Tall Teams, Short-Arse Sides and A Weird Summer of Transfers

Tall Teams, Short-Arse Sides and A Weird Summer of Transfers
July 11, 2022 Paul Tomkins

 

Perhaps more than any other football writer, I’m obsessed with the heights of players, having looked into the issue in depth in 2015, when a team of shorter players were inherited by Jürgen Klopp, and clearly lacked the requisite physicality. The taller the opponents seven years ago, the more set-piece goals the Reds conceded.

I’m not a fan of long-ball football. But I am a fan of being able to counter it, as well as being able to defend set-pieces, and score from set-pieces. I do also like a good headed goal, but wouldn’t swap anything to go back to the occasional thumper from Andy Carroll.

A fair chunk of the game still takes place in the air, so why carry a weakness there? Is there a kind of reality-denial, that this belongs to the dinosaurs and they’ve finally died out?

We think of the aerial game as contesting big hoofs downfield, but there’s the issue of crosses, and how, while smaller players can get on the end of them, it’s still likely to be easier for them if they are taller (unless the ball is inch-perfect, which has often been Liverpool’s route to success).

Height is never the only issue when considering a player, obviously. Elite small players are elite players all the same. No one would pass on Thiago Alcantara because he’s not a giant. No Liverpool fan yearns for Carroll over Mo Salah.

But after years of watching Liverpool get physically bullied and out-duelled in the air after the Barcelona-lite of Joe Allen, Alberto Moreno et al a decade-or-so ago, I felt a certain number of tall players were crucial to being a successful team in England; and this was years before Pep Guardiola, at Man City, realised the same – and bought a 6’3″ central midfielder (and now a 6’4″ striker), and began playing 6’2″ centre-backs at full-back at times. (Even João Cancelo is 6ft.)

City did not dispense with skill, but as a club they did realise that size still matters more here than anywhere else.

The notion that springy small players can out-jump taller players has always seemed fatuous to me, if they are jumping against springy tall players. A taller player who is a bit less springy will still win the duel if both jump together.

I heard the generally well-informed Tifo football podcast mention something along the lines (if I heard right) of there being no evidence that taller players are better in the air, which is like saying there’s no evidence that faster players are quicker at getting to a through-ball, just because sometimes they might be slow off the mark, or a slower defender reads the situation a split second earlier.

I’ve been studying the evidence for height as a vital factor for seven years now, even if football is not like the long-ball era of my youth and semi-pro days (where, as a medium-height winger/striker, I was useless at aerial duels, and often just got flattened).

While Tifo correctly mentioned outliers, in 2015 I’d grouped all Premier League players based on height, and for every inch taller over 5’9″ there was an increase in aerial duel win percentages, up to the tallest group of 6’b5″+ (as there weren’t many taller than 6’5″). These are averages, and yes there are outliers, but outliers are rare, for that reason.

You can still have bad headers of a ball who are 6’7″ and great headers of a ball who are 5’9″ (Sadio Mané), but aerial duel success rate is clearly correlated with height.

Peter Crouch couldn’t jump, had no power in his pencil-thin neck, yet scored more Premier League headers than anyone else.

Because he was 6’7″.

And at Southampton and Liverpool, and then Spurs, it was not as part of a long-ball side. Only by the end did he end up a “head on a stick”, as he put it.

Mané scored a lot of headers because he found space between defenders to get on the end of perfect crosses, but rarely out-jumped opponents in a packed box, or at set-pieces.

(Another way Liverpool tend to get headed goals is to meet a cross that is curled lower, behind the centre-backs and in front of the goalkeeper, in the old corridor of uncertainty, which takes height out of the equation; but it’s not easy, with limited space, especially against a deep defence – and teams are starting to defend even deeper against Liverpool, including AC Milan and Real Madrid doing so at free-kicks, eschewing a high line for a six-yard box cluster.)

Mané did head a few goals at the near or back post, when in space, but if properly marked at set-pieces, he was not going to win many aerial challenges that resulted in a goal.

