Insight

The need for speed

The Champions League is getting ever faster, but speed of thought is still one step ahead

WORDS Simon Hart | ILLUSTRATION Dan Evans

There is a piece of analysis in the latest Champions League technical report that calls to mind Aesop’s old fable about the hare and the tortoise. It lies in the ‘Speed of scoring’ section and offers an interesting statistic: 2022 winners Real Madrid were actually the slowest team among the last 16 when it came to moves that led to goals.

To be specific, the average goalscoring sequence of Carlo Ancelotti’s side in 2021/22 lasted 16.2 seconds and involved 5.3 passes. This feels worthy of note given the speed of elite football today; it’s a game that moves at a greater rate than in the past, thanks to scientifically conditioned athletes playing on carpet-smooth surfaces. Madrid’s approach was a more pragmatic one, from a team happy to sit deep. Their average percentage of forward passes per game was 27%, lower than every team aside from Manchester City and Barcelona. It was a methodology shaped by the fact that key midfielders Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos are now in their thirties – and it provided a reminder that running speed isn’t everything. 

Dušan Fitzel, 59, is a former national-team coach and contributor to UEFA’s technical reports. He points to the significance of other kinds of speed – starting with decision-making. “Because the speed of pressing is higher than when I played, most players – in midfield and attack in particular – must make their decisions much faster.” The speed of a player’s first touch is more vital too; where before a player could stop the ball and move it on with their second touch, now “players use the first touch to move it immediately where they want”, says Fitzel.

He also cites speed of passing and the importance of fast transitions, saying that “forward passes or penetrating passes to get players behind the defensive line are the key to scoring”. One side who perform well in this respect are Salzburg, who reached the knockout rounds for the first time last term with a game built on speed and directness. In their first two European fixtures of 2022/23, upon taking possession they averaged one pass and three seconds before scoring.

There is a piece of analysis in the latest Champions League technical report that calls to mind Aesop’s old fable about the hare and the tortoise. It lies in the ‘Speed of scoring’ section and offers an interesting statistic: 2022 winners Real Madrid were actually the slowest team among the last 16 when it came to moves that led to goals.

To be specific, the average goalscoring sequence of Carlo Ancelotti’s side in 2021/22 lasted 16.2 seconds and involved 5.3 passes. This feels worthy of note given the speed of elite football today; it’s a game that moves at a greater rate than in the past, thanks to scientifically conditioned athletes playing on carpet-smooth surfaces. Madrid’s approach was a more pragmatic one, from a team happy to sit deep. Their average percentage of forward passes per game was 27%, lower than every team aside from Manchester City and Barcelona. It was a methodology shaped by the fact that key midfielders Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos are now in their thirties – and it provided a reminder that running speed isn’t everything. 

Dušan Fitzel, 59, is a former national-team coach and contributor to UEFA’s technical reports. He points to the significance of other kinds of speed – starting with decision-making. “Because the speed of pressing is higher than when I played, most players – in midfield and attack in particular – must make their decisions much faster.” The speed of a player’s first touch is more vital too; where before a player could stop the ball and move it on with their second touch, now “players use the first touch to move it immediately where they want”, says Fitzel.

He also cites speed of passing and the importance of fast transitions, saying that “forward passes or penetrating passes to get players behind the defensive line are the key to scoring”. One side who perform well in this respect are Salzburg, who reached the knockout rounds for the first time last term with a game built on speed and directness. In their first two European fixtures of 2022/23, upon taking possession they averaged one pass and three seconds before scoring.

Read the full story
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All this said, individual speed is still the primary asset: once an attacker has space and time to run, defenders have a problem. Nobody does it better than Kylian Mbappé, who last season reached an unsurpassed speed of 36.7km/h in Paris Saint-Germain’s round of 16 second leg against Madrid. Darren Campbell, the former Great Britain Olympic sprinter, once told me that Mbappé excels thanks to the way he combines speed with relaxation. He achieves this with mechanics – a smooth, knees-high running motion – and the assurance that comes from knowing he can outpace any opponent. “He doesn’t have to worry about getting there, so he can already be processing what he’s going to do,” explained Campbell.

There is an art to knowing how to apply speed in football and UEFA’s technical observers consistently highlight Mbappé’s intelligent movement. This can mean slowing an opponent down then accelerating past them, or a correctly timed run to stay onside. A defender, meanwhile, must read the game and stay a step ahead of swift opponents. As Fitzel remembers from his days as a defensive player with Dukla Praha: “I had to use my brain to find out the way to block such players – or use a tactical foul sometimes.” 

