Only a few more moments until the magic happens. You find yourself in the stands looking at the team warm-ups, whilst trying to guess how the course of the game will go. The teams finish up and go inside to prepare for the game. Even before the last players have found their way to the dressing room, the sprinklers pop up to provide the finishing touch to the centre stage. The intentions of the home team are clear, we’re going to get a fast-paced game.
We’ve all seen the irrigation system being turned on before the game and even in between halves. In doing so, a thin water layer is put on the grass which reduces initial friction between the ball and the surface. Some teams really benefit from a ‘fast’ pitch as it will affect the ball behaviour and inevitably the players and the game. Watering the pitch is only one of the activities that can be performed to manipulate the playing surface to fit the needs of the team.
In this volume of The Real Home-Field Advantage, we’re going to provide you with a broad overview of how surface characteristics can alter the technical and tactical performance of teams.
Direct surface effects - Kicking dynamics & ball behaviour
Reviews on preliminary research show indications of changes in movement and muscle activation patterns, performance, and style of play and provide a clear overview of the current state of the art (e.g. Potthast et al. 2010; Sanchèz-Sanchèz et al. 2020). On a technical level Potthast and colleagues investigated the kinematics of kicking the ball. It was found that in the last step of the run-up, a higher deceleration of the body mass transfers energy to the kicking leg which leads to an increased ball velocity and kicking accuracy (Potthast et al. 2010). For a player to be able to perform this powerful movement skill, adequate surface properties are necessary. Playing surfaces that provide sufficient stability and grip improve kicking accuracy and ball speed.
As described in the previous volume of The Real Home-Field Advantage Vol. 3, seasonal fluctuations throughout the year affect surface properties. Due to shortening of roots in the winter in cold climates or overseeding of other grass species in summer in hotter climates, the available traction and stability is subject to change. Whilst good grip and stability improve the players’ performance, an excessive amount of traction at the shoe-surface interface increases the odds of injury approximately 2.5 times (Thomson et al. 2015).
Performance and injury risk are inherently linked to the quality of the playing surface. By controlling the surface through adequate monitoring practices and understanding its effect on the players and the game, the club can turn the football pitch into a performance asset.
Ball behaviour plays a key role in the success of short and long passes. Whilst ball bounce is of greatest influence on long aerial passes, ball skid and roll affect the distance a grounded pass will travel and how quickly it will be slowed down by the surface. The amount of deceleration and rebound height of aerial passes can make a long ball jump up far and reach the goalkeeper or drop dead quite quickly behind the defensive line which creates an opportunity for an infiltrating attacker. Ball skid is dependent on the passing technique and shot power but is mostly affected by the wetness of the grass leaves. On a wet surface, the ball will have a longer skid phase, but once it transitions into a roll, excessive water becomes adhesive and increases friction. This results in slowing down the ball fairly quickly in its end phase. Dry pitches generally have a short skid phase and an early transition into a roll. Grass height is the biggest determining factor to the deceleration of passes with short cut grass having a lower contact area with the ball, reducing friction.
Indirect effect – Behaviour adaptation and decision making
Technical analysis and event data collected during standardised training sessions and games are great sources to provide information on the quality, style of play, and decisions-making processes of players. Decisions are influenced by a multitude of factors such as the opponent, the course of the game and the success or failure of previous similar actions.
Surface properties influence the quality and success rate of technical actions. Compliant surfaces rather trigger teams to play longer aerial passes, whilst firm surfaces produce a fast style of play with quickly consecutive short passes and dribbles (Rennie 2008; Sleat et al. 2016). This can be explained by permanent deformation and divots that emerge more easily on soft surfaces, making the surface uneven which alters the ball trajectory and passing success rate. The uncertain success rate of passing sequences can trigger players to play the long ball through the air, which could explain the increase in aerial challenges and reduction in number of dribbles (Sleat et al. 2016).
Player Perception plays a key role in behaviour, decision making and movement patterns. Strutzenberger and colleagues (2022) found when athletes know the surface on which they are performing, they tend to overrate natural playing surfaces compared to artificial turf. This confirms the conclusions in previous research (Andersson et al. 2008; Ekstrand, Timpka, & Hagglund, 2006). When blinded, no difference in perception was found between the surfaces, showing the importance of the pre-existing bias in favour of natural grass. Possibly a residual effect of the poor quality in older generations of football turf remains top of mind.
The Real Home-Field Advantage
Plenty of evidence state surface properties affect the ball behaviour, decision-making and player movement strategies. It can thus be concluded that the state of the pitch can facilitate a specific style of play, complementing the qualities and traits of your team or even inhibit the most efficient style of your opponent. When every percentage and smallest detail counts, control the situation and gain the edge.