Finally, the news we've all been waiting for: from August, outdoor competitive football matches will begin and a 'near-normal' pre-season has been given the green light for Grassroots and National League football clubs. Now, more than ever, the physical welfare of our players is of paramount importance. In part 1 of this series we looked at match fitness from a metabolic perspective, including how many calories professional players typically burn during matches and a detailed breakdown of how this occurs. Part 2 will now focus on match fitness from a mechanical perspective, then bring together the key take-home messages to give you tips on how to maximise match fitness and minimise injuries upon return to contact training.
High intensity accelerations (>3m/s) are by far the most metabolically demanding action in football, placing 2-5 times as much demand on the energy systems compared to all other physical actions. However, it is high intensity decelerations (>3m/s) that carry by far the most mechanical demand. When we talk about mechanical intensity, we mean the stress that is placed on the tissues (muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons). Compared to all other major team sports, football has the highest ratio of high intensity decelerations to high intensity accelerations. In other words, footballers have to decelerate more often than they have to accelerate at a high intensity. This can be partly explained by the high frequency of 1v1 situations where attackers utilise sudden decelerations to evade opponents, or in pressing scenarios, where players have to put the brakes on rapidly in order to slow down as they approach the player in possession. Current research suggests decelerations carry around 65% more mechanical load per metre than the game’s other physical components. Given these statistics, it is no surprise that in a 3-year study by Southampton FC, sudden increases in the amount of high intensity decelerations that players performed per week were found to be the biggest predictor of injuries in football. An example of how this could occur would be if players were not exposed to enough high intensity decelerations within their training, but then suddenly had to perform lots of them during matches when their body was not conditioned for this.
With the return to football training now on the horizon in lower league football, it is important to reduce the chance of injuries caused by sudden increases in mechanical load. If the vast majority of players training has comprised of distance running and lower intensity training during lockdown, then they will be deconditioned from both a metabolic and mechanical perspective. Not only does this mean they will be severely lacking in match fitness, they’ll also be at much greater risk of injury. Therefore, players should include an appropriate amount of high intensity training within their weekly routines, using the match day requirements of their playing position as the guiding factor. With this in mind, let’s look at the physical demands of modern-day professional football matches and which playing position is the most physically demanding.
This data was taken over the course of two seasons, from a professional football team who predominantly utilised a 3-5-2 formation. As we can see, from an energy expenditure point of view, it was central midfielders who came out on top in this particular case study, narrowly edging wing backs in both KCal (calories) and KCal per minute. They also covered more total distance than all other playing positions. On the other hand, it was wing backs who performed the most amount of high speed running and sprint distance per game, whilst strikers performed the biggest number of high intensity accelerations and decelerations. Therefore, it could be said that in this particular case study, central midfielders and wing backs were shown to be the most demanding playing positions from a metabolic perspective, whereas strikers were potentially the most mechanically demanding position.
An important consideration before interpreting the above data as universal truth is the effect of formation and playing philosophy on physical demands, as this will inform how fit players need to be for their teams’ specific style of play. Let’s start with formation. Research has shown that attackers in a 4-3-3 perform roughly 30% more high-intensity running than when playing in a 4-5-1 and 4-4-2. Meanwhile, wide players generally cover more high intensity distance when playing in 3-5-2 compared to other formations. Central defenders have also previously been shown to cover greater high intensity distances when playing in a back 4, compared to a back 3. Like this case study here, the majority of research also shows centre backs to cover less total distance than all other playing positions. However, Sheffield United are a shining example of a team that are breaking the mould in both of these regards. It was recently revealed that two of their centre backs (Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham) were on the top 10 Premier League table for most distance covered this season. This is a result of their unique, overlapping playing style, as shown in their match day heat maps below.
Another example of a team whose style imposes additional physical demands on players is Liverpool. Their relentless counter pressing style led to them performing far more sprints than any other Premier League team in the 2018/2019 season. Their high intensity DNA was epitomised in their recent game against Crystal Palace FC, in which they achieved something which no other team has since Opta records began: they denied the opposition a single touch in their penalty area for the entire duration of the game. To play in the Liverpool team, players must be able to accelerate, sprint and decelerate frequently to execute their aggressive ‘Gegenpress’, which means they must be extremely well-conditioned from both a metabolic and mechanical perspective.