For all the focus on fast attackers, it is worth revisiting the words of former Real Madrid and Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque when Usain Bolt was attempting his conversion from legendary sprinter to professional footballer. Del Bosque offered a reflection on why straight-line speed was not the sole consideration. Explaining why he believed the Jamaican might be best used in a full-back role, he said: “It’s not just about covering 100m on the pitch – it’s about doing it many times. And that requires stamina”.

This point about full-back play is worth pondering, as wide players feature prominently each year in the Champions League’s chart for quickest sprints. In 2021/22, Rafa Silva, Alphonso Davies and Federico Valverde ranked among the top five. The previous season there were five full-backs and two wingers in the top 10 (with Porto full-back Zaidu first). After two matchdays this season, Manchester City’s Kyle Walker and Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson – with 64 and 62 respectively – ranked third and fourth in the competition for the most carries of 10m or more towards the opposition goal.

The wish for speed out wide is nothing new. When Stanley Mathews, the great English winger of the 1940s and 50s, travelled to the World Cup in Brazil in 1950, he brought back home a pair of size seven football boots. As he wrote in his autobiography, they were “light and far less cumbersome” than English boots, which had a toecap and ankle protection. “I realised that with a pair of these lightweight streamlined boots I could be even quicker, if only by inches or a yard or so. But in football that can be imperative.” Plus ça change, as that man Mbappé might say. 


Read the 2021/22 Champions League technical report at uefatechnicalreports.com

There is a piece of analysis in the latest Champions League technical report that calls to mind Aesop’s old fable about the hare and the tortoise. It lies in the ‘Speed of scoring’ section and offers an interesting statistic: 2022 winners Real Madrid were actually the slowest team among the last 16 when it came to moves that led to goals.

To be specific, the average goalscoring sequence of Carlo Ancelotti’s side in 2021/22 lasted 16.2 seconds and involved 5.3 passes. This feels worthy of note given the speed of elite football today; it’s a game that moves at a greater rate than in the past, thanks to scientifically conditioned athletes playing on carpet-smooth surfaces. Madrid’s approach was a more pragmatic one, from a team happy to sit deep. Their average percentage of forward passes per game was 27%, lower than every team aside from Manchester City and Barcelona. It was a methodology shaped by the fact that key midfielders Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos are now in their thirties – and it provided a reminder that running speed isn’t everything. 

Dušan Fitzel, 59, is a former national-team coach and contributor to UEFA’s technical reports. He points to the significance of other kinds of speed – starting with decision-making. “Because the speed of pressing is higher than when I played, most players – in midfield and attack in particular – must make their decisions much faster.” The speed of a player’s first touch is more vital too; where before a player could stop the ball and move it on with their second touch, now “players use the first touch to move it immediately where they want”, says Fitzel.

He also cites speed of passing and the importance of fast transitions, saying that “forward passes or penetrating passes to get players behind the defensive line are the key to scoring”. One side who perform well in this respect are Salzburg, who reached the knockout rounds for the first time last term with a game built on speed and directness. In their first two European fixtures of 2022/23, upon taking possession they averaged one pass and three seconds before scoring.

The need for speed
Insight

The need for speed

The Champions League is getting ever faster, but speed of thought is still one step ahead

WORDS Simon Hart | ILLUSTRATION Dan Evans

There is a piece of analysis in the latest Champions League technical report that calls to mind Aesop’s old fable about the hare and the tortoise. It lies in the ‘Speed of scoring’ section and offers an interesting statistic: 2022 winners Real Madrid were actually the slowest team among the last 16 when it came to moves that led to goals.

To be specific, the average goalscoring sequence of Carlo Ancelotti’s side in 2021/22 lasted 16.2 seconds and involved 5.3 passes. This feels worthy of note given the speed of elite football today; it’s a game that moves at a greater rate than in the past, thanks to scientifically conditioned athletes playing on carpet-smooth surfaces. Madrid’s approach was a more pragmatic one, from a team happy to sit deep. Their average percentage of forward passes per game was 27%, lower than every team aside from Manchester City and Barcelona. It was a methodology shaped by the fact that key midfielders Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos are now in their thirties – and it provided a reminder that running speed isn’t everything. 

