What is the difference between a lower level and a higher level? When a player moves from the Under 19’s to the 1st team, do they suddenly play with two balls? Is the offside rule no longer valid? Does the team stop defending?Is the pitch now in the shape of a circle? Are their 4 goals instead of 2?

In the football ability post, we answered these questions with an emphatic “No”. The difference between a lower level and a higher level is not found in “WHAT” is played, but in “HOW” it’s played. All across the world, the same game is played.

In football ability, we took the universal game characteristics as the starting point in our endeavor to precisely define the football performance. In other words, what does it mean to play football better than someone else? What separates Lionel Messi from Jamie Vardy? Virgil Van Dijk from Arsenal’s Sokratis? The answer is football ability. Football ability is a concept that describes the quality with which a player executes the CDE cycle. A players football ability determines how his 100% CDE compares to another players 100% CDE.

In and of itself, football ability is insufficient to explain the entire football performance. For starters, the CDE cycle isn’t performed just once in the whole game. Players need to make multiple actions throughout the entire 90 minutes. In the end, a player with high football ability won’t be very good if he only makes one action per game. The characteristics of football mean that football players need to make multiple actions during a match. In other words, in addition to making actions with a certain quality, players will also make a certain quantity of actions. Every player performs their quantity of actions with a certain frequency. In football language, this is what we call match tempo.

At a higher level of play, not only will football ability be higher, but match tempo will also be higher. However, even with the introduction of match tempo, our definition of the football performance is still incomplete. For starters, playing with a high match tempo for just 20 minutes is not enough to make you a good player, or a good team. Players, and teams, also need to maintain this tempo for the whole match – 90 minutes.

As you can tell, there are a number of characteristics that players need to develop in order to become top players. Primarily, players need to develop their football ability. However, in order to support their football ability for 90 minutes, players need to develop other abilities as well. These will be discussed now.

Football Capacity

In the science of training, how well someone can do something is called ability. How much and for how long they can do something is called capacity. In football, how well someone can perform the CDE cycle is called football ability. How frequently they can perform the CDE cycle and for how long they can maintain this frequency, and their ability, is called football capacity. In football language, these latter characteristics are what we refer to as football fitness.

The football fitness of a player is an integral part of their football performance. Even top players, with a high football ability, will perform poorly if they lack football fitness. If you have ever watched a world renowned player during the pre-season, then you know exactly what I am talking about. Even the best players can’t get away with low football fitness. Football ability sets the bar. But, football fitness is what keeps the bar high.

As an analogy, consider Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods golf ability is very high. He can drive a ball nearly 300 yards. While doing this on the 1st hole demonstrates where the bar is – his 100%. It is his ability to do this throughout 18 holes and over the course of 4-days that truly makes him great. In other words, his “100%” is not sufficient. He also needs the ability to maintain his 100% for as long as possible.

Football players need both. They need a high football ability, but also a high football capacity. Lionel Messi’s ability to dribble past defenders means nothing if he can only do it once. Conversely, being able to make passing actions throughout the entire game means nothing if you always pass to the other team.

In a nutshell, players need to develop their football ability. This means that they continually try and “raise the bar”. They want to push their 100% CDE to 101% CDE. They want to begin each match with a newly improved 100% – a higher bar.

Players also need to develop their football capacity. This means that they continually try and “keep the bar high”. They want to make actions at their 100% as frequently as possible and for as long as possible. This means that even in the final moments of the match, players are still making actions at, or as close to, 100% as possible.

High Football Ability, but Low Football Fitness
High Football Fitness, but Low Football Ability
High Football Ability AND High Football Fitness

To develop their football capacity, players need to develop their ability to make more actions per minute, maintain good actions, and maintain many actions per minute. These are what we call the football fitness (capacity) characteristics.

More Actions per Minute

The first football fitness (capacity) characteristic is more actions per minute. Football actions are not only made with a certain quality, but also a certain quantity. At a higher level of play, football is played with a higher quantity of actions. A higher quantity of actions means that the match tempo goes up. When the match tempo goes up, players have less time between each action. When players have less time between each action, they need to make more actions per minute.

The tempo that Ajax needs to build up with is significantly higher during the Champions League than it is during the Eredivisie. In order to create gaps in the defensive organization of a team like Real Madrid, the Ajax players need to pass at a higher tempo. If the Ajax players only make five passing actions per build up attempt, it is unlikely that they will build up successfully and create chances. The tempo of play (five passing actions per build up attempt) doesn’t place a significant enough demand on the defending actions of the Real Madrid players. The Real Madrid players can easily keep compact, block passing options, and make pressing actions. As a result, we can say that Ajax is attacking at a lower level than Real Madrid is defending.

In order to increase their playing level, the Ajax players need to make attacking actions with a higher frequency. More specifically, this means passing, getting open, and creating space more often. In other words, making more actions per minute – an integral component of a players Football Fitness.

