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Does size matter in football?

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Jack Ross | 17:23 UK time, Sunday, 28 February 2010

Does size matter? In the modern football world, this is a huge matter of debate.

There has undoubtedly been an increase in the physicality of players in recent times, as factors such as scientific developments and improved diets has witnessed average heights increase and the emergence of a raft of six-foot-plus players throughout many teams.

Does this mean that there is no place in the game for the smaller player? If there is, can teams only afford to carry one or two who compromise their ability to compete physically with other sides?

The technical ability of Billy Mehmet (right) is highly rated by his St Mirren team-mate Jack RossTo begin with, I don't believe that the judgement of players based largely on their height and weight is a new phenomenon, as I can recall from my youth team days of players tipped for stardom purely because they stood several inches taller than their competitors.

Often, as time progressed and others gained physically on these players, they foundered and never reached the heights they were thought to be destined for.

Therefore if coaches or scouts can have this bias when observing young players, does their outlook change when they consider professionals for selection in their team or as a signing target?

There is no doubt that the pace and competiveness of today's football requires increased athleticism and some strong physical presence within your side but the evidence would seem to suggest that there is still plenty of room in the game for the smaller player.

Probably the most high-profile example to support this is that of Barcelona, where the heartbeat of their side is provided by the diminutive Xavi and Iniesta. They have proven that any lack of physical attributes they may have is more than compensated for by their touch, awareness and desire to be fiercely competitive.

The way in which players of a certain height are perceived is always interesting. Usually we associate taller players with being more aggressive and perhaps less technically gifted than their shorter counterparts, just as we assume the smaller player will be weak at heading but have quick feet and be able to drift past players at will. Such perceptions are ,of course, nonsense, with players at clubs all around the country defying such logic.

At St Mirren, Billy Mehmet is often viewed by reporters and opposition fans as a target man; a 'bruiser". And yet, while he carries an aerial threat and strength to hold the ball up, his game awareness and technical ability are superb and clear evidence of the apprenticeship he served at West Ham.

Furthermore, one of our best headers of the ball is Hugh Murray, a midfielder of average height yet someone with fantastic timing and an ability to almost hang in the air as he challenges for the ball.

In a similar vein, a team who had never witnessed Everton play before and who assessed their threat at set pieces purely on a physical basis would never suspect that the biggest danger they faced would come from Tim Cahill, another player dwarfed by others but magnificent in the air.

As I approached my mid-teen years, I was aware of my lack of physical stature and embarked on dietary changes aimed at putting on weight to enhance my chances of going full-time from school.

Unfortunately as I tried to put on the pounds, I gained several inches in height, thus starting my apprenticeship at Dundee as a 'skinny' midfielder! I must admit that I never felt this impaired my progress or was the reason for not being offered professional terms but as I moved to my early teens and began to gain weight and muscle, I certainly felt better equipped for my subsequent return to senior football.

Big or small players? I think a happy medium is probably best!


  • Comment number 1.

    a happy medium ..mmmm

    size shouldn't matter but for some reason in this country it does , all we ever look for someone to punt it to , it wouldn't be too bad if the touch was a good one once it got there, if you've got a first touch , your there no matter what size you are , ''to think a happy medium'' is best isn't right either, i watched wayne rooney score another header today to win a cup , he's no monster, no world sprinter , just a fantastic player with a great engine and has the ability to play football anywhere on a field ,he's a winner . L messi , 5ft 8'' maybe smaller , not exactly built to push anybody about , just skill , skill, skill and fitness , ability , desire and awareness and another winner.
    we do something wrong in this country , our kids have ability, skill beyond anybody's imagination, there is a mountain of talent here but for some reason they don't emerge from the conveyor belt the other side , everybody push's muscle building but sorry , it's should just be about skill , there's very little of that on show in today's games . maybe the pressure of defeat just kills the game , nobody should be bothered about being a 'skinny midfielder' , making a pass , scoring , a step over , just simple football , darren fletcher has it nailed .
    to make it in football all you have to do , is work hard , then work harder and keep working harder every time you train ,it's about wanting to reach the very highest level and staying there ,winning takes effort , lots of it , it's dedication , it's sacrifice , it's attitude no matter what size you are and a great deal of luck . every football player needs luck to stay fit and injury free .