Dušan Fitzel, 59, is a former national-team coach and contributor to UEFA’s technical reports. He points to the significance of other kinds of speed – starting with decision-making. “Because the speed of pressing is higher than when I played, most players – in midfield and attack in particular – must make their decisions much faster.” The speed of a player’s first touch is more vital too; where before a player could stop the ball and move it on with their second touch, now “players use the first touch to move it immediately where they want”, says Fitzel.

He also cites speed of passing and the importance of fast transitions, saying that “forward passes or penetrating passes to get players behind the defensive line are the key to scoring”. One side who perform well in this respect are Salzburg, who reached the knockout rounds for the first time last term with a game built on speed and directness. In their first two European fixtures of 2022/23, upon taking possession they averaged one pass and three seconds before scoring.

Penalty Pedigree

Etiam erat velit scelerisque in dictum non. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at. Scelerisque felis imperdiet proin fermentum leo. Nibh tortor id aliquet lectus proin nibh nisl. Nulla at volutpat diam ut venenatis. At urna condimentum mattis pellentesque id nibh tortor id aliquet. Leo a diam sollicitudin tempor id eu nisl nunc mi. Dui vivamus arcu felis bibendum ut. Pharetra convallis posuere morbi leo urna molestie. Adipiscing at in tellus integer feugiat scelerisque. In arcu cursus euismod quis. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at lectus urna duis. Facilisi nullam vehicula ipsum a arcu cursus. At tempor commodo ullamcorper a lacus vestibulum sed arcu non. Ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit pellentesque habitant. Vitae sapien pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus. Eget nullam non nisi est sit amet facilisis. Ipsum consequat nisl vel pretium lectus quam. Elit sed vulputate mi sit amet mauris commodo quis. Pretium fusce id velit ut tortor pretium viverra suspendisse potenti.

There is a piece of analysis in the latest Champions League technical report that calls to mind Aesop’s old fable about the hare and the tortoise. It lies in the ‘Speed of scoring’ section and offers an interesting statistic: 2022 winners Real Madrid were actually the slowest team among the last 16 when it came to moves that led to goals.

To be specific, the average goalscoring sequence of Carlo Ancelotti’s side in 2021/22 lasted 16.2 seconds and involved 5.3 passes. This feels worthy of note given the speed of elite football today; it’s a game that moves at a greater rate than in the past, thanks to scientifically conditioned athletes playing on carpet-smooth surfaces. Madrid’s approach was a more pragmatic one, from a team happy to sit deep. Their average percentage of forward passes per game was 27%, lower than every team aside from Manchester City and Barcelona. It was a methodology shaped by the fact that key midfielders Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos are now in their thirties – and it provided a reminder that running speed isn’t everything. 

Dušan Fitzel, 59, is a former national-team coach and contributor to UEFA’s technical reports. He points to the significance of other kinds of speed – starting with decision-making. “Because the speed of pressing is higher than when I played, most players – in midfield and attack in particular – must make their decisions much faster.” The speed of a player’s first touch is more vital too; where before a player could stop the ball and move it on with their second touch, now “players use the first touch to move it immediately where they want”, says Fitzel.

He also cites speed of passing and the importance of fast transitions, saying that “forward passes or penetrating passes to get players behind the defensive line are the key to scoring”. One side who perform well in this respect are Salzburg, who reached the knockout rounds for the first time last term with a game built on speed and directness. In their first two European fixtures of 2022/23, upon taking possession they averaged one pass and three seconds before scoring.

Read the full story
Sign up now to get access to this and every premium feature on Champions Journal. You will also get access to member-only competitions and offers. And you get all of that completely free!

All this said, individual speed is still the primary asset: once an attacker has space and time to run, defenders have a problem. Nobody does it better than Kylian Mbappé, who last season reached an unsurpassed speed of 36.7km/h in Paris Saint-Germain’s round of 16 second leg against Madrid. Darren Campbell, the former Great Britain Olympic sprinter, once told me that Mbappé excels thanks to the way he combines speed with relaxation. He achieves this with mechanics – a smooth, knees-high running motion – and the assurance that comes from knowing he can outpace any opponent. “He doesn’t have to worry about getting there, so he can already be processing what he’s going to do,” explained Campbell.

