Soccer players are among the fittest athletes in the world. They often have to transition from a walk to a max-speed sprint at a moment’s notice. Without the ball, they have to mark their man, maintain a team-shape, and remain vigilant for transitions if a turnover happens. With the ball, they have to dribble, twist & turn, and find opportunities to advance the play. All this, for two continuous periods of 45 mins.
It’s an intense sport requiring strength, stamina, and agility. One measure of a player’s movement in a game is distance covered. While the early days of soccer primarily collected basic team stats (possession, shots, cards, etc.), better technology now allows us to answer more specific questions.
So, how much does a soccer player run in a game? Of course, the answer depends on several factors. A full-back’s running stats will be quite different from a center-back. A team playing a low-block counter-attacking formation will, on average, cover smaller distances than a team playing possession-based attacking soccer.
Some sources suggest that professional soccer players can run anywhere between 7 and 10 miles in a given game. This varies depending on some fundamental factors and some tactical factors.
Fundamental factor #1 that distinguishes distance covered amongst soccer players is age. You would expect youth players to cover smaller distances than adult professionals. Further, among adult professionals, you may expect a 35-year-old center-forward to cover less ground than a 23-year-old center-forward.
A study conducted on players participating in the UEFA EURO 2016 tournament concluded that players ran between 5-8 miles (8-12 km). Players at major professional tournaments are usually in the 20-35 age range.
For youth soccer players, those distances are shorter. One can estimate that players in the 15-20 group may run somewhere between 4-6 miles, whereas under-15 players might cover 3-5 miles per game.
Another fundamentally obvious factor impacting distances covered per game is game time. A substitute entering the game in the 75th minute will cover less ground in that one game than the player he replaces.
You may say “duh” to that. However, this can be important when interpreting a per-game distance covered statistic. If you told me that Dennis Irwin, the Manchester United left-back in the 90s, covered more ground per game than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, an attacking player, I’d believe you. But that’s because I know Solskjaer played most games as a substitute, playing fewer minutes per game than Irwin.
This is why in many academic studies, the analysis of distance covered is standardized to a per-hour unit. This allows parallel comparisons across players. In particular, it allows for comparisons between players who play in the same position – which brings me to my next point.
Now that we’ve covered more foundational factors such as age and game-time, we come to the more interesting factors affecting distance covered. A player’s position will impact how much ground their cover. Combined with the next factor (tactical set-up), you can make more sense of distances covered by players in different teams.
- Goal-keepers: By far the lowest-distance covering player. They can cover as little as 1-2 miles per game. Most of their movements are in between the post, for goal-kicks, right after a save, and when they receive a back-pass from an outfield player.
- Wide Defenders: Also known as full-backs (or wing-backs in other formations), these players cover quite a lot of ground depending on the tactical setup. They have substantial attacking responsibilities in some teams where they may run on the overlap and provide passing options to midfielders.
They are also supposed to track back and defend the wide areas against opposition wingers. The movement is vertically concentrated on their side, where they move up and down the lines depending on whether they’re attacking and defending.
Marcos Alonso, Chelsea’s left-back, was #5 in the distance-covered statistic in the 2018-19 season, averaging over 7 miles a game. In the EURO 2016 study mentioned above, wide defenders covered between 6.2 and 6.5 miles a game on average.
- Central Defenders: Also known as center-backs, these players cover the least ground out of all the outfield players. Their movement is largely restricted to the team’s defensive zone. Like with full-backs, they may have some attacking responsibilities, too, depending on the team’s tactical setup.
Center-backs also go forward for set-plays such as corner kicks or free kicks. This is usually due to their size and physique. Dominant central defenders are usually big and strong, which gives them an advantage when competing for aerial balls.
In the EURO 2016 study, central defenders analyzed covered between 5.7 to 5.9 miles a game on average.
- Wide Midfielders: Known as wingers in some setups, wide midfielders, similar to wide defenders, cover a lot of ground in their vertical zones. Wingers’ movements can be explosive, requiring them to make sprints in bursts. These result in larger distances covered overall.
Wingers in some teams have substantial defensive responsibilities as well. Especially if a defensive team is trying to block out an opponent playing possession-based football. This also requires additional movement patterns to maintain defensive shape, man-mark, and prepare for counter-attacks.
In the EURO 2016 study, wide midfielders observed cover distances of 6.5 to 6.7 miles a game.
- Central Midfielders: Typically, these players cover the most ground in a team. It’s simply because they occupy zones that require them to move between the defensive third to the offensive third vertically. Moreover, there’s more interchanging between the left and right-sided central midfielders too, unlike wingers, where switching is rare.
Central midfielders are true to the name. They are neither solely attackers nor solely defenders. They are both. As such, they are vital in both defense and offense. This increases the movement demands on them.
N’golo Kante, widely recognized as one of the top EPL players in the 2018-2019 season, covered an impressive 7.3 miles per game in his 26 full appearances. He was also the top player in terms of distance covered in the two seasons prior.
In the EURO 2016 study, central midfielders covered anywhere between 6.7 to 6.9 miles per game.
- Forwards: Forwards, like center-backs, largely operate in one-third of the football field. However, given their involvement in the attacking side of the game, they tend to move faster and more frequently. They have fewer defensive responsibilities than most other players. Often, they trackback to avoid being in offside positions and help with hold-up play when in transition.
In the EURO 2016 study, attacking players covered between 6.4 to 6.6 miles a game.
The above assumes certain facts about players’ positions. Although, it is essential to note that positions can be fluid. A forward like Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who’s more a target man) will cover a lot less ground than someone like Sergio Aguero (who likes to be involved in the build-up).
So, depending on the zone a player occupies and their attributes, they’ll cover more (or less) ground than their peers occupying the same rough position.
This brings us to the next factor, tactics.
Tactics affect average distances covered by players in the same position. A full-back playing for Atletico Madrid – a team focused on rigid organization and defending – will cover a lot less ground than a full-back playing for Manchester City, a team that plays possession-based tiki-taka style football.
Similarly, teams that play counter-attacking football will see their wingers cover smaller distances relative to teams that play with the ball. This is because the wingers make fewer runs in a counter-attacking setup, where they wait for the right moments to burst forward.
It’s tougher to find aggregate statistics for distances covered by different tactical systems. This is because it’s much tougher to categorize tactics given their fluid nature between games and even within a game. You can generally notice these differences by tuning into post-match shows such as Match of the Day.
The Final Whistle
Soccer players undergo intense demands during a game. A match involves continuous movement for two 45 minute periods. The movement can vary from light jogs (even walks) to full-speed sprints. This is why soccer players engage in a lot of endurance training, allowing them to build their stamina for the long grueling matches. Interval training can also be beneficial as that will enable them to go from walk to sprint without tearing a muscle!
Distances covered by soccer players can vary depending on age, game-time, the player’s position, and the team’s tactical setup. Central midfielders tend to cover the most distances due to their occupation of a wider zone in the pitch. Central defenders cover the least as they are largely limited to defensive duties in the first third of the pitch.
So, if you’re a runner (and very good with the ball at your feet), consider playing soccer competitively. It’s the world’s most popular sport for a reason!