Another player of the same height, Thiago, is surprisingly good in the air in the midfield area, but again, not at set-pieces. He also needs tall players as bodyguards.

I noted in 2020/21 (and revisited it in my new book, on general release in a few weeks’ time*) how, the smaller Liverpool’s XI was, the worse the results. The shortest 13 lineups for the Reds that season had relegation form. The tallest line-ups had title-winning form, even if the tall players were “worse”. Coincidence?

*article continues below, but sign up for the mailing list to receive news of when the book is released and how to get it. 

The shortest lineups haemorrhaged set-piece goals and went five months without scoring one; the tallest lineups (including the run-in with Nat Phillips and the totally raw Rhys Williams) kept them out, and scored them a prodigious rate.

At ‘just’ 6’1″, Ozan Kabak arrived with an c.80% aerial duel rate in Germany; but it doesn’t necessarily translate across to England, I noted.

He then had a poor 55% aerial duel win rate with Liverpool, and subsequently a shocking 44.9% with Norwich. In time, with age and extra strength, he can obviously improve that (everyone can improve their performance envelope to some degree: work to jump a bit higher). But at roughly the same age, Ibrahima Konaté – 6’4″ and much stronger – is already well ahead of those levels. He was pushing 70% for Liverpool, and only towards the end of the season did he really start to seem confident in using his physicality to its full potential. He’ll only get better in the air, with time and experience.

There are a few good 6’1″ defenders aerially, but again, they’ll likely lose out to an equally good 6’4″ player in a duel, all other things being equal; just as a good middleweight would get thumped by a heavyweight of the same ability.

James Tarkowski is 6’1″, and built like a boxer – knocking strikers off balance to win a good number of headers.

But even after a sluggish start after injury, Virgil van Dijk won 10% more aerials than the Burnley man last season, as the Dutchman got up to the 75-77% mark yet again, as he has every single season in England. (The first half of the season, van Dijk, lacking match fitness, was well below his usual standards – in the 60s, with little spring in his leaps; the second half of the season he was over 80%.)

Last season I noted before Liverpool played teams with short centre-backs – Benfica twice, Man City in the FA Cup – that they’d struggle to deal with van Dijk, Joel Matip and, as it transpired in those cases, Konaté. The 6ft centre-backs who challenged Konaté simply bounced off him.

The Future?

Now, Tifo also made the interesting point that aerial prowess may not be as important in 2022 as in the past; and I have wondered the same, as teams become more about passing and pressing, and Burnley, Stoke, West Brom and others have been relegated, with their famous/infamous managers unlikely to get new Premier League jobs.

(And further in the future, height may become irrelevant, if heading gets banned – although that’s not where we’re at yet.)

But teams are focusing even more on set-pieces, with specialist coaches. And while this may involve clever routines, the ultimate aim is usually to work a cross from one position or another, with the big guys from the back sent up.

In recent times Man City have gone “bigger” with several players. A few seasons ago Pep Guardiola bemoaned how his team could not cope with set-pieces in England, and by that stage, Tony Pulis’ Stoke and West Brom were long-gone, and Sam Allardyce was not around.

Since Klopp arrived, Liverpool have gone bigger still, with several players; just as I said needed to happen in 2015. Now, the smallest Reds’ centre-back tends to be 6’4″.

(Joe Gomez, 6’2″ and prior to injuries, was so good and so quick that Liverpool could get away with it, and partnered the taller van Dijk. Gomez is now the smallest option the Reds have, but actually becomes a tall full-back as a squad player. Some of Man City’s centre-backs improved their aerial duel success rates by playing full-back – a lot of wingers are 5’8″ or 5’9″, and clearly won’t win many, especially as a defender only has to head to safety, whereas an attacker is trying to head to keep possession. This is why I often remove centre-backs who also play as full-backs when assessing aerial duels.)

Vitally, Liverpool’s giants – including Fabinho in midfield – can play football, too, and have pace. Nowhere have I ever said to buy big, artless lumps.