There is an art to knowing how to apply speed in football and UEFA’s technical observers consistently highlight Mbappé’s intelligent movement. This can mean slowing an opponent down then accelerating past them, or a correctly timed run to stay onside. A defender, meanwhile, must read the game and stay a step ahead of swift opponents. As Fitzel remembers from his days as a defensive player with Dukla Praha: “I had to use my brain to find out the way to block such players – or use a tactical foul sometimes.” 

For all the focus on fast attackers, it is worth revisiting the words of former Real Madrid and Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque when Usain Bolt was attempting his conversion from legendary sprinter to professional footballer. Del Bosque offered a reflection on why straight-line speed was not the sole consideration. Explaining why he believed the Jamaican might be best used in a full-back role, he said: “It’s not just about covering 100m on the pitch – it’s about doing it many times. And that requires stamina”.

This point about full-back play is worth pondering, as wide players feature prominently each year in the Champions League’s chart for quickest sprints. In 2021/22, Rafa Silva, Alphonso Davies and Federico Valverde ranked among the top five. The previous season there were five full-backs and two wingers in the top 10 (with Porto full-back Zaidu first). After two matchdays this season, Manchester City’s Kyle Walker and Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson – with 64 and 62 respectively – ranked third and fourth in the competition for the most carries of 10m or more towards the opposition goal.

The wish for speed out wide is nothing new. When Stanley Mathews, the great English winger of the 1940s and 50s, travelled to the World Cup in Brazil in 1950, he brought back home a pair of size seven football boots. As he wrote in his autobiography, they were “light and far less cumbersome” than English boots, which had a toecap and ankle protection. “I realised that with a pair of these lightweight streamlined boots I could be even quicker, if only by inches or a yard or so. But in football that can be imperative.” Plus ça change, as that man Mbappé might say. 


Read the 2021/22 Champions League technical report at uefatechnicalreports.com

There is a piece of analysis in the latest Champions League technical report that calls to mind Aesop’s old fable about the hare and the tortoise. It lies in the ‘Speed of scoring’ section and offers an interesting statistic: 2022 winners Real Madrid were actually the slowest team among the last 16 when it came to moves that led to goals.

To be specific, the average goalscoring sequence of Carlo Ancelotti’s side in 2021/22 lasted 16.2 seconds and involved 5.3 passes. This feels worthy of note given the speed of elite football today; it’s a game that moves at a greater rate than in the past, thanks to scientifically conditioned athletes playing on carpet-smooth surfaces. Madrid’s approach was a more pragmatic one, from a team happy to sit deep. Their average percentage of forward passes per game was 27%, lower than every team aside from Manchester City and Barcelona. It was a methodology shaped by the fact that key midfielders Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos are now in their thirties – and it provided a reminder that running speed isn’t everything. 

Dušan Fitzel, 59, is a former national-team coach and contributor to UEFA’s technical reports. He points to the significance of other kinds of speed – starting with decision-making. “Because the speed of pressing is higher than when I played, most players – in midfield and attack in particular – must make their decisions much faster.” The speed of a player’s first touch is more vital too; where before a player could stop the ball and move it on with their second touch, now “players use the first touch to move it immediately where they want”, says Fitzel.

He also cites speed of passing and the importance of fast transitions, saying that “forward passes or penetrating passes to get players behind the defensive line are the key to scoring”. One side who perform well in this respect are Salzburg, who reached the knockout rounds for the first time last term with a game built on speed and directness. In their first two European fixtures of 2022/23, upon taking possession they averaged one pass and three seconds before scoring.

Penalty Pedigree

Etiam erat velit scelerisque in dictum non. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at. Scelerisque felis imperdiet proin fermentum leo. Nibh tortor id aliquet lectus proin nibh nisl. Nulla at volutpat diam ut venenatis. At urna condimentum mattis pellentesque id nibh tortor id aliquet. Leo a diam sollicitudin tempor id eu nisl nunc mi. Dui vivamus arcu felis bibendum ut. Pharetra convallis posuere morbi leo urna molestie. Adipiscing at in tellus integer feugiat scelerisque. In arcu cursus euismod quis. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at lectus urna duis. Facilisi nullam vehicula ipsum a arcu cursus. At tempor commodo ullamcorper a lacus vestibulum sed arcu non. Ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit pellentesque habitant. Vitae sapien pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus. Eget nullam non nisi est sit amet facilisis. Ipsum consequat nisl vel pretium lectus quam. Elit sed vulputate mi sit amet mauris commodo quis. Pretium fusce id velit ut tortor pretium viverra suspendisse potenti.

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