Football training: the demands of the game and the attributes required for specific football positions

Football players need specific physical and skill based attributes for each position


By: Simon Thadani
Football conditioning has become much more specific and scientific. Professional players are now subject to a rigorous fitness regime to get them – and crucially maintain them – as match ready as possible, but this does not mean that all players train exactly the same

The demands of the game

Football is changing, whether we like it or not, and over the seven years I have worked with ProZone (a match analysis system) it has become very noticeable that Championship and Premiership players seem to be working more intensely, covering more distance on the pitch, year in year out (see the future of conditioning within football). Therefore, training must continue to reflect the ever-changing demands of the game. Football is a skilled team based sport, all about technique, decision making and creative play.  It is a continuous, multi-directional, multi-paced, explosive sport but with an aerobic foundation. In terms of the overall playing demands across the year, it is a marathon and not a sprint. A game is played on average every five days for nine months.

I have the highest respect for boxers, rugby players and track and field athletes, to such an extent that I spend a lot of time talking to the respective sports’ coaches and participants. I look at their training methods and their physical and mental approach. There is a lot to learn from them. This has made me a better conditioning coach and hopefully in turn improved my players’ condition. But I believe that football is unique, in regard to the short-, mid- and long-term demands of a season. Other sportsmen and sportswomen may say that footballers have an easy life, that they don’t work enough, or are not fit or strong and so on. To these my reply has always been: come and join in for a few weeks or look at the training programme, remembering of course what you have to do with a ball. You need supreme physical condition and playing skill. Over the years, several different athletes from different sports have done this and I would like to think they have changed their opinion in consequence. I’m sure, though, that this change in opinion would be the same if a footballer participated in the training regimes of these other athletes’ sports. Yes, football can learn from other sports, but the game itself, ex-players, coaches, managers, other teams’ methods at home and abroad, can teach football more.

The actual demands of a game

Let’s now take a look at what players do in an average match, based on playing position. As I pointed out in my other articles there is 10-30% different in the fitness levels between amateur and professional players. By understanding the demands of the game, specific to position, it will be easier to design position specific drills and training programmes. I use the following acronym to assist with specific player conditioning FITT - this stands for, Frequency, Intensity, Type and Time.

The following statistics are provided by ProZone:

Full backs       Total distance covered                               11.22km
                        High intensity distance covered                 1130m
                        Sprint distance covered                               350m          
                        Number of high intensity activities              157
                        Number of sprints                                          54
Centre backs   Total distance covered                               10.32km
                        High intensity distance covered                    764m
                        Sprint distance covered                                  211m
                        Number of high intensity activities                112
                        Number of sprints                                             33
Wide                 Total distance covered                    11.70km                            
Midfield             High intensity distance covered                    1390m
                        Sprint distance covered                                   430m
                        Number of high intensity activities                182
                        Number of sprints                                           63
Central            Total distance covered                                    11.73km
Midfield             High intensity distance covered                        1144m
                        Sprint distance covered                                   302m
                        Number of high intensity activities                 169
                        Number of sprints                                            49
Attacker           Total distance covered                                       10.72km
                        High intensity distance covered                      106m
                        Sprint distance covered                                   351m
                        Number of high intensity activities                 142              
                        Number of sprints                                            51

Note: attacker = either the ‘target’ or ‘channel man’

Key to figures

Distance covered, from walking to sprinting in 90 minutes
High Intensity  >5.5 metres per second
Sprints > 7.0 metres per second

These stats do not show that players will change direction over 1,000 times and turn (over 120 degrees or more) 450 times a match. Also not shown is the time between each high intensity effort ¬– this is on average 60 seconds for centre backs, 32 seconds for fullbacks, 34 seconds for wide midfielders, 36 seconds for centre midfielders and 39 seconds for centre forwards. Also not shown is the number of tackles and jumps etc made. These are very important factors because turning, twisting, changing directions, jumping and tackling take a lot out of players physically.

Footballers can come in all shapes and sizes

Despite some experts’ beliefs that each outfield playing position should have a certain physical standard/profile (body type) so that you get the best out of them playing wise, I disagree. Yes, generally speaking it might be advantageous if an attacker is 6’3’ and well-built, but I believe that if the player has other exceptional attributes, then it doesn’t matter what height or body type they have. Footballing ability will often outweigh physical attributes. Look at the Spanish national team’s victory over Germany in the recent European Championship final, they were much slighter than the more heavily built Germans. Then there are players like Roberto Carlos, Lionel Messi, Michael Owen, Fabio Cannavaro, Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright Philips and Deco, the list is endless, of these great but not physically big players.

A guide to the physical attributes required for players related to their playing position

For me every player needs to be fit, strong, agile and fast. In the perfect team all the players would possess these attributes. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. I have therefore identified the key training requirements of players according to position. Speed, stamina and mental attitude will be the key underpinning elements, for all positions.

Centre backs

•    Powerful, dynamic strength
•    Physically strong under contact situations
•    Vertical, single leg jumping power
•    Balanced –  rarely talked about in fitness, but important in this position
•    Agile – must be able to turn quickly in both directions
•    Anaerobically very fit position, lots of explosive training required
•    High endurance capacity not needed – can get away with a relatively low VO2max (VO2max is a measure of the body’s oxygen processing capability)
•    Ideally have pace – becomes more important if the player is not physically that big
•    Should enjoy the contact side of the sport
•    Must be very mentally strong

Full backs

•    High aerobic capacity (looking for a VO2max of 63/64ml of oxygen per kg of body weight)
•    Some top managers expect full backs to be the fittest players in the team
•    Speed endurance work is very important
•    The modern game is tending to use taller players in this position although this is not essential
•    Aerobic recovery interval training (based on heart rate) is important
•    Players with pace will stand out in this position

Central midfielders

•    Good aerobic foundation is essential. They are the ‘engine room of the team’
•    Physically the team’s ‘all rounder’ does a lot of everything
•    Holding midfielders, strong, agile and good in the tackle
•    Advanced midfielders are ‘box to box’, high intensity players, training must reflect this, will need to do, for example, more longer sprint work
•    Ideally should be two-footed
•    Are always twisting, turning and changing directions, must therefore have very good local muscular endurance and be very highly fatigue resistant
•    Pace – this will be very much a bonus

Wide midfielders

•    Some of the fittest players in the team - VO2max of 63/64 ml/kg/body wt
•    Good recovery rate is important, therefore short recovery work training is essential
•    Ideally players will have pace
•    Can be the physically smaller subject to the team’s format.
•    Mobile and agile – therefore need to do relevant agility and power work
•    Two-footed players in this position will be a massive advantage to be able to go inside and outside of defenders, for example

Centre forward – target man

•    Usually big players with a presence
•    Ideally with good agility and balance under pressure – therefore need relevant agility and power training
•    Dynamically strong players
•    Vertical, single leg jumping power
•    Explosive position, training should reflect that – work on the first step and accleration
•    Average VO2max, approx 59 ml/kg/body wt
•    Must enjoy the contact side of the sport
•    If timings of jumps are a conditioning issue, than this is important and should be specifically worked on

Centre forward – channel man

•    Fit players, with above average VO2max
•    Good pace, some of the quickest players in the team
•    Speed endurance training is essential
•    Agile, in the respect of turning quickly – this skill should be practised
•    Balance
•    Explosive position, therefore training should reflect that, for example for linear and curvilinear acceleration
•    Strength required, for example to hold off defenders

Simon Thadani is the conditioning coach at Ipswich Town FC

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