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Are Soccer Players Not Running Enough?

The headline of a recent study would suggest they're not, but the professor who led the study says otherwise.
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(Photo: Alfonso Jimenez/Flickr)

(Photo: Alfonso Jimenez/Flickr)

Because it's a day that ends in "day," English soccer—pardon, football—is in crisis. The latest reason? Players in the English Premier League aren't "running for their money."

According to a study published in Human Movement Science, footballers in the Championship and League One "ran a lot further at a higher intensity" than their EPL counterparts. Dr. Paul Bradley, a senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Sunderland, led the study, which looked at 300 players.

"EPL players are not running for their money but are passing for their money. Remember, football is a highly skilled game and thus we 'play' football not 'work' football."

I wanted to know a bit more, so I reached out to the good doctor who was kind enough to answer some of my questions over email. My first issue: the conclusion of the study. In my opinion, the reason players in the EPL aren't running as much has more to do with the style of play, which is more possession-oriented as opposed to the kick-and-run on the lower levels, than because they are lazy.

Bradley agreed that the headlines might be a bit misleading.

"I don’t really think it’s a fair conclusion but makes the headline more interesting," Bradley wrote. (To which we say: "silly English media.") "The EPL players get the big bucks because they are very technically skilled and thus are not paid millions to run around like headless chickens but to be skilled 'gamers.' Thus, EPL players are not running for their money but are passing for their money. Remember, football is a highly skilled game and thus we 'play' football not 'work' football."

Additionally, just because players in the EPL don't run more doesn't mean they can't. Bradley and his team used an intermittent shuttle-running test called the Yo-Yo test to assess the levels of fitness. "We found that the physical fitness of players was fairly similar with the EPL players having marginally higher fitness levels but not by a large margin," he wrote. "They have lots of spare physical capacity and more fuel in the tank but do not tap into it as they are clever players and the game is more technical rather than physical."

What does this all mean? Well, maybe nothing. Or maybe something. Soccer is a complicated game, and running is only a small part of the action. But the results of the study might help us learn a bit about the beautiful game and running's relationship to it.

For example, Americans are actually very good at running. Graham Zusi ran over 10 miles in a recent Major League Soccer playoff game. In the 2010 World Cup, midfielder Michael Bradley covered more than 30 miles in four games, leading the tournament by a good margin. The man who was second on that list? Bradley's teammate Landon Donovan. The U.S. generally is considered to be one of the most fit teams in the world.

They are not, however, considered to be one of the best. If anything, Bradley runs too much—although not as much as referees, who cover 12 miles a game. A more cerebral player might be able to use his position and skill to eliminate some of the need for all the running. But then again, maybe not. Bradley, specifically, needs to run all over the place because he plays such a vital role in the U.S. attack and defense. And the Americans, who are improving but improving slowly, continue to rely on kicking and running more than many other national teams.

And yet! The man who led the 2010 World Cup in distance covered was none other than Xavi, the Spanish midfielder most associated with the squad's quick-passing and highly-skilled offense. While, by virtue of his team winning, Xavi played more games than the majority of the players taking part in the World Cup, it still blows the whole "talented players don't need to run" theory out of the water a bit, doesn't it?

In the end, footballers do run for their money, but how far they run has little correlation with the success of their team. At the World Congress of Science and Soccer in June, Bradley plans to unveil a series of studies detailing the evolution of the EPL. He promises that the results are "breathtaking." A few weeks later, England will inevitably crash out of the World Cup in whimpering fashion. The handwringing will continue.