There are a lot of things that you can teach in football: positional and tactical awareness, basic technique, decision making, but pace? Sure, you can work on fitness and improve a player’s running style, but raw pace, the pace that players like Theo Walcott possess?
Well that is impossible to teach.
Not only is pace impossible to teach, but it’s also devilishly difficult to defend against, especially in a one on one situation.
The difference in defending against a player with sublime dribbling skills and a player with genuine pace is huge. Defending a player with the full arsenal of quick feet, stopovers and other tricks is about concentration, body shape and patience. More often than not, it’s about waiting for the right moment to make the challenge, not diving in and avoiding over commitment.
Against a player with genuine pace though, it is a whole different ball game. If the player goes past you, chances are you won’t be able to recover. If you get too tight, the ball can very easily get played in behind you. If you’re not close enough, then the player can turn and run directly at you, another scary proposition often requiring the defending player to commit a foul.
Players will know when they have got the benefit of pace and often just knock the ball in behind the defender, knowing that they will get their first. A perfect example of this was Gareth Bale against Carl Jenkinson in the most recent North London derby.
The only way to avoid situations similar to that Jenkinson found himself in is for other defenders to be alert to the danger and act as the second defender, providing support in behind. This comes back to the core principle of a defensive unit working together.
There is another problem, potentially the biggest, that a player or players with pace presents. That is it they can forces teams to alter their entire setup, simply by being on the pitch.
If you don’t have the defenders to match the pace of an opposition attacking player, then playing a high defensive line - leaving a large amount of space between the defenders and the goalkeeper - is a massive gamble. One ball in behind can lead to a goal.
Not being able to play a high defensive line means that teams can’t compress the field, which creates more space for midfielders to operate in, opening up the play in general. It is this space that creative midfielders like Cesc Fabregas, Xavi and Mesut Ozil thrive in.
Furthermore, if you are against especially pacy players in wide positions, not only does it open up the field vertically, but also horizontally as the full backs have to start closer to the wide player as opposed to staying compact. This opens up channels in the backline that predators like Pippo Inzaghi and David Villa are masters at exploiting.
Additionally, your full backs aren’t able to get forwards as often as they otherwise would due to the threat of the quick wide man.
So teams are stuck between a rock and a hard place when faced with a fast opponent. Compress the field, but expose yourself to the ball in behind, or sit deep, but open up the game in the middle of the park.
So what can a team do?
Well the most obvious answer is to counter pace with pace. Having quick defenders reduces the threat that opposition speedsters have. Additionally, a defender with pace doesn’t have to be so aware of his position, as their speed enables them to close the space to the opposition player quicker and gives them the pace to recover if beaten one on one. This is especially relevant to fullbacks, who have more of an attacking role in the modern game.
Essentially, pace can make up for reduced defensive capacity. Examples include Dani Alves and Jose Bosingwa.
The key point is that pace is especially important in the modern game, both offensively and defensively. From a coach’s perspective, sometimes you’ll pick a fast player who’s not as technically proficient as a slower player.