Now that we’ve explored the metabolic, mechanical and positional demands of match play, let’s round off this series with some key take home messages for improving match fitness and avoiding injury.
IMPROVING MATCH FITNESS
The number one tip is to make conditioning sessions meet and/or exceed match day demands. If you are unsure of what types of sessions can achieve this, following Club2 conditioning sessions enables you to access sessions that have been tried and tested against Premier League match day data to ensure that they match the physical demands of the highest level of football. For example, a GPS analysis of one of our recent sessions performed by a striker, showed that the overall physical intensity was the same as a Premier League match day for their playing position. This should be the minimum aim when seeking to improve match fitness.
Secondly, make sure to overload specific physical components during sessions. For example, Club2 tempo running sessions allow players to perform far more high-speed running distance per minute than match days.
Thirdly, when trying to train at or above match intensity, consider both the mechanical and metabolic demands of the game. Players’ heart rates rarely drop below 65% during matches, so should we allow them to in conditioning sessions? Universally, regardless of what level you play at, the average heart rate during football matches has been shown to be 80-90%; usually around 85%. This is where players enter their anaerobic threshold and why players expend an almost 50-50 split of aerobic and anaerobic energy during matches. To maximise the metabolic demands of a conditioning session, include plenty of high intensity accelerations and high-speed running. Consider roughly how many calories per minute your playing position will be required to burn in matches and try to meet and exceed this within your sessions.
Finally, when determining what match fitness is and what your current levels are, it is important to consider your current fitness levels, playing level, your team’s formation and their style of play. Club2FC gives players the chance to compare their current physical capabilities to some of the world’s top footballers, whilst also giving teams the opportunity to receive physical performance programmes tailored to their specific formation and playing style.
While some injuries are unavoidable, we can minimise the risk of many with the following steps:
Build training volume gradually. As discussed earlier, injuries occur when players are underprepared for high intensity mechanical load. This means that they should gradually increase the amount of weekly high intensity actions, such as accelerations, declerations, changes of direction and sprints from week to week as the return to football approaches.
Train in boots. Due to the design of modern day football boots, the muscles of the feet and calves are forced to work harder when training in boots compared to trainers. When the Bundesliga and Premier League first returned after Lockdown, there were an unusual amount of calf injuries reported. This is being linked to the fact that players may have spent far less time than usual in Lockdown wearing football boots, instead spending most of their time completing running sessions in trainers. This led to them being deconditioned for the mechanical load of regular football training and matches in football boots, meaning injuries occurred when football returned. Avoid this mistake and ensure you continue to train in football boots on a regular basis, throughout this extended off-season period.
Master the techniques involved in landing, change of direction and deceleration. Practice and master them in both closed and open environments, at a variety of different speeds and difficulties, to be as prepared as possible for the unpredictable nature of match play. This will help to reduce the risk of knee injuries.
Place a large emphasis on developing strength, especially lower body eccentric strength. Not only will this help to avoid soft tissue injuries, combining this with speed and power training can lead to you becoming more powerful and explosive on the pitch.
On that note, I’m going to leave you with a quote from Adama Traore on what he was trying to accomplish during Lockdown.
“We have been working hard to get back to full fitness. The staff gave us some plans that we have been able to do while at home. I think every player in the team has been working hard by themselves in their houses and they’ve come back stronger. I’ve been working a lot in the house and I’ve been using the plans they’ve given us, because in myself, I want to be the best I can be, so when I get back on the pitch, I can be even faster".
If the thought of arguably the fastest player in world football training to become even faster doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will! Keep an eye out for our forthcoming special feature on the world’s fastest players, where we’ll discuss how to develop and compare your current speed levels to Premier League and international players.
Want to improve your match fitness and train at the same intensity as a Premier League player? Club2 is created by sport scientists working at Premier League clubs. We use real world data to ensure that each session meets the physical demands of football at the highest level. Begin your physical performance journey today by booking a free consultation to discuss your goals and compare your current fitness levels and physical capabilities to some of the top players in the world.
This article was written by Raj Soni-Tricker, an academy sport scientist at Wolverhampton Wanderers FC.