Competing at the Pinnacle: Physical Demands of the UEFA Champions League
With the UEFA Champions League finally resuming this week, we continue our unique insights into the physical demands of elite Football by benchmarking the UEFA Champions League with the top domestic leagues in Europe.
Many head coaches believe the Champions League represents a step change in physical intensity, which combined with the mid-week travel requirements, can sometimes result in a reduction in performance in subsequent domestic games.
Ajax head coach Erik ten Hag lost out to Tottenham Hotspur last season in an extremely close semi-final and commented earlier this season : “One of my goals with this team is letting them play with full intensity for 90 minutes long. I demand this from my players. Because this is what you need when you reach further stages in the Champions League”.
Using SkillCorners AI tracking technology and standardised physical data analysis, we will answer this question based on objective data collected on all 2019/20 Champions League games from the 3rd qualifying round (commencing 6 August 2019) to the enforced stop due to COVID19 on 11 March 2020.
How Physically Intense is the Champions League?
Figure 1 is summarising competition intensity at the player level based on the average number of high intensity activities plotted against average peak sprint velocity (99th percentile). To illustrate data differences, the Champions League and Europa League competitions have been superimposed on the same graph as the ‘Big 5’ leagues.
It is evident that the average player data from Champions League games has a similar number of HI activities to the English Premier League — which is a 13% increase on France Ligue 1 and a smaller 8% increase on Spain La Liga.
It is also noticeable that average Peak Sprint Velocity (99th Percentile) in the English Premier League — a comparative measure of the capability to achieve and sustain higher speeds, remains the highest across all competitions.
Is there a Noticeable Intensity ‘Jump’ from Domestic Competition ?
Figure 2 is summarising sprinting performance at the player level based on average sprint distance plotted against average number of sprint activities. Once again, to illustrate data differences, the Champions League and Europa League competitions have been superimposed on the same graph as the ‘Big 5’ leagues.
Here we can see that sprinting demands in the UEFA Champions League are virtually identical to the English Premier League.
In terms of sprint distance, the Champions League represents a 20% increase compared with France Ligue 1, 17% increase compared with Germany Bundesliga and 10% increase compared with Italy Serie A. Consequently, with the notable exception of the English Premier League, it appears there is a noticeable increase in sprinting demands when moving from domestic games into Champions League games, especially when you consider this data does not include the quarter final stage and beyond.
Which Teams have Produced the Highest Physical Outputs in the 2019/20 Champions League (so far)?
From a team level sprinting perspective, we can see a cluster of high performing teams highlighted in Figure 3, comprising Red Bull Salzburg, Liverpool, Lille, Atletico Madrid, Slavia Prague, RB Leipzig and Tottenham Hotspur. The team level data excludes goalkeepers and normalises physical outputs based on per 900 minute outputs (P900) — 10 field players times 90 minutes — to adjust for small playing time differences.
Given the competition level benchmarking, it is perhaps not surprising to see two English teams within this cluster. Slavia Prague also produced very high sprinting performances in a very competitive Group F which also featured Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona and Inter Milan.
Taking into account relative possession duration, Figure 4 shows team level high intensity running (per minute) for both Team in Possession (TIP) and Opponent Team in Possession (OTIP) phases. We have also overlaid average possession duration (yellow trace) to indicate which teams were generally able to dominate possession.
Clearly Bayern Munchen and Liverpool are dominant in possession but expend the majority of their high intensity activity when out of possession, a trend also seen to a lesser extent with Barcelona and Manchester City.
Conversely teams like Atletico Madrid, Atalanta and Napoli are expected to be highly structured out of possession and exert a greater proportion of high intensity activity in transitions and counter attacks.
Which Players have Produced the Highest Physical Outputs in the 2019/20 Champions League (so far)?
In terms of overall intensity at a player level, Figure 5 shows the average number of High Intensity (HI) Activities plotted against Peak Sprint Velocity — 99th Percentile (PSV-99).
We have highlighted the 5 players with the highest overall PSV-99 values with Alphonso Davies at the top of the leaderboard followed by fellow full back Achraf Hakimi, then central forwards Timo Werner, Kylian Mbappe and Hee-Chan Hwang playing for RB Salzburg.
It is perhaps not surprising to find two players from Red Bull owned clubs in the top 3, given the RB group is known to encourage a consistent philosophy and playing style across their teams which requires high physical loads.
Overall, we have presented objective evidence that the UEFA Champions League does represent a significant increase in physical intensity compared to many of the top domestic leagues. England is the one exception, where the physical demands of the Premier League are already aligned with Champions League outputs.
The largest difference is evident in France Ligue 1, where Paris Saint Germain will perhaps experience the biggest jump in physical demands (relative to their regular domestic opponents) as they prepare to face Atalanta in the quarter finals.
Sprint Distance : Distance covered above 7.0 m/s (25.2 km/h)
High Intensity (HI) Distance : Distance covered above 5.5 m/s (19.8 km/h)
HI Activity : Discrete activity exceeding 5.5m/s for a specific duration
Sprint Activity : Discrete activity exceeding 7.0m/s for a specific duration
Relative Distance per Minute : Meters per minute (M/min)
PSV-99 : Peak sprint velocity 99th percentile
TIP : Team in possession
OTIP : Other team in possession
To discover more about our data and how it has been validated against official tracking data, both by our research team and leading football clubs, contact us at email@example.com.