The right stuff: what makes the modern footballer?

The right stuff: what makes the modern footballer?

Donald Park Scotland U19 boss and Head of Coaching © SFA

What makes the modern footballer? It is a question that should be on the lips of every young hopeful looking to win a first club contract or move through the ranks of the professional game.

Thankfully, The Scottish Football Association’s Head of Coaching and Scotland U19 boss, Donald Park, has some well-founded pointers. They are drawn from a combination of the latest research and the coach’s experience in the game spanning almost half a century since the then teenage midfielder signed for Inverness Caledonian in 1969.

Now 64, the administrator, served both Hearts and Partick Thistle with great distinction as a player. A dynamic midfielder of no little skill, Park is also synonymous with the development of a talented youth generation at Hibernian including the likes of Derek Riordan and Scott Brown and for highly regarded scouts and coach education programs.

Under Park’s guidance since 2007, The SFA currently work with seven position profiles: Goalkeeper, Full Back, Central Defender, Defensive, Midfielder, Offensive Midfielder, Winger, Striker.

The prevailing international coaching standards inform these profiles and currently, the required attributes for each role shape up as follows:

Goalkeeper Quick reaction on shots and in 1v1 situations • Accurate interception on depth passes and crosses • Passing under pressure (short and long).

Full Back Defensively strong in 1v1 situations (on the ground) • Running with ball, followed by a good cross or shot on target (the new winger) • Accurate diagonal passing (short and half-long passing play).

Centre Back Defensively strong in 1v1 situations (on the ground and in the air) • Accurate diagonal passing and driving into midfield to construct play • Scoring on set plays.

Defensive Midfielder Recovery of the ball (1v1 and interception) •Availability and passing during build up • Coaching and leadership on the field.

Offensive Midfielder Decisive final pass (subtle) or action (dribble) • Available between lines and accurate handling under pressure • Scoring after runs into the box ,with or without ball)• Shots on target from distance.

Winger Offensive action 1v1 inside and outside (down the line) • Excellent cross or shot on target • Efficiency in the box (picking out passes and scoring in the box).

Striker Holding and protecting the ball with back to goal • Available (runs) behind the defensive line • Efficiency in the box (scoring capacity with feet and head).

The demands of the modern game

The demands of the modern game can be seen in the average distances covered per game in each of the player roles:

Full Back: 11,410 metres • Centre Back: 10,627 metres • Centre Midfield: 12,027 metres • Wide Midfield: 11,990 metres • Forwards: 11,254 metres •

Donald Park confirms that in a game where players are expected to cover increased distance in all positions, 13 km is now a normal benchmark figure per match. Indeed, the truly top class players cover greater distances – on average five percent further than their lower league equivalents.

At the highest level, football is a game of explosive action where athleticism more than ability on the ball is what defines the disparity between teams and players over 90 minutes. This is because top level ability on the ball can be almost taken as read. What makes a difference is the ability to reproduce that talent under pressure, again and again, while demonstrating the qualities of a well-rounded footballer.

Donald Park’s research, that informs the SFA’s scout education, suggests that top class players contribute 28% more high intensity running and 58% more sprints than moderate players. And this is specifically so for forwards and full backs who cover greater distances sprinting than their teammates.

The transition to modern football, as a game of explosive sprints, is also backed up by the numbers.

The increase in distance covered at high speed is now 50% more than it was in1965. This is a reflection of scientific training methods, better pitches and players’ increased athleticism. Fans and those within the game have witnessed an increase in high intensity activity which has doubled since 2002. It reflects football’s greater speed and power at every level. Football is a game where both the ball and players are moved at ever-quicker pace.

For example, the number of sprints in England’s Premier League has doubled since 2002, with 30-40 sprints per game, with an average of 0.64 km of the total action per player carried out at the highest intensity. That’s somewhere around five percent of distance covered at the top level.

Taken together, these are stats that confirm the impression that results are decided by what players do with the ball but conditioned by what happens without it.

And they are further emphasised by numbers that state that individual players’ ball possession clocks in at an average of just 53 seconds per match. That average typically falls somewhere around 1.7% of total game time.

