In 2011, the Professional Football Players Observatory released its third consecutive annual study, in which we realized that Barcelona, the best team in the world at the time, was also the shortest (given the average heights of its players), perhaps for the first time in the game’s history. (1)
Of course, this meant nothing at the time but the exceptionalism of this team, simply because the next teams in the order of height were; Shamrock Rovers, Ike Larnaca, Lorient, and Saint Mirren. Never heard of them before? Well, that proves the point. What is important is that this team was exceptional because height, or a certain degree of it, was, and probably still is, essential to success in the game.
In 2014, for example, journalist researcher Chris Anderson, who co-edited the book “The Numbers Game”, measured the correlation between success in football, using the FIFA Coefficient, and between the average lengths of football teams, using data Available from Wikipedia. (2) (3)
Andersen’s conclusion was that the relationship between the two things was clear, and that teams such as Brazil, Spain, Italy and England excel in this relationship, and Spain in particular was the most prominent, but this statistical experiment had no value, simply because the average lengths have nothing to do with the matter, and the averages Generally not the best way to demonstrate this relationship.
Simple example; Many researchers in the field of football believe that there is an appropriate age for a player who often reaches the top of his level, and this age ranges between 25-29 years, a theory that seems logical; The average age of the teams that won the World Cup was exactly 27.5 years, and the youngest team to win the tournament was Argentina in 1978 with an average of 25.7 years, and the oldest was Brazil in 1962 with an average of 30.7 years, and the last title won by France with an average of 26.3, and Germany won the previous one with an average of 27.3, Even Spain itself won the World Cup when its average age was 27.3 years, and lost it in 2006 when the average was 24.9. (4)
At first glance, this theory appears to be very solid, while the truth is that France had only two players in this age group in 2018, namely Griezmann and Kanté, and Germany had only 4, Neuer, Mertesacker, Podolsky, and Hovedes. Only two of them played in the final. Thus you can find many loopholes whenever someone talks about statistical averages.
The most important thing is that the length is distributed to different centers. It is axioms of the game that the defenders of the heart must be at least 180 cm tall, while this is not necessary for side defenders, or for midfielders, or even for attackers and wings, and therefore we cannot extract a true relationship between the average lengths and ability To play football efficiently, at least not in this way.
Oldest trick in the book
The truth is that height is important in the game for a simple obvious reason; Which is that the easiest thing to do in football is to hit the ball in the sky and wait for it to fall, which is the case in which length becomes of paramount importance, but what has happened in recent years is that teams that play this way consistently and regularly have fallen badly, at least at the top level That includes the major leagues of the game, and it no longer has the necessary public appeal, not even media support, to continue.
The fact is also that the exceptional team, whose average height did not mean anything in 2011, turned into a global wave that established a new style of football; A style concerned with building playing from the back, and a detailed study of opponents’ playing styles, and pressure of all kinds, especially after the Ralph Ranik revolution in Germany, which produced legions of coaches who believed in the importance of pressure to control the match, and forcing opponents to play according to their requirements.
With the spread of these patterns, the pressure became influential in the way the long balls were played from back to front, and it became one of the most important methods of stopping them and reducing their accuracy, and this produced a new type of isolated long passes that are not directed to the players’ heads as much as they are directed to spaces that allow them to run towards them, or Landing to get rid of stags, receiving and spinning, and other techniques that are now more common than the old traditional long balls, even in the Premier League and in England, a country that built its entire football culture on this idea for decades.
If you add to the above the increased awareness of the dangers of hitting the ball with the head, and the long-term injuries that result from hitting the players’ heads to each other during aerial tackles, it will not take long until the players themselves take initiative and start to avoid this method of playing in order to preserve their future health, after That its impact on diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and others was clear. (5)
In one of his lectures, sports investigative journalist David Epstein talks about the development of athletes’ bodies over time. He begins by saying that the old belief was that the average length was optimal for practicing all sports, then the age of specialization came, so it became important for swimmers, for example, that the torso be longer compared to the average, As well as the arms, which he summarized by saying that the closer the swimmer is to the proportions of the fish’s bodies (long arms and a long torso with short legs), the better. (6)
We can say that something similar has happened in football; The development of pressing techniques required the development of receiving, handing and passing skills, skills that lead coaches to rely on more flexible players, with faster reactions, and greater abilities to control the ball.
