The most significant feature of football's recent strategic development -- more than possession football, false nines, high defensive lines or inverted wingers -- has been something extremely simple: speed.
Football has never been faster. Watch a match from the mid-to-late 1990s, a period recent enough that a few players (Ryan Giggs, Javier Zanetti, Francesco Totti) link both eras, and the play appears astonishingly slow. Gaps open up, but players don't charge into them. Counterattacks are conducted at a gentle pace; the player in possession pauses to check his options, turning one way, then changing his mind and distributing the ball the other. Pace was a bonus rather than a requisite, often the domain of wingers and maybe the odd striker.
Today, pace is everything. It's why counterattacking is so dangerous, why physical conditioning is so crucial and partly why Italian clubs -- accustomed to playing at a gentle pace -- have recently underachieved in Europe. It's also why when a Manchester United-supporting prankster recently tricked Chelsea fans outside Stamford Bridge, quizzing them about fictional transfer targets, they pretend to know about his speed.
"He's quick. He's got pace on him, definitely," one says. "He's very fast," adds another. It's a reasonable assumption. In today's world, which promising youngster isn't quick?
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It’s an especially understandable guess considering the side Jose Mourinho is assembling at Chelsea. Monday night's 1-0 victory over Manchester City was an extremely impressive, controlled performance that was more dominant than the winning margin would suggest.
Chelsea defended solidly, attacked in numbers, and while they weren't entirely reliant upon the counterattack, in those situations they broke at extraordinary speed. Their four-against-one counterattack midway through the first half summed it up: Willian leading the charge, Samuel Eto'o available on the right, and Ramires and Eden Hazard sprinting down the left.
Eto'o lacks the pace of his younger years, but his runs are still sharp. The key to Chelsea's speed on the break, though, was the performance of the three behind him: Willian, Hazard and Ramires. All three are fast. The fascinating thing about this trio, though, is that "fast" isn't detailed enough to explain their respective styles. They're fast, but fast in entirely different ways.
The men's 100-metre Olympic final features the eight quickest men on the planet, but they have different styles and separate strengths. When Usain Bolt broke the 100 record in Beijing in 2008, he recorded the second-slowest start of the eight contenders, but by 70 metres he was so far ahead that he was able to slow down. Others were quicker out of the blocks, but no one could match his top gear.
In a footballing context, seemingly every debate can be linked back to Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo. In 2009, A fascinating study by researchers at the University of Coruña, seemingly stretching the boundaries of their research project, revealed that Messi is marginally quicker than Ronaldo over short distances -- in the first five metres Messi hits 20 kph, Ronaldo just 18 kph. When you measure speed over 15 metres, however, Ronaldo is the winner, hitting 30 kph compared to Messi’s 28 kph. They're marginal differences, perhaps, but the point stands.
Back to Chelsea: Their three attacking midfielders Monday night had three separate types of pace. Willian has incredible acceleration over relatively short distances, Hazard has brilliant midrange speed and Ramires is a long-distance speedster. The three approaches were all crucial in Chelsea's win.
Willian's deployment in the central attacking midfield role was reminiscent of the way Mourinho used Mesut Ozil at Real Madrid. Although given fewer defensive responsibilities than Willian, Ozil's attacking game depended upon him making consistent, short sharp bursts into the channels, often by running laterally. Mourinho considered Juan Mata, for example, unable to do this.
The Brazilian is even quicker than Ozil, but there's a similarity in their movement -- Willian seems to charge down defenders from a standing start extremely quickly. If there's a loose ball in midfield, the Brazilian always seems to get there first and is into his stride quicker than anyone else. He rarely sprints over long distances, but his acceleration over short range never seems to fade as the match continues.
Eden Hazard, meanwhile, is quick from a standing start, but that's not his specialty. He's more effective when suddenly moving up through the gears -- perhaps from about second gear to fifth gear, in the blink of an eye. He embarrassed Pablo Zabaleta on Monday with an astonishing burst of speed that was so humiliating for the Argentine because he clearly knew what to expect -- he backed off, waiting for the moment to turn and sprint, but still couldn't get close to the Chelsea man.
It's not the first time, either -- Hazard has been embarrassing defenders regularly in recent weeks, most notably when Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic was so frustrated that he launched into a reckless, dangerous tackle on the Belgian in stoppage time, earning himself a straight red card. Hazard has moments of trickery, certainly -- there was a brilliant run from an inside-left channel that beat two defenders (and somewhat oddly, the referee, too) but he's also capable of knocking past a defender and running onto it.
Then there's Ramires. He doesn't have the acceleration of Willian and not quite the pace of Hazard. But over a long distance, he's unbeatable. The Brazilian was guilty of wasting Chelsea's clearest chance yesterday, on that four-on-one break which ended with his tame, curled shot that allowed Joe Hart to make an easy save. He only seems to be comfortable finishing from inside-right positions, shooting across the goalkeeper's body.
However, rewind to the start of the move and watch where Ramires begins his run. As Alvaro Negredo misplaces a pass by a bafflingly huge margin, Ramires is the player pressuring the Spaniard, goal-side of him, close to his own penalty box. Ten seconds later, he's in the opposition box applying the finish -- with no opponents in sight. In Brazil with Cruzeiro, he was affectionately known as the "Queniano Azul" (the "Blue Kenyan") for his speed and endurance over long distances. It remains an appropriate nickname.
It remains to be seen whether raw speed, even its different guises, will be enough for Chelsea to win the league. It's easy to witness this performance and understand why Mourinho didn't require Mata, yet rarely will Chelsea be allowed to attack so reactively and use their speed to such devastating effect in attack.
When the opportunity presents itself, however, Chelsea's pace will continue to be both thrilling and devastatingly effective.