And that is despite the fact that elite football is far more fluid that it has ever been, less stop-start.

The average playing time back in 1990 was just 55 mins. By 2008, UEFA say, that number had risen to 68 mins per game where the ball was in play.

It would seem safe to assume that that 68 minutes’ figure is even greater nine years on.

So, now we know the outputs that players are expected to attain, what does it mean for their development cycle? 

Scotland’s Head of Coaching says that the developing player’s performances are still affected by age-old variations in the fundamentals of biology, but with a greater understanding of what is, and isn’t, significant to the process.

Chronological age (date of birth), physiological types, body mass, sexual maturation and muscle mass, and so-called change periods or growth spurts, still have a profound impact on how, why, where and when a player develops. These factors when combined produce peer group influences and effect selection within youth squads and within youth initiatives.”

The Dominant Physique

This is the era of the mesomorph. Indeed mesomorph body types represent what is now the stereotypical image of an athlete, in the majority of sports.

Arms and legs are muscular, and they have broad shoulders. Hips are narrow, and mesomorphs carry very little body fat. They gain or lose weight easily and they build muscle quickly. Most mesomorphs look mature for their age, a fact that explains the developed appearance of many teenage footballers. A male mesomorph’s shape is like a classic upside down triangle upper body, narrow waist and powerful legs. A female mesomorph type exhibits the classic hourglass shape.

But, especially at younger ages, there nonetheless remains a variety of shapes and sizes in every player intake. And this presents a challenge for those coaches, scouts and managers charged with evaluating progress, potential and ability.

Donald Park says: “For example, two fifteen year old boys may be at completely different sexual maturation stages. One will probably be shaving while the other could be potentially as much as four years behind in development. And that represents a challenge. What are our expectations of these two young players?”

He says: “A young player’s technical ability and understanding may not be supported or matched by their physical stage of development and our expectations of developing players should accept that varied success is likely. The reality is that adulthood is often required for sustained, consistent performances to be achieved.”

And this is why it is no longer enough for a player to get by on an abundance of either talent, physical or mental strength. To make any kind of sustained impression, today’s footballers need all three attributes in abundance, allied to sporting intelligence.

Liverpool and Scotland left back Andrew Robertson © Liverpool FC

Donald Park says that the primary attributes of a modern footballer are attitude, ability, awareness and athleticism.


Donald Park says: “In terms of attitude, the player is always motivated and shows the absolute desire to win every single game. They’re highly motivated, constantly encourage their team mates, always give 100 percent, never give up or back down. They are very passionate and enjoy the game.”


Ability evidences itself with a player that masters the ball under all circumstances, rarely loses possession to an opponent, is dominant and self confident.

They move with great ease, handle the ball perfectly, have excellent technical skills and are confident and decisive.”


“Awareness means the player is decisive and often creative. They read the game well and act quickly and effectively with the ball or in support when a team mate or opponent has possession.”

Donald Park says: “The modern player has an excellent insight and the ability to act as needed or expected. In terms of awareness you’re looking for an individual that is technically and tactically skilled. They’re in control, make good choices and rarely lose the ball. Without the ball, your player understands how to support his team mates offensively and defensively and acts upon it.”


The drive towards athleticism, and the intensity and pace of the game, is Park says, the area where the greatest difference between modern players and previous generations is most obvious.

Today’s top players are extremely mobile. They moves rapidly in all directions (forwards, backwards, sideways) on the pitch and their actions pose a constant threat to their opponents.

How do you detect this athletic quality on the pitch? Players react immediately. They move aggressively and decisively. They run faster, jump higher, overwhelm their opponent. Combining speed, power and agility. They are simply too fast to give the opposition the run of the game.”

Greg Gordon was talking to Donald Park on behalf of Prep4Pro

About the author: Greg Gordon is a scout and journalist whose work has appeared in The FT, The Observer, The Sunday Times and many other leading publications over the last 20 years. Greg writes and has written next opponent and player reports for Scottish league clubs for over a decade. He also provides player reports for clubs in other territories. He works with Prep4Pro and is the creator of How To Watch Football.