Saturday, 16 May 2015

Does size really matter?

David Preece (RIP) 5' 6"

It’s a subject that all coaches and recruitment staff have debated over many years. What is our clubs ethos? What type of players are we looking for? What is our clubs DNA? What do they look like?

I’ve always felt that a player is a player but of course they eventually fit into a role and a purpose. Messi is now heading towards a healthy argument for being the world’s best ever player but does that mean we should then try to recruit him based on his dimensions? Or should we set up our academy to be a Messi factory? I’ve always felt this was dangerous because we could be missing out on other players that fit other roles as professionals.

Chelsea are the current benchmark for this as they have fielded such a range of technically appropriate attributes along with physically ranging attributes within the team structure. Its looking at this that leads me to question, is it right for an academy to have a recruitment ethos of looking for big strong physical players that can learn the game and become technically better? Or on the other end of the scale is it appropriate to target small tricky players as a recruitment policy? Filling an academy with players that look the same and that’s the ‘DNA’?

I recently had a debate about a player that will likely fall into my smallest adult group. I feel that if he cannot get into a level 1 academy at 14 he should ensure he signs somewhere. He is technically brilliant and has fantastic game awareness. He is robust but of course he could be set off the ball by bigger players. I think the 14-16 years could be vital for him to be working with the professional strength & conditioning team as well as play him down a year in order to keep improving his technical ability whilst protecting his confidence. It was put to me that the lower level academies might not take him because of his size. These are perceived to be much more robust and physical and therefore that would not suit him. So that got me thinking, the perception is the Premier League now has more little technical players and the lower leagues are bigger and more physical.

I also think that in development years we are considering smaller players only in the roles of Messi, Xavi & Iniesta and that it’s a modern way of thinking. But growing up one of the best players I had seen live was David Preece at Luton Town (RIP) who played all the top sides in England in a day when tackling was a little bit more robust than today. He was a bull dog but what a player. Passing excellence, scoring and he covered all areas of the pitch. He also happened to be 5’6” falling into my group of shortest players. Of course over the years there have been amazing footballers that we can name that were, let’s say, vertically challenged. Top of the list of course the great Maradona who stood at 5’ 5”. So, if you’re shorter you can only survive at the very top?

To in some way settle this argument I wanted to present some evidence. I decided to look at our leagues across one weekend covering every team in the top four leagues. I accounted for every player that started and came off the bench in order to look into this topic deeper to help me understand better the potential of future players and to decide if height really does play a part or not.

This data was recorded over the weekend on May 2nd 2015 and the Champions League quarter finals 2015 covering every team.

So the results of this test should show how it gets bigger and tougher in the lower leagues. Well it actually shows amazing consistency. Players over 6’ 5” are not considered in midfield at all and players under 5’ 9” do appear in defence in all the leagues. Although this would mostly be at full back and they are far outnumbered by the group 6’ to 6’ 4”. Of the group 6’ to 6’ 4” actually League 2 has the fewest and it’s the Premier League that have the most. So this would perhaps counter the perception that the lower leagues is the place for the bigger player. The overwhelming consideration must go the group under 5’9” who actually appear in all the leagues at the same or similar ratio of 11%/12%.

Having just compared all England’s teams it might be worth taking a look at Europe’s elite. So we carried out the same study on the teams that appeared in this year’s Champions League Quarter Final.

Looking at these results its clear that more shorter defenders are used than in England’s teams but overall, the largest volume of players is again in the group 6’0 to 6’4” which perhaps is again a surprise despite the higher volume of shorter midfielders used. There is also a surprising larger figure for the big 6’ + Strikers.

Overall could it simply be that across all teams including in Europe, players are used based on their appropriate physical attributes that fit into a balanced team? I’m suggested something wild here. It could be that simply managers select players based on ability and it transpires that the ratio is consistent in all the leagues. Meaning they set their teams up mostly as a balanced structure with Chelsea currently leading that example with a mix of big strong players in defence and midfield along with smaller playmaker midfielders and forwards. They also have a couple of pretty big strong strikers.

As a result of this research I’m more convinced than ever that its ludicrous to have a recruitment policy based on size. If your targeting shorter players your ruling out nearly 90% of potential footballers. Equally, to ignore shorter players in favour of bigger players is wrong as there is a clear career available to them at all levels of professional football. I’m suggesting that you recruit players based on ability and ability alone. Crazy I know. A shorter player might need an individual development program though. He might need an individual strength and condition program and might need to play down a year to help develop technically. Equally a big strong lad might need to play up a year to level things up and challenge him. Either way, there is potential for them both to earn a career in football. That cannot be argued.


Tony McCool


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