(Interestingly, Klopp said today, possibly ironically: “Do we want a midfielder who is offensive, 1.95m tall and arrives into the box to head balls in? Do we miss that? OK, apart from that!” This tallies with my observations last month about what the Reds lack if looking in the midfield market, but it’s also not an essential addition – it just seemed to me like an additional possibility based on the quality of crossing, but there’s no point adding someone like that if you lose creativity. They would have to be a skilled technician, too – that goes without saying.)

Diamonds

I always talk about the tall defensive triangle, or even diamond: centre-backs, defensive midfielder, and goalkeeper.

They have to be commanding in the air, while taller full-backs can also help when narrow. (The Reds’ full-backs aren’t particularly big, and so the height has to be elsewhere in the team, as you wouldn’t swap either for a taller option for the sake of it.)

This diamond is where Man City, a short side overall, contained their aerial prowess.

Chelsea, meanwhile, play three centre-backs, and often, at least one tall wing-back.

The centre-backs aren’t all giants, but the narrowness of three 6ft-6’2″ centre-backs will cover more space than two who are 6’4″ with smaller full-backs tucking in (especially when the three becomes a five), and cut out more crosses, just as Spurs did at Anfield in the draw at the end of last season. This makes it harder to deliver balls that dip in the channels within the area, as the wider two centre-backs in a three deal with the threat.

My hunch is that the aerial successes of Mané and Diogo Jota (another who scores a lot, at just 5’10”) were from the unmarked areas either side of two opposition centre-backs, and that three centre-backs against Liverpool really obviated those opportunities.

As such, at 6’2″ and rapidly improving in the air, Darwin Núñez offers the Reds’ first genuine threat in the Klopp era to get above any of three opposing centre-backs, should teams like Spurs and Chelsea look to clog up the box. (Or other teams doing so with a back four that becomes a back six.)

And if teams need to focus more intently on Núñez when crosses are coming in, then, depending on who’s playing with him and the formation being used, Jota, Roberto Firmino and Luis Díaz might find more space to head home. (You still wouldn’t expect many headers from Mo Salah, nor Fábio Carvalho and Harvey Elliott when they play.)

Indeed, when he signed, I noted how some of Núñez’s goals were from great leaps against tall centre-backs, to power home from what were essentially aerial duels 10 yards out.

While Liverpool score lots of headed goals – from van Dijk, Konaté and Matip (plus occasionally, Alisson) at set-pieces – and from smaller strikers who find space (including 5’11” Firmino who tends to ghost in), I was trying to think of a recent instance of a Liverpool striker powering home a header from a great height in a challenge, especially against the kind of deep, packed defence seen when Spurs visited Anfield and Real Madrid (with no giants) snuffed out the Reds by defending very deep and in numbers, and where the quality of Liverpool’s set-pieces was very poor.

I may have overlooked some, but the one that sprang to mind was over three years ago. Divock Origi scored headers before and after this, but often in space (or an inch out, against Everton, twice).

In total, Origi scored nine headers for Liverpool, but like with Mané and Jota (and even Firmino), he was often in space.

His first ever goal against Everton, in the game in which he later got his leg broken, was a header against two defenders. Otherwise, the success was in the cross and the space he found, including two goal-line headers against Jordan Pickford – the last, fittingly, his final goal for the Reds.

But against Newcastle in 2019, Origi – 6’1″ but more of a gentle giant – marginally out-jumped Jamaal Lascelles, 6’2″.

I don’t think any other Liverpool striker since Christian Benteke could have scored this goal, but it feels the type Núñez could score at will. It’s a type of goal he started to score for Benfica.

Origi is a nice guy – intelligent, technically adroit and well-mannered, like a true academy product, but also quite laid back. Núñez is far more aggressive, and an inch taller. He’s more like a street footballer, fighting for every scrap. He’s not an academy-type player.

