How footballers evolved their figures to be built more like wrestlers

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The days of neat and tidy football played by a team of slight players is gone – from Phil Jones to Chris O’Grady, it’s now all about the upper body

23 November ~ Watching a match from the early 1980s recently, it struck me how thin the players were and how there was very little upper-body “work” – holding, shoving, pinning, wrestling. It all seemed such a neat and tidy game. Despite many laying claim in Shoot! to a diet of Steak Diane, most players were about half the width of a modern-day footballer.

Football, believe it or not, used to be played almost wholly with the feet. There was no real need for upper-body bulk because the ball was moved quickly and skilfully past opponents with barely any pushing and shoving. To the modern viewer the respect shown to opponents as they receive the ball is startling. These days we’re accustomed to a match incorporating a repetitive series of mini wrestling bouts where combatants set about each other with shoulders, forearms and hands. The ball can sometimes feel incidental.

Sport, much the same as life itself, is a process of near-imperceptible evolution. It is a fascinating quirk that while shoulder-barging or crunching knee-high tackling is almost extinct in football, pseudo wrestling is permitted, if not encouraged. The scream of “pin him”or “screen it” is routinely heard ringing from the dugout and players are commended for being “strong”, which usually means they have successfully fended off an opponent through a manoeuvre (note the terminology) that is technically in breach of the rules of the game.

Clearly, footballers have developed their physiques to maximise this leniency to brutal physicality. Gym work is compulsory and, at all levels of football, accepted as essential. Where this once focused chiefly on the legs, building up the thighs and calves so they could shoot or tackle harder, the aim now is to make footballers “hench”. If they can’t repel an opponent before the ball even arrives, what hope have they got of collecting it and beating him with skill emanating from the feet?

Many modern players are particularly adept at this upper-body free-for-all. Think, say, Kyle Walker, Eric Dier or Phil Jones, and the mental image is not ball-at-feet, free-flowing elegance but sweaty, vein-bursting, muscle-bound young blokes having a Friday night scrap in the chippy, except in a football kit.

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I remember distinctly the first time I saw a footballer blatantly pin an opponent. My team, Rochdale, had signed the nomadic striker (16 clubs and counting) Chris O’Grady, in August 2009. On his debut the ball was threaded through to him by a team-mate and before it had even arrived, O’Grady set himself as if about to start a fencing bout, one arm outstretched in front, the other behind him, set firmly into the defender’s chest. In a bid to further anchor himself, O’Grady gripped tightly his marker’s shirt.

I fully expected the referee to view this as a foul, especially as O’Grady, a hefty specimen, proceeded to back into the player, making it impossible for him to proffer a tackle. It basically left his opponent two ineffectual options – pull at O’Grady’s arm and inevitably concede a foul himself or attempt to run around him, to the left or right, in which case O’Grady would hare off in the opposite direction and bear down on the goal.

As a tactic it was highly effective. It meant O’Grady could hold up the ball in attacking areas, giving team-mates time to join him and create “overloads” that often resulted in goals. Although relatively skilful for a big man, this pinning is by far his most important contribution to any team, especially in lower leagues where, in the absence of sheer skill, advantages have to be sourced wherever possible.

Rather like the teacher unable to deal with a classroom brawl, referees have long given up on trying to stamp out such an endemic feature of the game. If they did they would be blowing their whistles every few minutes, issuing lectures and warnings all over the pitch. The same as supporters, they have grown to accept the muscularity and regard it as a tenet of the sport, another piece of shop floor “professionalism”.

Club officials make it a priority these days to meet the parents of their youth team players as soon as possible so they can assess the future physique of their protégés, a tacit acknowledgement that size matters. Evidently, the svelte, nimble footballer, able to slip past leaden defenders, is of no use if he can’t first fight his way to the ball. Mark Hodkinson

This article first appeared in WSC 369, November 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here