Do winning teams at the World Cup run further and faster?

Harder, faster, better, stronger. Jose Coelho/EPA

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.

Note: columns do not necessarily add up due to rounding errors. Bill Gerrard

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.

Better discipline

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.

Run into the ground. Ballesteros/EPA/

Australia too found that even hard work and a great goal are not always enough. Against the Netherlands Australia recorded the highest distance covered by any team yet in the World Cup with a total of 120.6km including 35.4km of high activity, again the highest by any team so far. But they still lost against a Netherlands team that covered significantly less distance in terms of the total (115.1km) and high activity (31.3km).

An important factor contributing to Australia’s high distance covered against the Netherlands was the weather. Indeed, a fascinating aspect of the World Cup is that the very size of Brazil has meant that games have been played in widely different temperatures and humidity. Australia played the Netherlands in very cool conditions at Porto Alegre with a temperature of only 14°C. In stark contrast, England played Italy at Manaus deep in the Amazonian jungle with temperatures touching 30°C, compounded by humidity of 89%.

Statistical analysis of the relationship between temperature and distance covered in the first 29 games of the World Cup shows that the biggest effect is on the amount of low activity distance, which rises as temperatures rise. Comparing games played in temperatures lower than 20°C with games played at very high temperatures of 28°C or above, the amount of low activity distance increases on average from 61.3km in lower temperatures to 64.6km in the very high temperatures with high activity distance falling from 28.3km to 27.1km.

The implications for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar are obvious. Games will be slow-paced and teams will have to prepare accordingly both physically and tactically.