Take a look at these two recent Núñez goals, to see what I mean, with the first against Erik ten Hag’s small Ajax defence:

Origi scored this type of goal just twice in seven years.

Núñez – whose headed-goal output is rising all the time – did so twice in recent months.

While Liverpool will still score headers from the strikers finding space to head home a dipping cross, this is a new option, that – just like a fast striker chasing and rescuing a bad through-ball – can turn average crosses into goals. And it’s not like Liverpool will need to change their style – they cross the ball quite a lot anyway. There’s just now a wider margin for error on the inch-perfection involved.

Getting Bigger All the Time

So, height matters less now?

Spurs have gone bigger across the whole team, with every single signing in 2022 over 6ft: this summer, a 6’1” winger, a 6’1” forward, a 6’0” midfielder and a 6’7” goalkeeper (with centre-back Clément Lenglet, 6’2″, also joining on loan); while Antonio Conte’s winter signings were a 6’1” winger and a 6’2” midfielder. They were already a team of six-footers.

It’s almost as if he understands English football.

(Harry Winks, 5’10”, is up for sale. Tanguy Ndombele, under 6ft, is up for sale. Sergio Reguilón, 5’10”, is up for sale. Giovani Lo Celso, 5’10, is up for sale.)

Newcastle’s signings so far under Eddie Howe include a 6’7″ centre-back, a 6’5″ centre-back and a 6’3″ centre-forward, and even the midfield playmaker Bruno Guimarães is 6ft. The new left-back is 6ft, and the new goalkeeper is 6’3″. They are interested in Chelsea striker Armando Broja, 6’3″. They are surely going to score a ton of set-piece goals this coming season, with one smaller buy (Kieran Trippier) a set-piece delivery expert.

Passing/pressers Chelsea were actually the 2nd-tallest team last season; Burnley, meanwhile, were only 7th. In the first half of the season before the wheels fell off in various areas of their game, Chelsea were exceptional at set-pieces.

If memory serves, think I worked out last year that teams were, on average, over an inch taller last season than when I started looking at team heights in 2015.

And when I looked at a few team heights from the 1980s, you’re talking inches plural (tall defenders were often 6ft, as were the goalkeepers. To be 6’1″ was freakishly tall). I don’t know about team heights when Fabio Cannavaro, 5’9″, was an elite centre-back, but maybe 5’9″ then is closer to 6ft now. And it wasn’t in the Premier League.

So you’re telling me height is no longer an issue? Teams are clearly getting taller, not shorter.

We may see more pressing and passing, but mostly by, on average, taller players than in the past. Even Man City are over an inch taller, on average, than three years ago.

You can focus on the outliers, like N’Golo Kanté, but he does not represent the height of that Chelsea side (2nd tallest), just as Fred doesn’t represent the height of Manchester United’s last year, who were tallest overall.

Man City aside, the shortest sides included struggling Norwich, Aston Villa and Southampton; plus Newcastle before their spending spree – several of their XIs averaging at 180cm-or-so as they sat rooted to the bottom of the table before the January window, and mostly then XIs of 184-185cm as they went on a winning spree.

For all the new ideas that we welcome (to make the game more aesthetically pleasing), there are still tons of pragmatic managers, who know that set-pieces are vital, and set-piece chances are better with taller players (see the vital role Rodri has played for Man City in this regard at both ends). The variety is still there in approaches, to make the game interesting.

Only Manchester United in recent times seemed full of tall players and were still useless at set-pieces, but one reason has to be that they appeared quite leaden, and also weighed down by heavy shirts, as they saying goes. They were just a strangely lifeless, listless bunch.

Last summer, Liverpool added a 6’4″ centre-back, and this summer a 6’2″ striker. The change from average to exceptional took place with the addition of van Dijk, Fabinho and Alisson, three-quarters of the defensive diamond, and all very tall for their position.

No one says the whole team has to be tall, but you want real aerial dominance at both ends. One of Klopp’s first signings was Matip, at 6’5″, and van Dijk, 6’4″, transformed the side. The Dutchman’s height makes him heavier, too – the same physique on someone six inches shorter would be less robust in a challenge.

