COVID-19 knocks down scoring skills in footballers, study shows

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A new Scientific Reports study assesses the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on several indicators of match technical performance (MTP) in attacking footballers after recovering from the infection. 

Study: Impact of COVID-19 on football attacking players’ match technical performance: A longitudinal study. Image Credit: Maxisport / Shutterstock.comStudy: Impact of COVID-19 on football attacking players' match technical performance: A longitudinal study. Image Credit: Maxisport / Shutterstock.com

Background

Knowledge about the impact of COVID-19 on individual players' performance can be used to develop match preparation strategies and specific training. In addition to training, assessing the role of injuries is also essential while investigating the impact of the pandemic on player performance. 

Mental fatigue following recovery from COVID-19 could also impact player performance. In fact, several players who have recovered from COVID-19 reported significant psychological distress, which could demand more cognitive activity, thereby leading to more mental fatigue.

Aside from training, injuries, and mental fatigue, the most important factor for the outcome of a match is the player's physical performance. COVID-19 lockdowns have been shown to negatively affect the physical performance of footballers in terms of their high-intensity running distance, including average peak velocity and sprinting distance. However, few studies have analyzed player performance in real sporting environments.

About this study

The current study determined whether footballers who returned to play after recovering from COVID-19 exhibited any changes across indicators of MTP relative to their pre-infection levels. As MTP varies by playing position, the analysis was restricted to attacking players.

Data on 100 players from the top five leagues were obtained. A total of 28 MTP indicators were studied, some of which included passes completed, take-ons attempted, touches in the attacking penalty area, expected assisted goals, and goals, including penalty kicks.

A series of independent t-tests were conducted to measure the difference in player ability before and after COVID-19. Regression analyses were also conducted to study the potential effects of age.

Study findings

About 76% of players who contracted COVID-19 exhibited significant alterations in at least one MTP indicator after returning to playing. Attacking players who recovered from the disease exhibited notable alterations in 14 MTP indicators, including non-penalty expected goals and expected goals, including penalty kicks. These indicators were part of the possession, passing, and scoring categories.

Five scoring-related MTPs were observed, all of which declined among players who returned to playing after recovering from COVID-19. This observation provides strong evidence of the negative impact of COVID-19 on attacking players, as assisting teammates and scoring goals are their primary match tasks.

The possession category indicators were most significantly affected after recovery from COVID-19, which could be attributed to tactical unpreparedness due to a lack of practice during the pandemic.

In the first 15 matches after returning, attacking players exhibited a reduced ability or desire to attack. The researchers postulate that COVID-19 could have adversely affected players' physical functions, leading to this observed outcome. The study findings indicate that players require an average of approximately three matches to return to pre-pandemic MTP levels. 

FIFA ratings were used to identify elite players, among whom the effects of COVID-19 were milder. More specifically, concerning seven MTP indicators, elite players did not exhibit a decline as compared to the control group. These reduced impairments may be attributed to elite players often being subject to stricter medical controls or their superior physical conditions.

Age had a limited influence on players' abilities following recovery, with only short passing declining with higher age. However, in some cases, advancing age was associated with a more extended recovery period, particularly for athletes over thirty years of age.

Nevertheless, in the complete sample of all 100 athletes, age did not significantly affect the number of matches that attacking players needed to restore their MTP indicators to pre-pandemic levels.

Conclusions

The study findings highlight the MTP of attacking football players following recovery from COVID-19. Overall, the players experienced a relatively swift recovery to pre-pandemic levels.

Elite athletes from larger European leagues were less vulnerable to the observed effects and recovered faster after infection as compared to non-elite athletes. Age was not considered to be an important factor in the recovery of returning to playing. 

The recovery timeline and impact of COVID-19 on MTP could be used to formulate strategic guidance for match preparation, particularly for the first few matches that a player participates in after returning from illness.

One key limitation of the current study is its focus on the Big Five Leagues; therefore, players from other leagues and positions should also be assessed in future studies. Women's and youth football should also be studied to account for the differences in skill levels and ensure the broad applicability of the findings.

Journal reference:
  • Luo, L., Sun, G., Guo, E., et al. (2024) Impact of COVID-19 on football attacking players’ match technical performance: A longitudinal study. Scientific Reports 14(1); 1-17. doi:10.1038/s41598-024-56678-y
Dr. Priyom Bose

Written by

Dr. Priyom Bose

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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