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Head and shoulders above others

Head and shoulders above others

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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Date:Sunday July 12 2009
Time: 9:00AM


Good article, Amos. The 'big man' can still do a job in some games and hence, essential IMO. ManU used that to good effect in some games when their defence was really tested - Vidic and Rio dont only use their height, their ability is also very good. What would make for better analysis is for the height comparison study to be analysed within each country. Stoke, Fulham and Bolton arent the most successful teams of course, but it would be interesting to see how we coped with the height measure to our closest rivals. As for Arsenal, a little more height in defence and DM certainly wouldnt hurt, but that needs to be supplemented by a tough presence more than anything else. Barca struggled against Chelsea in one leg of the CL semi-finals, so we shouldnt under estimate the impact that height and physical presence has on the results. I fear that this may be a very short term trend. I still dont see enough for a huge change in modern football.
12/07/2009 09:25:00
I think the important factor is 'quality'. If a player is 6'5" and gash, then obviously a 'Inesta' or 'Xavi' player would be far preferable. That might be a bad example because I think every team would want them 2, so lets say Denilson. However, if you can have 6'0" player with real quality it adds another dimension! With the exception on Cesc, if you look at our best players over the past 10 years, they have been 6'0".
12/07/2009 10:34:00
Good article Amos. I don't know if this is an evolution or a trend, but it is frustrating watching our squad repeatedly lose headers. And not just during set pieces, it happens in the midfield all the time, which results in us conceding possession usually
12/07/2009 15:05:00
I agree with navydave in that quality should always come first when looking at players, but height and physical power provides a competetive edge for a player. It would be easy for a less insightful manager such as Arsene to look at the missing quality in our squad and just jump for a tall, powerful midfielder who knows how to play football because, as too many of the less intelligent football fans say about us, "we've got enough footballers, we need an athelete". Senderos is a good example. I actually happen to think that Phillipe is a very good defender, but it must be said that he is prone to errors, and can seem a bit lost against more intimidating opponents (Drogba is the obvious example). If senderos had just arrived in the EPL and had played a season for Fulham, and had done well, these fans would probably be desperate for Arsene to sign him up. Now, after discovering that, amoung such talented technical players, he has a tendancy to make himself look a bit silly, which in turn lowers his self esteem until he's even more prone to mistakes, these fans can't wait to see the back of him - and many are screeming for Hangeland...
12/07/2009 18:38:00
Quality always come first and it is a trend to have players who are mobile and understand the game well, with a strong mentality. But also players like Melo, who could do a job but are not outstanding in a single area are also required. Strong, physical and disciplined but not exactly world class but is willing. I've done an article about this regarding Vermaelen. Please have a look!
The Brain
13/07/2009 12:41:00
Height is one aspect of a multi-facetted game and is of course an advantage when a high ball is used. But I remember playing with a 6’ 4” centre forward who struggled to head the ball effectively. Reading the game and timing your jump is the most important when heading the ball, not just you’re height. Anyway, I hope the trend will continue where we see football being played on the floor, where being 6’ 7” isn’t an advantage. The shorter, nimble type of player is the footballer I want to watch and there have been a few of those who have caught my eye in the past. Stand up Pele, Maradona and to a lesser extent Michel Platini and George Best.
Sir Henry
13/07/2009 13:39:00
Surely a mix is best. I don't want to watch a load of midgets running around all the time. What about Henry, Shearer, Zidane, Vieria, Lampard, Torres, Gerrard, C.Ronaldo and fat Ronaldo for that matter. There is a place for all shapes and sizes and styles of play, providing they are mixed up. See a load of 5'7" would be as boring as see a load of 6'4" meat heads running around.
13/07/2009 13:56:00
navydave, I can't agree with you there. Imagine a team of Arshavins, Xavis, Iniestas, Maradonas, Peles and Platinis etc. Conceding a lot and scoring a lot. Stressful for their fans, but boring most certainly not!
13/07/2009 14:10:00
Henry was probably as close to physical athletic perfection as you could get - incredibly fast and skilful for a big man - but not a great one for scoring headers. Also amusing to recall little Messi scoring with his head against Ferdinand and Vidic in the CL final.
13/07/2009 15:22:00
AR, I agree it would be great to watch these players play together, but you're talking about the exception rather than the rule. All these are world class. Put 11 world class players together and it'll be great to watch. What about a midfield of Vieria, Zidane, C Ronaldo, Gerrard and Torres and Henry up front. All over 6 foot! Bottom line, talent is most important, but if you get an element of power in there too it adds another dimension.
13/07/2009 15:45:00
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