The Evolution Of Speed

Jet heeled, rocket paced....when you're fast, it makes a difference. Ben Shave looks at the development of ever-increasing acceleration in football.

Even in this age of hyper-modernity, raw materials are arguably more important than ever. Wars are started, finished, and re-started over oil, natural gas, and other dwindling supplies of fossil foils. Despite the apparent decline of heavy industry in large parts of the western world, on a global scale, raw materials still provide a livelihood to billions. They are, simply put, essential to the continued existence of humanity.

Raw materials are also essential to the continued existence of football, although they take different forms, and are often trickier to quantify. Scouts, agents and the like are dispatched to far-flung corners of the globe with the express purpose of sniffing out the finest players for eventual export to the rarefied echelons of the game. What are they looking for? Raw materials. The harvesting of footballing potential isn't quite on the scale of the global industrial revolution that indelibly altered the world during the last two and a bit centuries, but it's scarcely less rewarding for those that strike gold, as it were.

But what exactly are these raw materials? Having never worked as a scout, and given the professions' understandable reticence when it comes to sharing the tricks of the trade, I can't say for certain. But it doesn't take a giant leap of faith to assume that speed figures somewhere near the top of the list for the vast majority of positions.

Throughout the history of football, speed has delighted and bewildered supporters and opposition in equal measure. Whilst the ways in which it has been utilised have developed and evolved alongside the game, the influence it has exerted has remained constant. The earliest days of the game in England placed little emphasis on passing (insert your own joke here) and instead focused on getting the ball down to the opposition end as quickly and directly as possible. The most prized players resembled fly-halves in rugby, football's sister sport: lightning-fast and blessed with a fearless disposition, they darted out of the path of challenges delivered by behemoth defenders.

In Scotland, the fabled passing game (pioneered by Queens Park) also relied on speed, but of a different type. Teams wove intricate patterns of short passes up the field, something which required no small amount of technical skill on pitches that lacked the resources of modern groundsmen. Friendlies between clubs and countries from either side of the border contributed to the development of the game as we made our way towards the twentieth century, and having overcome the trauma of two world wars, the 1950's heralded the golden age of the winger – and by extension speed – in English football.

Jonathan Wilson correctly cites “the lust for speed and fear of thought” as key factors in the continued failings of the national side, but the likes of Stan Mortensen and Jackie Milburn combined the two, assuming creative responsibility in both wide and central areas for their clubs. With the defensive aspect of the game not yet afforded the same attention,  Mortensen (who was originally considered too slow to make the grade as a professional, but trained intensively to improve his pace to the extent that he became known as 'electric heels') and his peers were able to orchestrate devastating attacks, bamboozling opponents with his skill and speed.

In continental Europe, Austrian journalist Willy Meisl was scathing about “the fetishisation of speed”, but despite his reservations, the great Brazil side of the 1958 and 1962 World Cups bewitched their opponents with their collective speed of thought, using the wonderful Garrincha as the ultimate expression of attacking intent in what was nominally a 4-2-4 formation, but in reality saw upwards of seven players contributing to the forward momentum at any time.

A collective mentality and tactical cohesion has often manifested itself in football of breathtaking speed and beauty, and the history of the game contains numerous examples: Brazil in 1958 and 1970, Holland and Ajax during the early 1970's, Brazil again in 1982. But as the overall speed of the game continued to rise, and tactics continued to exert more pressure on the free-flowing attacking style of yesteryear, the importance of speed has spread across the pitch, rather than concentrating on one gifted individual.

Nowhere has this been more obvious than the rise of the full-back. Whether teams employ a pressing or more reactive approach, the full-back has arguably become the conduit for the majority of attacking forays. As ever, Brazil has pioneered this crucial development. Cafu and Roberto Carlos formed arguably the finest full-back pairing in the history of the game for much of the last decade, with both players possessing remarkable reserves of stamina and speed. Today, Daniel Alves and Maicon are integral to success of Barcelona and Internazionale respectively, providing the type of aggression from further back that is, at its peak, nigh-on impossible to defend against.

This modern utilisation of speed is inextricably linked to the increasing reliance on physical preparation amongst professional footballers. Improvements in diet, recovery methods and the like have ensured that players are now capable of combining skill with dazzling athletic abilities. The likes of Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon would perhaps have become Olympic sprinters twenty years ago, such is the explosive nature of their speed, on and off the ball.

Similarly, there can be few more terrifying sights for a defender than watching Cristiano Ronaldo bearing down on them. The Portuguese winger is in many ways the archetypal modern attacker, using a visceral combination of strength and speed to exert a vice-like grip on matches. Ronaldo, like Mortensen half a century before him, has worked tirelessly on improving his speed, and more specifically his turn of speed. Whilst they are clearly very different players, Ronaldo, Walcott and Lennon all utilise their searing acceleration to steal a march on all but the most alert of opponents.

With football set to continue down the road of evolving physical development, it appears that speed's place amongst the key raw materials of the game is secure for years to come. The sport may be unrecognisable in many aspects, but stripped down to its foundations, football still relies on the same physical attributes that set it apart almost 150 years ago. Raw materials, my friends, raw materials.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott will all be wearing the new Nike Mercurial Superfly III football boots.  Released on April 1, you can read more and pre-order yours here.

Ben is a co-editor of IBWM and you can find him on Twitter @Cahiers_dusport.