  • Comment number 2.

    Size does matter in Football, it's how you utilise it. For some manager's and team's, it's physical intimidation, push them out of the way, use your weight, use your height. Vinny Jones and Fashanu would win the game in the tunnel with physical intimidation based on school bully tactics, we're bigger than you. Wenger believes in skill speed and intelligence, rather like the martial art ritual. The problem is getting the big chaps to control their aggression and play fair because of the speed of the game, the smaller players have a lower centre of gravity so they can change direction with more strength and speed. We now have to increase the ban for an accumulation of yellow cards that are proving worthless otherwise broken legs will become more common place. The Wenger boys will probably win the Premiership this year, and Wenger hasn't had the luxury of a fully fit squad for over two years. Not only will they be the shortest team to win the Premiership but also the youngest and if young is weaker then maybe also the weakest. Skill speed and intelligence the Wenger way or brutal vulgar physical intimidation. Football is entering a new age and Wenger will also prove it's not about money either.

  • Comment number 3.

    goonergetit, an interesting article asking plenty of questions that opens the topic of size in football up for debate and you decide to blather on about how good arsenal are?

    Height and strength surely are important for a team, as an arsenal fan you must recognise this. the last team you won the league with could handle themselves and it's been fairly universally agreed upon that your midfield needed beefing up a bit. song and diaby seem to have helped in that area but there's still no ball winner to be really proud of like you could have been with vieria. to say winning the league would be done without spending money is a bit absurd. you've spent a fair bit of money yourselves but a lot of your team have been foreign kids plucked from smaller clubs. this is just the same as bringing in a big money transfer for a promising player except you do it a year or so earlier and the teams you take from are often offered very little in return. the moral approach taken by wenger is a myth. having said this i do hope you have a lot of success because wenger, for all his flaws does make his teams play incredible football.

    perhaps people could look at the research done by K. Anders Ericsson into how your birthdate effects your talent. footballers born in the early year will have an advantage if we keep our traditional system up. they tend to be bigger, stronger and of course will have had an extra few months playing/practicing the game than the others at the tail end of the year. this means thay'll be more likely to be picked up by the youth teams. with this emphasis on size and strength it's not suprising that teams look to the bigger kids to gain an advantage and generally speaking the taller you are when you're growing up the taller you'll be in adulthood.

    my point is that decisions at youth level are to blame for a decline in talent but a surge in height. perhaps a focus on talent relative to age done by month may payoff for teams in the long run and perhaps a lessening on the emphasis to win everygame at youth level. do i really care if my team wins the u-11 cup with a team of hormonal monsters?

  • Comment number 4.

    Heart is what matters not size Jack. How many times would such a statement apply in life? Xavi and Iniesta might indeed seem diminutive, and so are Modric, Fabregas, Lucas Leiva, Benayoun or Mascherano. Often what such players lack here they compensate there e.g. through bottle or hustle. Soccer is perhaps not even the best game to look at size. How about basketball, where the Muggsy Bogues or Spudd Webbs regularly play alongside six footers?

    What does any footballer need to succeed, regardless of the times they play in? I would say intelligence and awareness most, with a bit of athleticism and good coaching not hurting at all.

    Some teams play small e.g. Marseille or PSV, while English teams typically play tall (Stoke or Blackburn). The relatively small teams, while a bit vulnerable in set pieces or route one ball, tend to be quicker on breaks and probably hold the ball better than opponents. I however don't think there's any ideal way a player or team can use size.

    About the generally lazy stereotypes we tend to have, Crouch, Carew, (retired Czech striker) Jan Koller, Heskey and Luca Toni while tall have good ball holding skills, and so defy such categorizations.

