By Dan Duffield
In the past few years, several teams’ styles of play have become synonymous with excellence in their sports. From the pass-first prowess of Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots to the ball sharing and sharpshooting of the Golden State Warriors to the offensive barrage of Team USA women’s soccer, a team’s game plan can be executed so effectively that it overwhelms opponents even though they know what’s coming. Yet all too often, teams make the mistake of trying to develop certain physical qualities that aren’t aligned with the style of play the coaching staff is trying to implement.
We believe a better approach is to follow the lead of dominant teams like the Patriots, Warriors, and Team USA and start with the overall strategy to win. From there, coaches and the performance staff can work backward to determine which attributes are needed to meet the demands imposed by this style of play, how these differ between positions and formations, and which technologies can help track the development of physical qualities.
How Style of Play Impacts Physical Demands
The way a coach determines how their team is going to play makes a big difference in the loads that players will be subjected to on game day. A team that plays hard and fast for the duration – like Leeds United in the English Premier League, for example – needs to have a greater focus on high velocity running over longer distances with the ability to execute long passes. Whereas a team that plays a possession-focused style and patiently crafts goal-scoring opportunities might have more of a focus on short sprints and agility combined with precision passing to maintain possession.
This isn’t merely conjecture. A study published in Human Movement Science followed English soccer teams who played one of the five most common soccer formations (4-4-2; 4-3-3; 3-5-2; 3-4-3; 4-2-3-1) over the course of an entire season. They recorded some significant variations in the GPS data.
For example, the 3-5-2 formation elicited greater total distance, high-speed running, and high metabolic load distance than all others, while the total number of accelerations was higher among teams playing the 4-2-3-1 formation. The latter also saw a notable uptick in decelerations.
The study’s authors asserted that acknowledging the interaction between tactics and positional demands “better equips coaches when evaluating performance and future needs, which in turn enables for planning the periodization of training and specificity of training according to the individual’s needs and requirements to be able to perform at their optimal level within a sport such as football.”
Why Player Position Matters
It isn’t just formation or the style of play that impacts the physical demands on an athlete and their associated preparation. Each players’ position also has a significant influence.
Position was the second key variable in the Human Movement Science soccer study. The authors discovered that the loads brought to bear on someone playing in a certain place on the pitch varied significantly depending on the formation that their coach implemented for the team as a whole.
For example, the three forwards/strikers in a 4-3-3 formation performed 49 percent more accelerations than those playing in 4-2-3-1. The same position group totaled 45 percent more high-speed running when they played in 3-5-2 than opponents who favored a 4-2-3-1. Central midfielders in a 4-3-3 covered 11 percent more total distance than their counterparts in 4-4-2.
This is an important insight, because quite often, coaches will naturally assume certain things about their position groups based on assumptions about their role on the field. Common examples include wingers in rugby making a lot of high-speed accelerations or midfielders in soccer covering a lot of total distance. However, as the study just mentioned illustrates, differing formations, plays, and styles challenge these assumptions and significantly alter the demands of play for all positions to varying degrees.
Another review published in Sports Medicine assessed the correlation between positional differences and varying demands among Australian Rules Football players. While they concluded that repeated sprint ability and the need to generate bursts of speed for between 10 and 40 meters didn’t differ much between positions, there were some other disparities.
GPS data demonstrated that forwards and backs have a more intermittent running style – i.e., short sprints followed by longer periods of low-speed jogging – than any other position group. Midfielders and ruckmen typically cover more total distance than backs and forwards, and midfielders spend the most time running at high intensity, have to sustain their sprints for longer, and have shorter recovery times.
The review authors concluded that “GPS data have the potential to accurately inform coaches of the position-specific demands on their players and to drive the development of training practices that reflect the changing demands of the game.”
The more differences there are between the roles of each position, the greater the variations in physical requirements will be. For example, the demands placed on a baseball pitcher are very different to those of an outfielder. This is why baseball teams individualize the physical preparation of their players more so than some other sports in which athletes do much the same thing in competition.
When to Bring in Technology
What role can technology play in assessing game demands and monitoring progress toward the levels needed to execute a certain style of play successfully?
As the Sports Medicine review suggested, GPS can provide valuable insight into how game plans/formations and player positions interact to create unique competitive demands. GPS data can also illustrate those loads that are largely similar for all positions, such as the need to be prepared for repeated short sprints in Australian Rules Football.
That being said, technology shouldn’t be the foundation but rather a building block laid on top of it. The performance team and coaching staff need to start with determining their style of play and then work backward from game day to decide which physical characteristics should be developed to prepare players adequately.
From there, they can decide on the precise metrics that indicate progress in these areas, and match these with the appropriate technologies needed to capture relevant and actionable information. This is a much more logical progression than starting with the latest tracking devices and trying to find a use case for them that relates in some way to the desired style of play.
It’s not enough to simply capture data. It must also be centralized, aggregated, and presented in an actionable way. This is where an Athlete Management System (AMS) such as Smartabase comes into play. It can ingest data from multiple monitoring devices and third-party platforms, collate it, and visualize it for coaches and various performance roles.
By using such a system, staff will be able to monitor how well each player is progressing toward the desired targets for their position group, with the end goal always being adequate preparedness to execute a certain style of play on game day.
Check back soon for the second part of this series, in which we’ll explore how the opposition’s style of play can impact tactical preparation.
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 PJ Tierney et al, “Match Play Demands of 11 Versus 11 Professional Football Using Global Positioning System Tracking: Variations Across Common Playing Formations,” Human Movement Science, 2016, available online at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/228142003.pdf.
 Adrian J Gray and David G Jenkins, “Match Analysis and the Physiological Demands of Australian Football,” Sports Medicine, 2010, available online at https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.455.2188&rep=rep1&type=pdf.