(For the record, the Reds’ two best individual aerial duel seasons since I’ve been tracking the stat in 2015, with a minimum number of minutes/duels to qualify, were Jöel Matip in 2019/20 and Rhys Williams in 2020/21. Both are 6’5″, and neither is particularly “good” at heading the ball, whilst Nat Phillips won far fewer, on average – 65% or so – despite looking great in the air. Matip’s headers – winning an astounding 90% – helped the Reds win the league in the games he played, and Williams’ – over 80% won – helped the Reds move from 7th to 3rd in the final weeks of the season. Both could be described as beanpole beacons.)

If set-pieces remain a big source of goals, then aerial duels are a key advantage here. And taller players, on average, win more than smaller players. It shouldn’t be shrouded in mystery.

Now, Man United – the catalyst for the current debate – are interesting at the moment because they had the tallest team in the league last season, as noted, but they were often slow, lumbering giants – Harry Maguire, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matić, a disinterested Paul Pogba, the still-springy but lazy/old Ronaldo, the ageing Edison Cavani, and so on.

They didn’t seem like they could jump very well, Ronaldo aside. (And now he’s jumping ship.)

The better you already are as a team, maybe the smaller your players can be. I’ve always maintained the there was no issue for Barcelona a decade ago as they just didn’t give the ball away. But how many teams are that exceptional, with generation-defining technicians boosted by the all-important added cohesion of playing together since the youth team?

So Lisandro Martinez, at 5’9″, seems an outrageous gamble for United to buy as a centre-back in England, even if Maguire would balance things out a bit.

New United left-back Tyrell Malacia is 5’7″. Fred – showing some quality last season in midfield – is 5’7″. You could maybe carry a 5’9″ centre-back in a tall and athletic team, with height either side and a massive midfield, but it seems that the technical, five-a-side style Erik ten Hag is importing may not work in England, where even the other technical sides are full of talented, athletic big bastards.

(One criticism I had of Arsenal last season was that their keeper and one of their centre-backs were too small. Small players can obviously be aggressive, but a bigger team seems harder to bully or intimidate. They seemed a bit “soft”, perhaps also because they were quite a young team, too. Some great talent, especially in attacking areas, but not yet a proper team. And a few diminutive defensive-half players, with talented but diminutive attackers like Bukayo Saka, leave them a bit susceptible. They’re not a short team overall, but in Arsenal’s case, they lack height in the defensive diamond. They’re also in for Martinez.)

Now, Martinez could play in other positions at United, but I’ll eat humble pie if I’m wrong on this – although United making strange transfer decisions would obviously be par for the course in recent times, even if they’ve finally got an exciting, modern manager; I’m just not convinced he’s arriving with a handle on what the Premier League entails.

Malacia is tiny, as is Martinez, while Christian Eriksen, Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Frenkie de Jong and others are not physically imposing; and another target, Antony, is also small. (Then again, it has to be more interesting than McTominay, Matić and Marouane Fellaini.) If you don’t have height at full-back and on the wings, as that’s where you want to prioritise skill, stamina and pace, where is the height going to be?

Maybe he can re-write the rulebook, but if Guardiola had to buy some bodyguards, and Klopp needed to beef up his side, you’d think Erik ten Hag might struggle – initially, at least.

Finally, it feels like a strange summer, with lots of big names moving clubs, often to rivals. Raheem Sterling to Chelsea feels extra weird, and then there’s Ronaldo wanting out of United.

As is always ideal, Liverpool got their business done early, to gel everything together in preseason. That starts against Manchester United, but it’ll be far too soon to draw any conclusions (not that this will stop people).

Again, a reminder to sign up for the newsletter, to get the latest news on the new book (and more). The subscribers’ special extended edition is currently being printed, and when they’ve all been despatched to those who preordered, I’ll sort out the general release version.

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