The football fitness characteristic – more actions per minute

Maintain Good Actions

In football ability, we explained that the quality of a football action depends on the quality of the CDE cycle. Football ability refers to how ‘good’ a players actions are. However, players don’t just express this quality one time, but many times throughout the course of the game. Because of this, there is an increased demand on a players ability to maintain their football ability.

Imagine if this were true for a 100 meter sprinter. Every sprinter has a certain sprinting ability. However, they only have to express this ability once. One can imagine how the results of the Olympic 100 meter would differ if they had to express this ability multiple times. Imagine if instead of winning one race, sprinters had to win the best of 20 races. Sprinters would no doubt need to develop more than just their sprinting ability. They would also need to develop their ability to maintain their sprinting ability.

Football players don’t need a high football ability for the first 20 minutes, or the first half, but for the entire 90 minutes. Football ability needs to be maintained for 90 minutes. 

As the game continues, players will eventually struggle to maintain their football ability. In other words, their 100% goes down. For example, towards the middle of the 2nd half, players will begin to make actions at only 90%. A little bit later, the quality might drop to 80%. In the final 10 minutes, maybe only 70% is possible. To make this more concrete, let’s say that 100% represents completing 10/10 passing actions, but 70% represents only 7/10.

This isn’t ideal. We want players to maintain 100% passing accuracy for as long as possible. Therefore, we need to develop their ability to maintain football ability. This requires two things.

First, players need to delay the drop in football ability for as long as possible. Second, players want to limit the drop in football ability as much as possible.

Let’s say that a player’s passing ability begins dropping in the 60th minute. To improve his ability to maintain football ability, this player will want to delay this drop for as long as possible. This means that training should target this players ability to maintain his passing ability for 65 minutes, then 70 minutes, and eventually as close to 90 minutes as possible. Practically, this means demanding quality football actions under fatigue.

Let’s say that this same player’s passing ability not only drops, but drops from 100% to 60%. In other words, not only have the quality of his actions gone down, but they have gone down considerably. Because of this, the player has become a liability and needs to be substituted. To improve his ability to maintain football ability, this player will want to delay this drop as much as possible. This means that training should target this players ability to maintain his passing ability as close to 100% as possible. Practically, this means demanding top quality football actions under fatigue.

In order for a player to maintain football ability for as long as possible and as much as possible, they need to learn how to maintain good actions – another integral part of a players football fitness.

The football fitness characteristic – maintain good actions

Maintain Many Actions

Lastly, we want players who can not only maintain the quality of their actions, but also the quantity of their actions. A fit player can manage a high playing tempo not only during the 1st half, but for 90 minutes. In order to play football at a high tempo late in a match, players need the ability to maintain many actions per minute – the final football fitness characteristic. Practically, this means placing a training demand on your players that forces them to play at a high tempo while fatigued.

In a sense, learning to maintain good actions and maintain many actions are specifications of playing football for longer. Training sessions aimed at improving these football fitness qualities will necessitate a higher volume of training and a higher training duration.

The football fitness characteristic – maintain many actions per minute

Takeaway

How do I get better at playing football? Traditionally, if you ask this question to 10 different people you will get 10 different answers. Alternatively, by taking the universal game characteristics as the starting point, we have been able to answer this question more precisely. There are two main characteristics that separate one player from another: football ability and football capacity, also known as fitness.

In football ability, we explained that the level of play is partly explained by the quality of the football actions.

In this post, we have explained that the level of play is also explained by the quantity of actions, and the ability of players to maintain both the quality and quantity of actions for 90 minutes.

Together, these characteristics explain the football performance.

Football fitness has three sub-characteristics that must be equally developed. 1) At a higher level of play, players need to play football at a higher tempo. In other words, they need to make more football actions per minute. 2) At a higher level, players also need to maintain their football ability for as long as possible. Of course, even the best players in the world will have a drop in quality in the final moments of the match. Nevertheless, players need to develop their ability to maintain good actions. At a higher level, players want to play football as well as possible and for as long as possible. 3) Players need to maintain a high tempo until the final whistle. When defending a 1-0 lead, the defending team will need to maintain their playing tempo for 90 minutes in order to continue disturbing the build up of the opponent and take home 3 points. To do this, they need to maintain many actions per minute.

Improving football ability is not the same thing as improving football fitness. Improving football ability means helping a player perform the CDE cycle at a higher level. It means stretching the boundaries of their communication, decision making, and execution from 100% to 101%. Conversely, improving football fitness means helping a player perform his CDE cycle at 100% as frequently as possible and for as long as possible. Getting ‘fitter’ does not necessarily make you a better player, it helps you express your quality more frequently and for longer. Getting ‘better’ means developing your quality. Getting ‘fitter’ means expressing your quality. Both are necessary for performing at a high level.

Football Ability “sets the bar”. Football Capacity (fitness) “keeps it high” for 90 minutes.