Football: Pace and supreme fitness let EPL giants run the show

Jurgen Klopp keeping a close eye on Reds players at training. Manchester City and Liverpool are the two EPL sides with the most possession, as well as those who cover the most distance and sprint the most.
Jurgen Klopp keeping a close eye on Reds players at training. Manchester City and Liverpool are the two EPL sides with the most possession, as well as those who cover the most distance and sprint the most.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • Jurgen Klopp is fond of a story from the journey to his first title with Borussia Dortmund. It happened in pre-season. He had put his players through a brutal fitness drill involving 11 repetitions of a set of exercises. They lay on the turf, exhausted.

Klopp walked among them and asked: "What if I tell you that doing a 12th set, now, will help you win the league?" To a man his players leapt to their feet.

Welcome to Super Fit Football, where tiredness is just a state of mind.

Manchester City embrace it. Tottenham are formidable exponents. Klopp's Liverpool are the present masters. And these three teams - along with Arsenal, whose physical output has also increased - are "running" the Premier League.

Tottenham's victory over City on Oct 2 was a dizzying blur of pressing and sprinting and chasing and darting, and of more than merely sweat. Just like Liverpool's dazzling win at Chelsea.

  • 13%

  • After seven rounds of Premier League fixtures, Liverpool are the team with the most sprints so far this season. The Reds have made 478 or 13 per cent more sprints than Bournemouth, the sprint leaders at this stage last season, managed. Liverpool are fourth in the EPL table, behind Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal.

Super Fit Football is about the third part of the moniker too: These sides execute skills and tactics at the same breakneck speed they do everything else.

City and Liverpool are the two top possession sides in the Premier League, as well as those who run the furthest and sprint the most. Spurs and Arsenal also score very highly for both.

If Leicester won the title last season by beautifully executing something traditional - Italian counter-attacking - the top teams of the 2016-17 season so far seem to be playing technical football that reaches fresh frontiers in terms of the pace and intensity.

While the kilometres run by leading teams and players have actually stayed roughly constant over the past three seasons, where the differences lie this season are in the sprint figures.

A sprint is defined as an action performed at more than 25.2kmh. In other words a player moving at a pace of around 14 seconds per 100m or quicker.

And speed levels of teams are rocketing. Liverpool made 4,165 sprints in their first seven games, an enormous 478, or 13 per cent more, than Bournemouth, the team who made the most sprints after seven games last season.

Pace is also increasing across the board. The sprint numbers of the 16th-best team this season (Everton) are more than the seventh-best (Liverpool) a year ago.

Klopp believes Liverpool are only at the start; his players are still some way short of the fitness levels his Dortmund attained. He is already looking forward to next summer where, without a major tournament, he will be able to drill his entire group in pre-season to his heart's content.

Despite the absence of their Euro 2016 players, Liverpool's pre-season this summer laid the foundation for this season's surge. Klopp presided over triple sessions each day. A witness described "strewn bodies and players panting and choking back vomit" but them also learning to take masochistic pleasure in Klopp's methods. The squad would sit after dinner speculating with grim smiles about what horrors he had in store for them next.

They bought something Klopp told them: "We can't control other clubs spending more than us, but we can control fitness and if we're not the richest team in the league, we can be the fittest."

It was usually 30 deg C when Liverpool's squad were working out, in sessions lasting 90 minutes. In five weeks, Liverpool also played nine pre-season games.

There has also been little let-up since the season started. The players had just two days off in September. Even tactical sessions are tough: The team are drilled at match pace, at keeping compact, and at group pressing. A favourite drill involves three mannequins wearing different coloured bibs when Klopp will shout a colour. Players sprint to the right mannequin as if they have just lost the ball.

Yet Klopp is also big on recovery: Liverpool's training week tends to peak in intensity mid-week with lighter sessions either side. It is all calculated. Klopp has a university diploma in sports science and knows his subject. He recruited fitness coach Andreas Kornmayer and nutritionist Mona Nemmer from Bayern Munich. Both are said to have made differences.

Pep Guardiola has a conditioning ideology he has evolved since whipping a Barcelona squad grown flabby under Frank Rijkaard into extraordinary shape. He began his City reign by banning overweight players, such as Samir Nasri, from training, and is big on "disguised running" - intense exercises done with the ball so as to not feel like fitness drills.

Mauricio Pochettino is similar. Spurs are also working hard during the international break - the players trained hard Tuesday to Friday, with a double session on Wednesday. The Argentinian, though, has not increased general training hours - it is more that he has brought a ferocity to sessions.

"We've got a big squad here and, if you are tired, you've got fresh players ready to come in. So, in other words, don't be tired," Ben Davies said with a smile last season.

Swansea's Leon Britton, in a conversation in May, reflected that football is feeling the impact of a more qualified new breed of manager implementing what they have learnt on coaching courses and in other study.

"There's a lot of high intensity, quick pressing," he said. "The new generation is producing the training session that reflects the game: they are pressing quicker, getting players to recover quicker. Training is built like that."

Super Fit Football. Where tiredness is a state of mind. Which relentless team will run - no, sprint - off with the Premier League title?

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2016, with the headline 'Pace and supreme fitness let EPL giants run the show'. Print Edition | Subscribe