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A Technical Comparison Of Elite Male Soccer Assignment

Association football allows for both team and individual analysis, with recent research suggesting for a need to move beyond merely describing behaviours, and progress towards the actual ability to predict performance (Grehaigne et al, 2001). One aspect of performance prediction is for a technical comparison on individual players.

The aim of this study was to compare the technical attributes of the same player, playing at both an elite level for their respective club and International representations. The technical measure was based on a subjectively drawn continuum, which allows for the analysis of a player’s technical performance throughout the game. The final system design was specific to a striker / attacking player.

The Chi squared test of independence was used to determine whether differences between the results were statistically significant. For an identified difference to be significant, the reported P value must be 0.05 or lower (p<0.05) to be accepted at the 95% level of significance (Vincent, 1999).

Significant differences (p<0.05) were found in the action distribution for both Player’s A and B, across the respective international and league performances.

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Comparison of the mean quality rating of techniques showed significant differences (p<0.05) in the selected performance variables of Aerial Challenges and Shooting for both Player’s A and B. Significant differences (p<0.05) were observed across the mean player rating for performance for league and international competition.

This study brings to light the importance for coaches to implement the variables in which individual performers excel more frequently into team strategies.

1. Introduction

Recent years has seen the expansion and advancement within performance analysis to a point where it is an essential aspect of elite level sport. One way in which performance analysis is often incorporated into association football is through the means of notational analysis. Hand notation is a cheap, simple, accurate but time consuming method of notation (Hughes and Franks, 2004) and is used to inform the coaching process by providing an objective view of the key elements of performance (Probert, 2007). According to Hughes (1998), notational analysis serves to have 5 different purposes, namely:

i. Analysis of Movement

ii. Educational use for Coaches/Players

iii. Tactical Evaluation

iv. Development of a Database/Modelling

v. Technical Evaluation

Association football allows for both team and individual analysis with recent research suggesting for a need to move beyond merely describing behaviours, and progress towards the actual ability to predict performance (Grehaigne et al, 2001). This is because predictive models can provide some indication of what can be expected in future performances (Potter and Hughes, 2001). One aspect of performance prediction is for a technical comparison on individual players between club and International level performances, with a view to identifying any technical differences individual players adopt in different teams, positions and situations.

Player work rate, movement, and team possession levels (Reilly and Thomas, 1976; Shaw and O’Donoghue, 2004; Bate, 1988) have all previously received in-depth analysis however; there has been limited research into individual technical analysis and very little work done on comparing performances to possibly indicate reasons for any performing differences.

This type of analysis is predominantly done to provide the coach, team or individual with statistical feedback on performance, helping them to establish the correct training techniques by incorporating any significant findings. Franks (1997) identified the educational use of feedback for both players and coaches stating that any improvement in performance is a consequence of task related feedback, making feedback an extremely important component of the coaching process.

A large portion of studies undertaken in association football consist of tactical evaluations, looking at the different playing styles used by teams, and how they incorporate that particular style. Yamanaka et al, (1993) found from a study during the 1990 FIFA World Cup that by dividing the pitch up into six equal horizontal and three vertical strips, distinctions into the width of a teams play could be made. In the subsequent analysis of the patterns of play from various world nations, it was found that British teams performed significantly more headers in both their own and opponents half of the pitch compared to more continental teams. From the findings of this tactical study, it can be claimed that the home nation teams resorted more to a long ball tactic either from defence or wide areas of the pitch reflecting predominance in heading the ball in the British game at that time James et al, (2002).

Partridge et al, (1993) developed a specialised computer analysis system based on a technical evaluation. By using a comparison of results from the 1990 FIFA World Cup and the 1990 Collegiate Soccer Championships a technical evaluation of performance was provided. The results indicated that coaches should be deterred from presenting World Cup teams as an appropriate model of performance, due to too many differences in ability, making any comparison invalid. This is because the majority of performers in elite soccer possess high levels of technical ability. At International level football, the team that is superior in physiological and motor abilities will have the advantage (Reilly and Holmes, 1983). By comparing individual performances from two different teams, both teams being at an elite level of football, will make this analysis more reliable, whilst also integrating innovation by analysing the strict technical requirements with regards to playing position.

Some of the earliest hand notations in football can be contributed to the extensive work done by Reep and Benjamin, who collected data from 3,213 matches between 1953 and 1968. The results were taken from numerous English League and World Cup matches and recorded using systematic observation methods. They were concerned with the frequency of passing sequences, shots at goal and goals scored. They reported that 80 per cent of goals resulted from a sequence of three passes or fewer and that 50 per cent of all goals came from possession gained in the final attacking quarter. The results found by the analysis of Reep and Benjamin consequently led to the pioneering of the British long-ball game, giving strength to the argument for coaches to implement the tactic of ‘direct play’.