Stasinos Stavranias, professor of exercise science at Willamette University, puts it as an axiom. Short stature have what he called “Quicker Stepping Patterns”, which means that they rest on the ground more times, with less spacing, which ensures them greater acceleration compared to tall people, in addition to the most important advantage that “short stature They can change direction much faster than their tall peers, plus they have more control over their limbs, which makes them a greater threat to defenders.” (3)
This feature – changing direction while running quickly – is the most important of all in dribbling, but it has also become the most important in applying pressure recently, as many coaches seek to use one player to reserve players from the opponent, in order to maintain a numerical advantage in the back that allows him to apply protective coverage In the event that the opponent’s attacker outperforms his sergeant, for example, and applying this method of pressure requires that the attackers and midfielders run in the passing paths in a curved manner, or what is known as “Curved Run”, because it is useful in booking one of the opponent players and running towards another at the same time. (7)
Add to the above what is confirmed by an important report published on “BBC Future” in 2015, which says that short people usually have faster reactions because of the shorter limbs, and thus the shorter time it takes for nerve signals from the brain to the rest of the limbs. They also have a greater ability to balance as a result of their relatively low center of gravity, which is confirmed by all those who faced the likes of Maradona and Messi. (8)
“The first thing you discover about Messi after confronting him is that he is much stronger than his body suggests, and overthrowing him is not easy at all… It is very difficult to bring him down by physical force.”
(Paul Scholes on his confrontation with Messi in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals) (9)
Some studies find that tall people are more susceptible to injuries as well, because they carry more weight in their bodies without a significant difference in bone or muscle density compared to short people. One estimate says that only a 20% increase in height is enough to generate twice as much kinetic energy when falling, which means a stronger impact and a greater likelihood of fractures and muscle tears, which is confirmed by another important study of two Oxford University researchers who discovered that women who are tall 5 feet 8 inches are twice as likely to have a pelvic fracture as women who are 5 feet 2 inches. (8) (10)
Suchic.. Thomas Suchic
This idea mainly applies to attackers and midfielders as they represent the first and second wave of pressure, but it does not apply to defenders and central players except rarely, and until the moment it is still the possession of tall players in the heart of the defense at least is inevitable, but gradually, it began throughout The stature is limited to the heart defenders only, and all of this prompted the coaches to rely on the headers in only one case, which is the set pieces.
That was the rule in the last season of the Premier League, for example, and everything else was the exception. In the list of players who scored goals from headers, Calvert Lewin – the most important exception to this rule – topped with seven goals throughout the season, followed by Christian Benteke and Cavani with six goals each, and Harry Kane with four, In the rest of the list, which included more than 120 players, no striker scored more than two goals regardless of his height, except perhaps Liverpool duo Roberto Firmino and Diego Jota, who cannot be considered tall by any estimate, as they are 181 and 178 cm respectively. (11)
The same phenomenon is repeated in the list of the 50 most winning players in the Premier League, according to the “Whoscored” website, 32 players, including heart defenders, and 12 attackers, some of them short in stature, in addition to 4 midfielders, perhaps the most prominent of whom is the Czech Tomas Socic, the modern equivalent of Marouane Fellaini, one of Former Manchester United coach David Moyes favorite players throughout history. (12)
What is interesting is that Sochik here is an important example of the rule and not an exception to it, as expected. The Czech wins 2.6 air tackles per match in the Premier League, not because he cannot win more than that, but because the style of play does not have the luxury of relying mainly on it, unlike The Czech national team, with which this figure doubles to 5.2 per game, is often due to the lack of time available to create plans and methods of play, which usually prompts national coaches to rely on obvious intuitive skills, whether it is technical, physical or fitness. (13)
“I’ve trained my body to look like a bull, short and ready for battle!”
(Picente Lizarazu, the retired Bayern Munich and France star) (3)
In 2011, the best team in the world was the shortest, and in the same year, retired Frenchman Pecante Lizarazu, the former left-back of Bayern Munich, stated that he suffered in his youth from a lack of opportunities due to his short stature, but this prompted him to develop his fitness and strength further. Lizarazu believed that “those who start the race with a clear advantage, such as height, are less willing to develop themselves”, and this was in his favour, but it seems that the situation will turn in the future, if not already started.
- football styles in 2011; Summary and details – The Guardian
- numbers game book; Why might everything you know about football be wrong? – Amazon
- Why might short stature be useful in football? – The Atlantic
- When do football players reach their peak level? – BBC
- dementia; Does hitting the ball with the head cause disease? – BBC
- Are athletes getting stronger, faster and better? – Tedx
- Curved running paths and forcing the opponent into predictable play – Session Planner
- tall or short; Which is better? – BBC Future
- Paul Scholes: “Lionel Messi is a genius and only takes a moment to make you look like an idiot!” – Independent
- body, height and pelvic fracture; A study that included 90,000 women – Pub Med
- Vertical goals in the Premier League 2020-2021 season – EPL
- List of players with the most aerial tackles in the Premier League 2021-2022 season – Whoscored
- Thomas Suchek – Whoscored