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Kylian Mbappé hits his stride against Liverpool during the group stage


Raw pace has always been one of the most thrilling aspects of watching football but, as Simon Hart explains, players and coaches are now elevating the power of speed into a devastating science

Manchester United v Paris Saint-Germain, 12 February 2019. The clock reads 59 minutes and 47 seconds as one of the goals of this season’s competition begins to unfold. Juan Bernat spins on the halfway line and sprays a pass out wide to Ángel Di María. Inside Old Trafford, spectators can be forgiven for following the ball. Hindsight, though, tells us it is the man with No7 on the back of his white shirt whose movement will prove pivotal. 

As the ball leaves Bernat’s foot, Kylian Mbappé is positioned some 12m inside the United half. The home team’s centre-backs, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf, stand a couple of metres closer to goal. Yet within six seconds of Bernat’s pass, the young Frenchman has sped between them and beyond to bury Di María’s low cross past David de Gea. The speed of that surge? BT Sport’s timekeepers in England record a distance of 28.35m covered in just 3.24 seconds.

Football, and footballers, have never been quicker. The evolution of sports science, the improvement in players’ diets and the changing technology of balls and pitches have all been factors, and there may be no better current example of what speed can offer than Mbappé, the boy wonder of Paris and France’s national side. This, at least, is the view of Darren Campbell, the former Great Britain sprinter and 2004 Olympic gold medallist, who has coached more than 50 professional footballers, including Andriy Shevchenko. He regards Mbappé as a lesson for all. 

“He uses his arms in the right way, back and forth,” explains Campbell. “That’s the first fundamental as you generate power from the motion of the arms. When you watch him run, he doesn’t lean forward but his knees come up in front of him. That’s important because unless you bring your knees up when you run, you’re not going to create the recovery time in the hamstrings.”

As a natural runner, Mbappé has a smoothness and efficiency of motion that “creates relaxation, so once he gets to top speed he is still relaxed,” adds Campbell. It is another telling aspect. “Ultimately, against most

Leroy Sané’s run against Hoffenheim was the second-fastest up to the final

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Trainer and 2004 Olympic gold medallist Darren Campbell

footballers he’ll never have to go to top speed because his speed is faster than everybody else’s, so straight away mentally his brain doesn’t have to worry about having to beat that person.” 

Instead, the 20-year-old can prepare for the action to follow. “He doesn’t have to worry about getting there so he can already be processing what he’s going to do. The prime example would be the goal against Manchester United, where he was so relaxed. Because he’s that fast, he can relax in certain positions.”

It sounds paradoxical, this attainment of high-speed calm, yet Campbell recalls one player who “tried to do everything at the speed at which he can run”, and thus needed help in easing off mentally while moving fast. He adds: “Usain Bolt is the prime example – you can still run and be relaxed. Once you create relaxation, everything slows down.” 

The Bolt reference is not entirely out of place. In sprinting to score a goal past Monaco in April, Mbappé reached a peak speed of 38km/h ­– higher than Bolt’s average speed of 37.6km/h when setting the world 100m record (albeit still some way off the Jamaican’s peak of 44.72km/h during that historic dash).

There is nothing new about the need for speed. The great England winger of the 1950s, Stanley Matthews, got up at 7am each day and, before training with his club, completed a series of sprints on waste ground near his home. In the same era, Real Madrid’s legendary winger Paco Gento dizzied defenders and dazzled spectators with his lightning-fast forays. They helped him earn six European Cup winners’ medals together with the nickname ‘La Galerna del Cantábrico’, the Cantabrian Gale – a reference both to his home region of Cantabria and his power of acceleration. Back then, of course, nobody was timing his dashes down the left with the same accuracy that tracks the Liga’s latest speed demons. Take Iñaki Williams, for example, who covered 55m in 7.03 seconds during one of his January goals for Athletic Club against Sevilla.

Certainly, the footballer of 2019 has a better opportunity to be the quickest version of him or herself than at any previous point in history. Paul Balsom is head of performance for the Sweden national team and Leicester City, and he offers an insight into the methods used with his players. “Do our fitness coaches work on individual running technique and individual speed technique? Not directly. We do a lot of work in the gym, on strength and power.”

