Author: Aaron NT, @aar0n_nt

Football. The sport whereby what you do with your feet and balls is the be all and end all. But I’ve had a feeling recently that football is about more than just your feet. A large part of the game is actually your legs(!) Shock I know.

When referring to legs, at times it will mean leg length, but for the simplification of this article, and also lack of a better word, sometimes this will mean height, since I’m not sure where to find exact measurements of players’ leg-torso proportions.

Liverpool. I’ve not really been a fan of Jurgen Klopp in recent seasons, but one thing that I’ve always been intrigued by, particularly at their peak, was the the CB partnership. In their title winning season, 2019/20, they predominantly fielded a pairing of Virgil Van Dijk & Joe Gomez. Standing at 6”4 and 6”2 respectively these guys are big. 2 seasons later, 6”5 Matip replaced Gomez and then some, in terms of minutes played and some would argue performances too. It was during this season that I really started to become intrigued by these players’ legs. In arguably their best ever season (18/19) Gomez & Matip shared their minutes, with Virgil being the mainstay CB in the team. One, but not the only, constant in Liverpool’s best recent performing sides is that they have man-mountains in defence, long legs that allow for larger strides to eat up more ground, and in turn this allows Liverpool to commit more players forward because you know Virgil and Matip will patrol and escort anything and everything coming past the halfway line away from danger. (You can find shades of this in 22/23 Arsenal with William Saliba and Gabriel.) None of this even accounts for 6”2 Fabinho, who at his best was the #1 defensive midfielder in world football, making up this triangle of destruction around the halfway line.

This is when I started really thinking:

How important are legs in football?

Let’s fast forward a bit now. Manchester City’s 22/23 treble winning side lined up in a 3241 formation. Ake Dias Akanji, 2 sensational defenders in the wide channels and one generational pure defender in the middle. Ake isn’t the tallest, much in contrast to Liverpool’s Virgil, he stands at 5”11. However, his ability to track runners and defend wide spaces, and also covering large spaces is phenomenal. It probably will sound insane but someone on Twitter (now “X”) pointed out similarities between him and Maldini defensively and it’s been impossible for me to unsee it ever since. Aymeric Laporte was a consequent casualty of this, and proves that height is not everything when it comes to legs. At 6”3 he couldn’t get a look in the side and couldn’t be more different to Ake if he tried. But I’d like to focus a bit more on John Stones. John Stones is a unicorn. That’s the only way I can put it. A CB stepping into defensive midfield then attacking midfield zones, and then also being capable enough to transition and defend as part of a back 4 is incredible. In order to do this you need to be able cover large spaces. You need legs in midfield. At 6”2, John Stones is legs. And they cover space beautifully. All you need to do is look at them. Rodri at 6”3 is similar, often overlooked for his defensive contributions but you don’t consistently lead the league in recoveries for nothing. Defending is not always about winning the ball though. Sometimes just being there you can act as a deterrent. The potential to be able to get to the ball, makes opposition players hesitate before they pass. They start to assess quickly whether or not it’s a good decision simply because you’re big and might intercept it. Ultimately because you’re there. Another thing to note is that sometimes ‘legs’ are not only for covering ground but aerial duels too. If teams can’t take you on the ground and they can’t take you with the long ball either, then how do they take you? When you can cover space like Rodri or Stones, you can patrol opposition attacks and transitions, similarly but not identical to, Matip & Virgil at peak Liverpool. And when you have players in defensive areas who can patrol like this, you can commit more offensive players forward, and in turn your entire team forward which can help to sustain pressure on the opposition.

Data from markstats. Top 4 teams in the Premier League 22/23 by Defensive Line Height are Man City, Arsenal, Newcastle, Liverpool

Let’s talk about Declan Rice.

This was my genuine reaction when I found out Rice was 6”1. I never checked and always thought he was 6”3 at the very least. Rice is an animal man. When I talk about legs, Declan Rice is legs. He covers ground & space and wins the ball at an alien level, having him in your midfield is something every manager must dream of. When it comes to defending counter attacks, then transitioning from defence to attack, he is top. In the Community Shield (2023) he showed glimpses of this ability including a recovery challenge on Bernardo Silva which had the entire stadium on their feet. Either in disbelief or awe. Or both. Either way, not necessarily a man-mountain, but Rice is legs. There’s a reason why Arsenal, City & Bayern all wanted to massively strengthen their sides by adding him to their rosters.

As shown, there are outliers. Some of the best ‘legs’ of this century can be found attached to smaller players. It’s not all about height. Bernardo Silva & Ngolo Kante are some names that spring to mind. These guys show that it’s not always about height/long legs, sometimes it’s about ‘fast legs’. Kante at his peak was like having an extra player on the pitch. Absolutely unplayable, he could cover large spaces by himself due to his stamina, work-rate & running capacity while possessing legendary ball-winning ability and immense strength. Maybe not such an aerial threat but he was definitely going to bully your players and break up your attacks. All this while having ‘short’ legs and standing at 5”6? Fake player man. There are also other examples of players who are great in duels and very good at winning the ball but not great at covering large spaces by themselves. One high profile example that springs to mind is Casemiro, a great tackler but not someone I’d refer to when talking about legs. This is something I really want to communicate, being 6”2 doesn’t mean you’re instantly going to be better than someone 5”9 in these areas I’ve mentioned. Correlation doesn’t mean causation. It’s much more in depth and complicated and so should probably be taken on more of a case-by-case basis. Not sure if it’s something that’s coach-able or if players just naturally have it.

As with all my thoughts & ideas, I don’t have all the answers, only the questions, these which I put out into the world in the hope of positively evolving common thought and that we can explore more new perspectives with the way we look at football.

If you only take one thing from this I hope it is that although what you can do with the ball at ur feet is incredibly important, your legs are also important. And also I think we should be more receptive to the possibility that we may have been misplacing value forever, and may continue to misplace value, in our eternal search for more.

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