  • Comment number 5.

    Of course size matters and it's stupid and ignorant to claim othrwise.

    Taller players have an advantage for ehading, stronger players can hold off opponents challenges better, longer legs make keeping pace easier and allow for stretching into interceptions/tackles rom farther away as well as usually jumping higher.

    This does not mean there is not a place for smaller players, of course there is, but often they have to be accomodated in some way. Barcelona do this by playing a third strong midfielder in there with Xavi and Iniesta like Toure or Marquez, also just becaue the duo are small does not mean they are not strong, both can tackle and hold their own on the ground while others take responsibility in certain situations instead.

  • Comment number 6.

    in reality as you have explained Jack it doesn't matter. what matters are the skill, athleticism and endeavour of an individual. and the willingness to learn. unfortunately we equate size with increasing our teams capability and it doesn't always follow. some examples:

    every spl club now has the measure of kevin Kyle and subsequently he couldn't score with a £20 note tied to it.

    celtic have in recent years been the biggest culprits of filling their side with big blokes that used their size to influence proceedings. again when they came up against a technically better side the big blokes were left floundering. especially when creativity was called for a la Balde, caldwell etc..

    you need a balance, and a decent mix of individuals with the ability to look up and see what might! be on. and try it. equally whatever their size their teammates need to be open to taking the chance on a run or move too.

    peter crouch is paying the price now for being one dimensional. regrdless of whatever anyone says he is distinctly average with ball at foot.
    mehmet on the other hand is a handful all over the park

  • Comment number 7.

    I would suggest that these days you could pretty much tell which players had a chance of making it at the "top" level (ie Premiership) by their mid-teens. I would estimate that 90% of Premiership players are 6ft+ and/or can run 100m in 11-12 seconds or thereabouts.

    I know some of the guys who play for Tayport Junior FC, who go on an annual pre-season tour to England where they play non-league sides. Apparently, even at that level everybody is tall and built like a brick outhouse!

    There are examples which demonstrate that truly outstanding footballers can buck this trend (Messi) but he couldn't make it in Argentina as no local club could afford the hormone/drugs treatment required to build him up - hence his move to Spain.

  • Comment number 8.

    Size matters but you might be able to make up for it in other ways, I'd say someone like Paul Scholes is rather muscular and as mentioned, maybe try to get one's speed up which I know is a big part of Landon Donovan's game.

  • Comment number 9.

    I agree with your views especially when it comes to the youth set up. There are clubs who will bypass the talents of the smaller, less physical player and fill their teams with 'big farmers boys'. It is important that young players are given advice on eating the right foods and excercise correctly for their developing bodies, too many rush into weight training at a young age.
    Lionel Messi is a player I admire, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency at the age of 11, his parents could not afford the cost of the treatment in his homeland. Barcelona were alerted about his talent and agreed to pay his medical bills if he agreed to join their youth set investment that is now worth several million pounds.

  • Comment number 10.

    "Marajonna" The reason I blather on about how good the Arsenal are is because of the article "does size matter?" Arsenal are the smallest team in the Premiership and maybe the world, not including youth teams ! They are also the youngest so also the weakest ? So does physical size matter? and it does, and Arsenal are proving that smaller players do succeed with speed skill and intelligence. It's how you UTILISE size that matters. Maradona, Keegan, Arshavin, Rooney, Michael Owen, Muller, Fabregas, Billy Bremner, Liam Brady, Vermaleen, Kenny Samson, Shay Given, Wright-Phillips, Eduardo, Alan Ball, Peter Taylor, Geordie Armstrong, Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Pele.

  • Comment number 11.

    Jack just a thought maybe for a future blog:
    should players in the spl live a life dedicated to maintaining their bodies as temples. or are they allowed the legendary scottish bender.

    ok they dont earn the same as Seria A, La liga, Bundesliga or Championship players (ha ha,) but should all professionals follow a professional diet and lifestyle?