Taking these finds further, Bate (1988) explored how chance featured in football, and its relation to the tactics and strategies employed by teams. It was found that 94 per cent of goals scored at all levels of international football, resulted from a sequence of 4 or fewer passes. This added backing to the finds of Reep and Benjamin (1968) with Bate concluding that in order to become successful, teams should:

i. Play the ball forward as often as possible.

ii. Reduce square and backwards passing to a minimum.

iii. Increase the number of long passes forward and forward runs with the ball.

iv. Play the ball into space as often as possible.

Again these finds credit the tactic of ‘direct play’ which appeared prominent in the British game for many years, thus discarding the more continental style of possession football and short passing.

More recently, James et al (2002) cited a need to enhance the applied benefit of notational analysis idiographic assessment of teams; strategies are required in order to establish meaning normative profiles (Hughes et al., 2001). Therefore an investigation was conducted with the aim to assess the strategies of a team in both domestic and European competition over the course of a competitive season. This was achieved with the analysis of a professional British soccer team using a computerised behavioural measurement package with focus toward the frequency and duration of possession in designated areas of the pitch.

The results demonstrated a difference in the teams’ tactical characteristics with more play in pre-defensive areas during European competition at the expense of pre-offensive areas compared to domestic matches. Clear strategic differences were observed with attacking play found to occur more frequently down the right-hand side of the pitch in domestic in comparison to Europe. This evidently demonstrates that different strategies are implied at both individual and team levels as a function of the nature of the competition. It can be stated from these results that Individual roles therefore appear to be dictated by playing position, team tactics and game circumstances (James et al., 2002).

Factors Determining Success in Football

Ali (1988), designed a hand notation system that recorded 13 basic factors that occur throughout a football match including: dribbling, short pass, long pass, goal, shot on target, shot off target, offside, ball intercepted by goalkeeper, header on target, header off target, intercepted short pass, intercepted long pass and position of restarts. The aim of the system was to identify any specific patterns of attack and how successful each pattern was in determining the outcome of the match.

Therefore the system solely focused on the sequences that occurred in the attacking half of the field, with the patterns recorded onto a prepared pitch diagram to show the exact location of each sequence. The data was entered into a computer using X and Y coordinates from the pitch diagram in order to compare the relation to pattern and constituent. To determine the influence of each attacking sequence, the final action of each pattern was then analysed from all the sequences collected. From this system Ali found that attacks using width were more likely to result in success as opposed to attacks instigated through the centre of the field. Plays that had large numbers of passes in a sequence increased the likelihood of a score where as the most common outcome from a long pass was offside.

Contradicting these results were the findings of Hughes et al., (1988). They proclaimed that successful teams approached the final 6th of the pitch by playing the ball largely in the more central areas. This was revealed from a system whereby a methodology was constructed using 24 performance variables to differentiate between successful and unsuccessful teams from the 1986 World Cup. The main characteristics of play when in possession of the ball were measured with successful teams being denoted as those of which progressed through to the semi-final stages of the competition where as unsuccessful teams failed to qualify from within the 1st group stages. Along with attacking more centrally, Hughes et al,. (1988) found that successful teams have more touches when in possession of the ball and had more shots on goal from within the penalty area. Unsuccessful teams were found to frequently play the ball to the wide areas of the pitch in their own defensive zones whilst continually opting to dribble with the ball in comparison to the more successful sides.

Harris and Reilly (1988) concerned themselves with the positions taken up by the attackers of a team, in relation to the positioning of the defence, and the overall success of each attacking sequence. This was done by producing an index to demonstrate the ratio of attackers to defenders in each particular instance, whilst simultaneously assessing the space between a defender, and an attacker in possession of the ball. This was then taken further and analysed in correspondence with attacking success, with a successful attack resulting in a goal, intermediate attacks created a non scoring shot at goal and unsuccessful attacks had no shot as an outcome. From the finds Harris and Reilly suggested that successful attacks resulted from a positive creation of space, where an attacking player passes a defender on the field of play; whilst an unsuccessful attack tended to result due to failure of using the space effectively, likely to be due to good defensive organisation.

