Tracking technology using video or GPS chips have transformed the ability of coaches in elite team sports to monitor the physical contributions of players in games. This type of data is usually highly sensitive, but increasingly it is being made publicly available during major tournaments. The World Cup is no exception with FIFA publishing detailed data on the distances covered by individual players in every game. So it’s possible to analyse just how important this kind of physical contribution is to winning games.
FIFA’s data shows that (in all the games played up to and including Nigeria’s 1-0 victory against Bosnia-Herzegovina) teams have averaged a total distance covered of 106.2km per game. FIFA breaks down the distance covered into three categories: low activity (63.0km), medium activity (16.5km) and high activity (26.8km). FIFA also records the number of sprints with teams averaging 346 sprints per game.
Further and faster
Have winning teams tended to run more and faster? The answer is generally yes but the differences are quite small. On average, winning teams cover a total distance of only 1.5km more than losing teams, with winning teams averaging 0.7km more of high activity distance covered. This translates into winning teams averaging 355 sprints per game compared to an average of 340 sprints per game by losing teams.
Winning teams typically cover more distance than the opposition – especially high activity distance. In both of England’s defeats the opposition have covered more total distance and more high activity distance. In their first game England covered 107.3km compared to 110.5km by Italy, while in their second game England covered 104.2 km compared to 105.4km by Uruguay.
In the critical high activity distance in both games, England lagged behind the opposition. Italy managed 24.9km of high activity distance compared to 23.8km by England, while Uruguay had 29.1km of high activity distance compared to 27.8km by England.
The consequences of ill-discipline are clearly seen in the distance covered statistics. The five teams so far to have had a man sent off have only averaged 98.6km distance covered compared to 107km for teams with no sending offs. Crucially the average for high activity distance covered falls from 27km to 23.9km when teams have a player red-carded. As a consequence, these teams are less able to close down the opposition with defensive gaps opening up to be exploited. Not surprisingly four out of the five teams finishing the game with 10 men have lost with only Greece managing to avoid defeat in their game against Japan.
But the World Cup does not always reward the work ethic as Iran found to their cost against Argentina. Iran certainly deserved better based on effort, covering 108km compared to only 100.3km by Argentina. And in the high activity category Iran totalled 26.4km to Argentina’s 24.1km. But Iran’s high work rate eventually took its toll and contributed to a defensive lapse that allowed Messi to score the match-winning goal in stoppage time, as individual genius trumped team effort.