  • Comment number 12.

    fair play goonergetit, just trying to inspire a debate about it as it had seemingly died a death and is a very important topic.
    i admire arsenal and if they can win the league with smallest team ever it would be a massive achievment no doubt.
    also look at hangeland, brilliant with the defensive headers but rubbish at scoring with them. he's got the height but not the movement, his only goal in the premierleague (i believe, please correct me if i'm wrong) was a volley/poke thing from a corner against arsenal last season yet has scored two headers in europe, roma and shakhtar. his latest one is rather important because shakhtar and their tiny and very skillful players had the ball for about 88 minutes but the two minutes they didn't fulham swung the ball in and got a goal. very indicative of many european teams who seem to bypass the happy medium we've been talking about.
    how would stoke do in la liga?

  • Comment number 13.

    Size really matters in childrens football, I see many very talented 13 year old children playing at a high level, but there can be a good foot in difference in height which at this level makes a big difference. However, my son who is very short, takes heart that advantages the taller players have will diminish as they grow older and as they develop their football skills. It is good when coaches encourage good football as opposed to having a team to win built on large players. Of course there are very good tall football players as well - if you were a youth coach would you choose a 6ft central defender or a 4'10 central defender who technically is 20% better than the tall guy? We have heard some academys won't even consider small children unless their projected growth height meets certain criteria, thus to make the grade they have to work even harder than tall children - but as in all walks of life, they may have certain disadvantages at the starting point, but these can be overcome by excelling in what you are good at.

  • Comment number 14.

    It does matter!! How did Stoke get promoted?? By knocking the you know what out of everyone until they were too demoralised to try anymore. Even now they have big guys, smaller pitch.

  • Comment number 15.

    Size must surely confer some advantages, but it's reassuring that other qualities persist so resolutely in football. The best footballer in the world about 20 years ago was Maradona, and the best player today (arguably) is Messi. The trend towards larger, stronger athletes has been more pronounced in sports such as tennis and rugby. An article dealing with similar themes can be found here:

  • Comment number 16.

    It is preposterous to think of this as an either/or debate. Physical size is merely one of a number of variables that have to be taken into consideration when the composition of a team (and of its individuals) is assessed.

    Unfortunately, for the game in England it appears that scouts are making judgements very early based solely on size. The introduction of confirmation bias that this results in then tends only to cement their initial assessment. IMO, scouts should be trained to recognise this bias and when it is adversely affecting their judgement of any given player. Only then will we start to see players who marry the best of their talent with whatever stature they posess come through.

  • Comment number 17.

    Thanks for the comments.

    It seems that the biggest concern re size being an issue for players is that of those deemed too small at an early age. I agree that this is a problem and a problem that does not seemed to have changed from my boys club days until now. The more far sighted coaches/clubs will be those who make more balanced judgements on players.

  • Comment number 18.


    The problem is getting the big players to play fair?
    I assume you mean that they do not use their physical capabilities to the best of their advantage... nonsense. That’s like asking a quick player to not run fast! Or for a clinical marksman to close one eye when shooting! If you are big and strong – use it! One of the reasons football is great is because of the differences between players, and club styles.

    Arsenal fans nowadays don’t like it when bigger players use their strength – even when they do so within the laws of the game. Kevin Philips or John Carew go near an opposing defender and referees blow up, it’s ridiculous! Many people like flowing, passing football, but just as many relish the physical battle of players going up against each other. It is just a question of individual taste as to which is ‘better’ or ‘worse’.

    Wenger has achieved something remarkable in football, a campaign in which his side was undefeated in the league. But he did this with the perfect balance of big and small players, who possessed the ability to play flowing football, and to win the physical battle. Since then he has favoured smaller players and in the last few years has won nothing precisely because his players don’t have a physical presence at all. Arsenal now rely on referees to help get them through tough games – unfortunately many referees fall for it and referee differently because of player size.

  • Comment number 19.

    Russell Latapy. Footballing god. But he barely comes up to my waist....


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