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Is Football Getting Faster?

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Speed is arguably the most sought-after quality in modern day football. Given its obvious importance in decisive moments of the game, it’s no surprise that many of the world’s most expensive players in history have also been the ones setting the records for the fastest sprint speeds recorded in world football to date. As well as revealing the world’s fastest players, this article highlights some of the key statistics from both the Premier League and Champions League taken over a number of years to answer the question: is football getting faster?

Beyond making the difference in individual games, speed and the ability to sustain it throughout matches can arguably be key to winning titles. In their 2015/2016 title winning season, Leicester City won the league with the lowest average possession of any Premier League winning team (44.8%). They were happy for opponents to have the ball knowing that their key strength was their pace and efficiency on the break. Their signature long-ball counter attack played into the strengths of Jamie Vardy in particular, who that season achieved a personal-best speed of 35.44 km/h, edging Anthony Martial to the number one spot for the fastest sprint speed recorded in the Premier League during that campaign. 

Despite being a Premier League record-breaking sprint speed at the time, fast forward to the present day and Vardy’s personal best does not even make the current top 20 list. Manchester United ended the 2019/20 season as the league's in-form team. No team won more points since Project Restart than the Red Devils and they also set a Premier League record for becoming the first team in history to win four consecutive matches by three or more goals. This has left some wondering whether they are finally ready to launch a major title charge once again. Like Leicester City, Manchester United clearly operate best on the counter attack and nearly always win matches after scoring the first goal. Looking at their current front three, they arguably have the potential to be even deadlier in transition than Leicester City were that season. Aside from his impressive two-footed finishing ability, one of Mason Greenwood’s key qualities is his blistering pace, with the latest stats suggesting he is the quickest striker in the Premier League. Greenwood reached an impressive speed of 37.60 km/h against Everton in March, beating teammates Marcus Rashford (36.32 km/h), Daniel James (36.90 km/h) and Wan-Bissaka (37.59 km/h) to the title of fastest speed recorded by a United player this season. One thing you’ll notice, is how every single one of these sprints is quicker than Jamie Vardy’s Premier League record-breaking speed of 35.44 km/h from the 2015/2016 campaign.

On that note, let’s take a look at the fastest sprint speeds recorded in world football matches to this present date:

*Data correct as of 01/08/2020

The first thing that is striking about this list, is how nearly all of the sprints have taken place in the current season, in which records have continued to be shattered, particularly by Premier League players. Meanwhile, research from the Bundesliga shows that the record speeds recorded in German matches has also been broken multiple times this season too, with Bayern Munich player Alphonso Davies coming out on top with a speed of 36.51 km/h clocked in their away game vs Bremen. It should be mentioned that when it came to researching the latest stats for this article, we did come across some pretty amusing fake news, too. This included one occasion when the media had labelled Mbappé as “faster than Usain Bolt” after his blistering turn of pace to score the goal against AS Monaco in 2019 was clocked at 38km/h. The media hype was due to his max speed exceeding the average speed that Usain Bolt achieved (37.58 km/h) during his record breaking 100-metre sprint. However, when comparing top speeds, it turns out Bolt's was actually a stunning 44.72 km/h, far higher than Mbappé's. 

One thing that may surprise some is that Adama Traoré, labelled as the world’s fastest footballer by many, including Fifa 20, does not top the list. There are two sides to explaining this. Firstly, he has reportedly achieved sprint times that would put him joint top, or top of the list during training, but never in matches. This point was highlighted by his former teammate Cyrus Christie who said: “Everyone knows he’s the quickest man in football – 100 per cent. He doesn’t run at full pace either! That’s just taking the p***! When I was at Middlesbrough we had to do this sprint test. I knew Adama was quick and I said “Come on Adama, let’s sprint”. I was going my hardest and he just drove past me. And he was laughing as well, it was demoralising. I had the second quickest time, but he was a different level. I maybe saw him sprint properly once and that was when he ran the whole length of the pitch in less than 10 seconds".

So why does 'the world’s fastest player' not sprint at his absolute fastest in matches? The answer may simply be that he doesn’t need to. Traoré once revealed in an interview that he was actually told that he needed to learn to slow down. “People are thinking I am running so fast on the pitch, but I think it’s slow. I am deliberately holding back and I could be even quicker. At Middlesbrough, Darren told me I didn’t need to run at 100 percent as I didn’t realise how fast I was. I can beat players at 70% and this will then give me time to think about what to do next". Let’s just take a minute for that to sink in… following advice he was given, Adama Traoré may only be showing 70% of his true top speed in matches. While the extent of his true top speed may well remain unknown, perhaps the key strength that really sets him apart is his ability to accelerate rapidly with the ball at his feet from static starting positions. In this regard, it’s hard to think of any player in football history who is quicker and more powerful than Adama Traoré, who typifies the changing face of modern-day football.

Outlined below is some of the latest evidence that hammers home the fact that is becoming increasingly clear; the beautiful game is actually becoming a faster game.

As shown by both the Champions League and Premier League data, sprints are happening far more frequently during matches than ever before and when they do happen, they are happening at record-breaking speeds. This has been a continuing trend since 2005-present, in both Premier League and Champions League football. Outside of these competitions, Alphonso Davies, Kylian Mbappé and Flamengo forward Bruno Henrique have also broken new ground in their respective countries, too. Given this seemingly global trend in elite football, we have no doubt that the speed leaderboard included in this article will need a serious re-write by this time next season, as the records continue to get shattered season after season.

But why is the happening? Sir Alex Ferguson once said that the rise of expert sport science support had taken the game to new levels, which he never thought he’d see. Gary Neville echoed these sentiments saying “players today run faster, they eat better, they drink less alcohol… Some of them are running 1500m at high intensity and 20 years ago me and my team-mates weren’t doing that. That’s why I retired, because I was seeing it in front of my own eyes, that I couldn’t get to that level".

As alluded to by Neville, the nature of the modern game means that players are required to be supreme athletes, as well as footballers. The ever-increasing speed of the game and popularity of counter-attacking styles of play mean that clubs and players are realising the importance of spending considerable time on maximising their physical potential. As such, every top football academy and team now employs specialist performance staff to push the boundaries of each individual player, from youth through to adulthood. Even the likes of Adama Traoré are striving to hit new levels. As he explained in a recent interview, he actually spent lockdown working on becoming even faster. Incidentally, Traoré’s fastest sprint speed to date during a competitive match did indeed take place post-lockdown, when he was clocked at 37.79 km/h against Chelsea on the final day of the season. In fact, it seems a few players followed suit, with four of the top five fastest sprints in Premier League history taking place after Project Restart. This typifies the fact that even the quickest players in the world are aware that if they’re not actively pushing themselves to new levels, then they’ll be left behind by the game that shows no sign of slowing down.

Want to compare and develop your current speed, power and fitness to the standard of Premier League and international footballers? Book your free consultation with a Club2FC sport scientist today. All of our sport scientists work at Premier League football clubs. Using the same technology as Premier League football clubs, such as STATSports GPS monitors, we test each one of our speed and conditioning sessions against Premier League football matches, to ensure that we can provide our clients with physical performance programmes that help them reach the levels needed at the highest level of the game. We take key physical metrics such as total distance, high speed running, sprints, accelerations and decelerations to improve players match-fitness based on the demands of the modern game. Click here for some recent examples of GPS analysis and Premier League comparisons from our Club2 workouts.

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