Date: 12th July 2009 at 9:01am
Written by:

I suppose the old football adage that a good big ‘un is always preferable to a good little ‘un, still has some merit in it. Assuming everything else is equal that is. Football is still a physical game and physical presence plays a strong part, in the Premier League more than most others.

It`s been interesting to witness some of the comments around Vermaelen`s height as his transfer to Arsenal unfolded. Some of that debate had been prompted by a remark by Tony Adams who doubted ‘that the punters would accept another small one.` In the event his advice, if that`s what it was, was ignored as Wenger signed him anyway.

A week or so earlier Adams had appeared on Arsenal TV interviewed by Tom Watt. His comments at that time suggested that he didn`t think a lack of height at the back was as much of an issue in the modern game which had, he claimed, evolved greatly since his playing days. Overall there were fewer crosses as the ball spent more time on the ground. Quick, mobile defenders he felt were the way the game is going. The time when tall defenders were needed most was when you attacked most he reasoned at the time. It was necessary when playing at home to press the opposition high up the pitch and the only way they could deal with that was with a high ball over the top. There you needed a tall guy to head those balls out to the full backs was Big Tony`s philosophy then.

It is fair to say that Wenger, when he first arrived at the club, has helped this process of evolution showing the advantage of pace to devastating effect while shunning the more static target man.

English football has changed. The once standard format of 4-4-2, of which Wenger was a fervent advocate, so ingrained in football that it was adopted as a magazine title, has given way to a different set up where the teams leading scorers are just as likely to be from midfield such as Ronaldo, Gerrard and Lampard as from a forward. It was hard to find a team that didn`t use 4-4-2, usually with one big target man and a pacey, mobile player around him. Now, though the differences in formation maybe subtle, the big ‘target man` is likely to be a more mobile player, in the mould of Torres, than centre forwards of the past. Those that do still exist, like Drogba, tend to be in their 30`s. This greater mobility throughout the team seems to be breeding a more mobile, quick thinking defender.

Earlier this year the European Professional Footballers Association published a study of various characteristics including nationality, age and now height as one of the characteristics measured. As this is the first such study including height there aren`t any trend patterns but it is interesting to note the differences between European leagues. The average height over all players in European leagues is 181.6 cms but defenders in England (183.36 cms) are taller than those in Spain (181.30 cms). Germany averages the tallest defenders at 184.44 cms. Much the same pattern appears among forwards with those in the English league averaging 182.19 cms and Spain 179.66 cms.

The difference is interesting because of the impact that Spains triumph in the European Championships had last summer and the strong showing by the top Spanish clubs in European club competitions. Is football evolving into a game where technique and ability can dominate physical prowess as Adams implied? Not if the ability of an athletic and physically fit US to upset the form book in the Confederations Cup is anything to go by. Alongside this, while the Chelsea side also has plenty of ability, its predominant team characteristic is physical strength. A quality that Hiddink was able to use more effectively than Scolari.

It isn`t as though height alone is a determining factor, less than 18% of goals scored in the PL were from headers though that isn`t to say that other goals weren`t assisted from a headed pass, but the physical resilience that often accompanies height can still be. Whether that physical presence produces enough of an advantage to bring success isn`t quite so clear. The study shows that of the 15 European clubs averaging the tallest players three UK clubs appear; Stoke City, Fulham and Bolton. The most successful European club in the tallest 15 is the German side Werder Bremen. No English club appears in the shortest 15 but the most successful European club to do so is FC Barcelona.

There is of course a relationship between age and physical development and perhaps Arsenal sides of recent seasons have had to wait for our younger players to enjoy the benefits of this physical development more than most other teams.

While manager at Watford Graham Taylor, reflecting on a defeat to an Arsenal side containing players like Vieira, Petit and Anelka, once said that they “…are all over 6 feet tall and run like the wind” it seems that today`s side is just as mobile but maybe just a tad less physically imposing. Is that football evolving I wonder, or just a short trend?



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