Football is a constantly evolving sport. The modification of the rules of the game, the emergence of new tactics and the improvement in the players’ technical and physical training cause changes in performance and in the teams’ way of playing throughout time. For example, it has been confirmed that between the 2006-2007 and 2012-2013 seasons, English Premier League players increased the number of passes made during a match by 12% and the number of actions and the distance travelled at high intensity by almost a third.1 Another study has found that in the World Cup finals between 1966 and 2010, the number of passes and the speed of the ball have increased by 30% and 15%, respectively, while the effective playing time has decreased 10%.2 The movement of players and coaches as a consequence of globalisation and the trend that winning teams tend to mark may explain these changes.
How has elite football been changing in recent years? Is it possible to find any trends in the game? A recent publication3 has analysed the evolution of the technical performance of teams and players in the UEFA Champions League (UCL) in recent years. In order to do that, they examined the values for 18 game actions within a total of 1,125 games (2,489 players, 16,247 observations) during 9 seasons: from 2009-2010 to 2017-2018. The data was provided by an open access website (www.whoscored.com) and the reliability of the tracking system used (OPTA Client System) has been widely validated in scientific literature. The main results are collected in the following table.
- The number of shots and attempts to score a goal hardly show any differences in the seasons studied.
- The passes, the percentage of successful passes and the contacts with the ball show a positive trend during the 9-year period analysed (p <0.01). The ball is passed more times and in a more efficient way. The lowest and highest values of the historical series are reached in the first and last season, respectively (see the green and red dot in the trend graph).
- Crosses into the box (any ball sent to the opponent’s box from a lateral position) and long passes (a pass longer than 25 yards/22.86 meters) remain at the same level and it even drops in the case of crosses into the box (p <0.01).
- Fouls, tackles, and yellow cards show a significant downward trend (p <0.01).
- The number of dribbles per game remained stable between the 2009-2010 and 2016-2017 seasons, however, they have increased by 35% in recent years.
In summary, it seems that the best European teams seek to have a greater control of the game, creating attacking situations by using more short passes with a greater efficiency so as not to lose possession of the ball. On the other hand, crosses into the box from the wings and long passes are less important in the game. Ball possession and the combination game seem to mark the evolutionary trend of elite football compared to the more direct game (long passes).
Clubs and coaches should consider this trend in the evolution of the game in their daily work. The training process for the youngest players may have to be oriented towards stimulating the best technical-tactical level with the ball and being able to play faster and faster. The signing of footballers should not be unrelated to this evolution either. It may be convenient to remember a phrase of Johan Cruyff: “Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place, at the right time, not too early not too late.” Possibly, the newest evolution is to remember what wise people said many years ago.
Carlos Lago Peñas
1 Barnes, C., Archer, D. T., Hogg, B., Bush, M., and Bradley, P. S. (2014). The evolution of physical and technical performance parameters in the English Premier League. Int. J. Sports Med. 35, 1095-1100. doi: 10.1055/s-0034-1375695
2 Wallace, J. L., and Norton, K. I. (2014). Evolution of World Cup soccer final games 1966–2010: game structure, speed and play patterns. J. Sci. Med. Sport 17, 223–228. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2013.03.016
3 Yi Q, Liu H, Nassis GP and Gómez M-Á (2020) Evolutionary Trends of Players’ Technical Characteristics in the UEFA Champions League. Front. Psychol. 11:1032. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01032
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