of these sides are teams currently above us in the league to whom we should be a peer.
Let’s look statistically at the strikers, where height and strength are ever crucial in the modern game.
|Team||Forwards||Average Height (m)||Average Weight (kg)||BMI (heigh/weight)||League Goals 2013/14|
|Fulham||Berbatov / Bent / Rodallega||1.83||74.67||0.0245
|Newcastle||Ameobi / Cisse / Remy||1.86||76.33||0.0244||10|
|Southampton||Lambert / Rodriguez / Osvaldo||1.85||79.33||0.0233||17|
|Swansea||Michu / Bony / Alvaro||1.85||78.67||0.0236||8|
The statistics are for the three main forwards in each side’s case. Fulham are shown to be the worst team physically having the lowest average height and weight and the highest BMI. This translates into the lowest goals total in the league this season of the four sides. Fulham coincidentally also have the oldest striking trio at an average age of over 29, compared to the youngest, Swansea, at 26.
The argument which I am attempting to make here is that Fulham need to pay greater attention to athleticism when analysing potential transfer targets. Financially the problem is that the most talented and most athletic footballers will cost the most on the open market. For a club like Fulham, to make players affordable, there is a likely necessity to take a hit on either athleticism or talent. At the top end of the table, talent is crucial, at the bottom, where team talent levels are closer to each other, there is a need for defining athleticism.
Take some examples of individual players; Bryan Ruiz is one of the most technically gifted footballers at Fulham. He is just not athletic in the traditional sense. Were he stronger and quicker, he would have cost more than £10m and not be the subject of speculation as to an impending departure.
Clint Dempsey came to Fulham as a waif like bundle of trickery who would be pushed off the ball with the merest breath of a passing butterfly. Over the course of his Fulham career he gained an ever improving level of upper body strength which made him physically more athletic and as such, gave him the platform with which to use his skills. Were Bryan to put on half a stone of muscle, I’d wager good money on him improving his productivity.
David Elm, for those of us that remember the David Elm experience, was a technically graceful footballer. He was, however, as flat footed as a duck-billed platypus.
For a non-Fulham example, Aaron Lennon is one of the best known examples of the other side of the coin. He’s a player with electric raw pace but questionable technique but who is still good enough to play for a top 10 side. Were Lennon blessed with David Beckham’s pace, he would struggle to get in any Premier League side, however, if he had Beckham’s technical ability, he’d essentially be Gareth Bale, and be the world’s most expensive transfer.
If you look at Fulham’s current squad, there are a number of players who follow this pattern; were Hugo Rodallega blessed with Erik Nevland’s technique and talent he’d be a consistent scoring threat, simultaneously if the above-mentioned Steve Sidwell was blessed with Dickson Etuhu’s athleticism, we’d have a European calibre box to box midfielder.
Physical prowess is no guarantee of success and each position requires a different physical skill set. It’s not that we need a taller team or heavier team, but I doubt many would complain if we got stronger and faster.
While height and weight do not conclusively prove a players’ likely athleticism, they do count for one factor for certain; intimidation. Saturday’s victory against West Ham was a lot harder to secure once West Ham took off Modibo Maiga (1.85m / 76 kg) and replaced him with Carlton Cole (1.91 m / 84 kg).
While nobody is suggesting we’ll be able to afford someone with the all-around technique and athletic balance like Alvaro Negredo, the Manchester City forward who may just be the best example of the perfectly balanced striker, it would be nice to see Fulham look for players this January who can take control of games athletically. Too many of our defenders resemble statues, our midfielders get out-muscled, our-wingers outpaced and out strikers out-everythinged.
It is important that we sign good technical players who can satisfy the desired Fulham way of playing (if there is such a thing) a flowing and passing style of football. However, it is important that we look to sign athletes as well. At the moment we fail to compete physically in too many games. By adapting the scouting and transfer outlook to improve our physical and by nature our athletic presence, we would give ourselves the platform with which to let our talent win us football matches.
Lowering the squad’s average age will contribute to an increasing of fitness levels across the board, but it could be argued that age alone is not a barrier to fitness. Scott Parker is arguably the fittest player in the Fulham squad but at 33 he is also one of the oldest (and at 1.75 m he is the second shortest). Reduced stamina and diminishing physical capabilities are though a correlated result of the aging process and Parker is like Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, in that in his own way he is an exception and not the rule.
Fitness coaching must not take a back seat. While management changes have come in abundance at Motspur Park of late there has been little said with regards to fitness. A fitness coach can only work with what he has in front of him though, and Fulham must give coach Scott Miller a younger and more athletic squad.
A side cannot be all brute strength and height, but must instead be a balance of athleticism, technique and talent.
The challenge facing Fulham in the next month is to sign several players who can simultaneously improve the athleticism and fitness levels of the first team whilst lowering its average age and increasing its talent level.
Who’d be a scout eh? Or a Head Coach, Technical Director or Chief Executive for that matter?