A study conducted by Luhtanen et al., (2001) featured selected offensive and defensive variables of outfield players and goalkeepers in the tournament of EURO 2000, attempting to examine any correlation between performance results and the teams final tournament ranking. Over 2000 actions per game were collected using a computerised notation system with all the individual’s actions calculated to give means for each of the teams per selected variable. The results found France to be the highest ranked nation in passing, receiving the ball, runs with the ball and tackles, which evidently coincides with them winning the EURO 2000 competition, thus being ranked as the number 1 team.

Due to their consistent high ranking throughout several performance variables, Luhtanen et al., (2001) concluded that France was worthy winners of EURO 2000 and that the best team won. However, in the overall ranking of variables, Italy came 13th yet only just lost in the final during extra-time, whilst the Netherlands came first in ball possession, second in the amount of passes and shot counts at the same time as being placed highly in the corresponding successful executions, but lost to Italy in the semi-final. The low interception, duels and tackling count received by the Netherlands can therefore be attributed as a direct result from the nature of the passing and possession game embarked upon by the team, since when a team is in control of the ball for large periods of play, there is no need for interceptions or tackles to be made.

Evaluation of Individuals Performance

The analysis of individual performance is highly important within football as a team is effectively constructed from a collective of individuals, all of whom will have different characteristics and varying roles to partake. This was identified by Reilly and Holmes (1983) who conducted 2 studies looking into the level of skill distribution in football. It was achieved from the analysis of 6 non professional matches, looking at skill performances as being either successful or unsuccessful. To add to this study, a cross section of skills tests was carried out on a group of 40 adolescent males from a variety of outfield positions. The findings from the two tests indicated that:

i. Success rate of each skill is dependant on pitch location

ii. In defensive areas is where the highest skill success rate occurs

iii. Midfield players demonstrated more superior test scores to defenders

Reilly concluded that the greater the distance to the opponents’ goal, the more time available on the ball, giving explanation to the high skill success rate in defensive areas as less pressure is applied.

According to a technical analysis of outfield players conducted by Dufour (1993), on the ball playing time can be divided into:

50.6% Intercepting, 22.4% Passing, 18.7% Controlling Ball, 4.5% Tackling, 2.4% Shooting and 1.4% on other activities. This provides some indication into the main aspects that comprise an outfield player’s role; however the lack of specification regarding playing position makes it slightly inaccurate for use as an individual template as for instance, strikers will generally spend more time shooting then defenders, etc.

James et al., (2002) highlighted the importance of individual analysis stating that it produces a much finer grained overall team evaluation. The study of 21 matches played by the same team over a variety of competitions was aimed at identifying the different roles individuals may take across differing circumstances. More defensive play was observed within individual players along with passes that involve less risk of conceding ball possession. This is characteristic of the nature of play within the top European club competitions, where retaining ball possession appears more frequent then in league matches.

Positional Demands in Football

A high percentage of the studies conducted around the positional demands in football have a tendency to focus on the physiological demands placed upon individuals (e.g. Reilly and Thomas, 1976; O’Donoghue and Parker, 2001). Some initial research conducted into the technical demands of football playing positions by Dunn et al., (2003) reported that the technical demands for each playing position varied accordingly and were dependant upon the zonal area in which the player functioned. Williams et al., (2003) made links between the physical and technical demands placed upon each of the outfield playing positions. Dead ball skills, clearances and headers were found to be most important to defenders, with ball skills and passing skills being most important to midfielders. Although these studies give some insight into the specific demands of each playing position, the data presented only accounts for the frequency of each technical skill measured, with no reference to skill outcome (i.e. success rates).

When creating performance profiles for football, it is imperative that positional differences are taken into consideration. Taylor et al (2004) conducted a study of 22 league and cup matches for a professional football team with the aim of constructing valid positional performance profiles. By using performance indicators, validated by coaches and experts, they were able to produce behavioural and performance profiles for the positions of fullback, centre back, midfield and forward. Their analysis found significant differences in the frequency of behaviours performed between each of the playing positions’, however similarities were apparent in the finds with regards to the outcome of some behaviours. This suggests that while there are obvious differences in the technical demands of each playing position, mere inter-positional profiles are not as functional as intra-positional profiles, when accounting for individual strengths and weaknesses to be analysed together with recognition to specific roles.

Probert (2007) looked in detail into the technical demands required between specific positions of play, with regards to the successful execution of independent behaviours. Positional classes were used to group performers into goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and strikers, with comparisons being made between successful and unsuccessful teams. Significant differences in the frequency distributions of defenders, midfielders and strikers were evident in the results’, however no significant differences were reported between the frequency distribution, and the technical rating between successful and unsuccessful teams. These finds highlight the importance of player selection with regards to positioning, and the necessity for players to train the right attributes which feature predominantly in their chosen position.

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