Whether you can make a player fast is a moot point; with practice, however, anyone can become faster, both mentally and physically. The specific work differs according to each player’s physical profile. “For some players, to increase their speed they need to become more powerful by increasing their maximal strength, and this is done by working with heavier weights in the gym,” says Balsom. “For other

players who wouldn’t need to increase their maximal strength, the focus would be more on high-speed, explosive movements.”

With players who are naturally fast, the main challenge is how best to exploit this asset on the field. Balsom cites Jamie Vardy, centre-forward at Leicester, the 2016/17 UEFA Champions League quarter-finalists, who has perfected the timing of his runs to menacing effect. “When he runs in behind, he so often starts on the shoulder of his opponent, which is a nightmare for defenders,” says Balsom. “He’s become very smart with the timings of his runs. If you can get a two or three-step start on your opponent, that’s a huge amount of distance to catch up, so reading of the game is hugely important too. If you look at a player like Gareth Bale, his high-speed runs are very calculated and more often than not timed to perfection. These players are quick but they also have the ability to read the game and make their runs at the right time.”

Looking at the impact of speed in the UEFA Champions League, this season’s statistics identify Liverpool as arguably the side most effective at using pace to hurt defences. En route to this final, Jürgen Klopp’s team averaged 2.59 passes in the space of 8.01 seconds when scoring, whereas the competition average was 3.91 passes per goal over 12.56 seconds. 

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Virgil van Dijk hit the highest speed in the Champions League this season

In a 2018/19 campaign where 35 goals overall have followed loose opposition passes, Liverpool’s opponents have adjusted their strategy to avoid risking turnovers in their own half, but those teams taking a more open approach have continued to suffer — just ask Porto and Barcelona. Steve McManaman, the former Liverpool and Real Madrid winger, explains how the Reds turn defence into attack in a matter of seconds: “When the opposition have the ball, Liverpool are at their most dangerous. When they do win it back, and invariably they do win it back, their counterattack is so quick. Whoever wins it back, they turn and they’re all thinking as one straight away – all thinking about going as fast as they can to the opposition goal. Even with the full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, their main thought is to bomb forward as well.”

If the capacity to hit opponents with swift counters has become a must-have, UEFA’s technical observers have also noticed how, with attackers racing forward in threes and fours, there are fewer solo surges in the UEFA Champions League. Only two goals in last season’s knockout phase came from penetrating individual runs and McManaman, a player adept at ghosting past defenders in his pomp, argues that there has been a change in wing play. Few examples remain of the tricky wide attacker of old, like his former Santiago Bernabéu colleague Luís Figo.  

“There’s a lot more focus on the speed of the game,” he says, “rather than that archetypal winger who did a stepover and went past people. They still exist – [Ricardo] Quaresma in Turkey – but now it seems you don’t need to take people on if you’re just quicker than them. You just run past them.”

The quickest attacker up to this season’s final was Manchester City’s Leroy Sané. His top-speed sprint of 34.4km/h against Hoffenheim was surpassed only by Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk’s 34.5km/h against Barcelona. With a sprint defined as any run of 20km/h or faster over a distance of two metres or more, a

second City player, right-back Kyle Walker, earned joint-third place in the 2018/19 ranking having hit 34.2km/h in the quarter-final against Tottenham Hotspur.

Of course, it is worth adding that players like Sané and his fellow City winger Raheem Sterling do have skills too – and these elite players have the technique to perform them at pace. McManaman, once a City player himself, speaks admiringly of Sterling’s ability in that regard: “He’s incredibly quick so when he moves his shoulder to go one way and goes the other way, with those small steps he’s got no one who can keep up with him.”

McManaman, in his day, would spend hours practising stepovers and drops of the shoulder, and performing ladder drills – something players have long done to improve their agility and speed of footwork. Ryan Giggs, a flying winger in his early years at Manchester United and now manager of Wales, has his own observation to make, attesting that pace in football means much more than dashing in a straight line. “Top-end speed is always important if you’re a wide player,” he says, “but also acceleration is just as good where you slow an opponent down and then quicken up and then just change your pace and direction.”

Giggs would know that better than anybody. But surely even he would acknowledge how, once in a while, as Old Trafford witnessed from the electric strides of Mbappé, an injection of pure speed can be enough.  

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