A regulation NFL football field is 120 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. A regulation NBA basketball court is 94′ long and 50′ wide. A regulation NHL hockey rink is 200′ long and 85′ wide. These dimensions are unchanging within their respective leagues; there are some differences between NHL rinks and international play rinks, and some differences between basketball court markings from league to league, but within the league the dimensions are a constant.
Not so with soccer, where even something as simple as the dimensions of the field can be dramatically different. Let’s take a look at the rules and the pitches and talk about what this means.
First, let’s take a look at what we’re discussing here. FIFA’s Laws of the Game (.pdf) dictate the following dimensional requirements for a playing field:
- Length: Minimum of 90m (100 yards), maximum of 120m (130 yards); length must also be longer than width, so square fields are not legal.
- Width: Minimum of 45m (50 yards), maximum of 90m (100 yards).
That, folks, is a pretty big difference; essentially, it means that – per the rules – both of these rectangles are legal playing field sizes:
Of course, you don’t see those extremes very often. There’s a reason for that; FIFA, UEFA, and the Premier League have all combined to eliminate the high and low end of the pitch size. According to the Premier League’s 2010-2011 handbook (.pdf, p.137), pitch sizes for clubs in the league are restricted as follows:
- Length: Minimum of 100m, maximum of 110m.
- Width: Minimum of 64m, maximum of 75m
Futhermore, FIFA’s 2011 Stadium Handbook (.pdf, p.64) has dictated that all international matches should be played on a pitch that’s exactly 105mx68m. UEFA’s club competitions have adopted the same standard, meaning that if you plan on playing in the Europa League or the Champions League, you’d better try to get your pitch in line with that standard (you can be grandfathered in if for some reason your pitch size can’t be elongated, but the Premier League manual says that UEFA won’t grant you a license if you can’t at least get to 100mx64m).
Of course, only seven of the twenty Premier League teams are involved in European matches, and only a handful more are thinking about qualifying. Which means that, for some clubs, there’s really no reason to comply with the UEFA standard…meaning that there can still be quite a difference between the pitch sizes of Premier League clubs. How big a difference are we talking about? According to the 2010-11 Club Directory, these are the official dimensions of every pitch in the league:
As you can see, several clubs – Chelsea, Fulham, Liverpool, and Tottenham – had to apply for that special UEFA license to compete in Europe, making that hard and fast 105mx68m seem a lot more like a guideline than a rule. All of this also begs the question: why would you WANT to change your pitch size in the first place?
To answer that, let’s take my pretty little rectangle up there and imagine that there are 22 players. In the bigger, “maximum size” rectangle, there’s a lot of space for players to move. If you’re a team planning on attacking, you want to use and exploit as much of that space as possible, and with a bigger pitch there’s a hell of a lot more space to exploit. Think of how Barcelona play at the Camp Nou: Messi, hugging the right touch line, receives a pass from Xavi in the center circle; he cuts in, allowing Daniel Alves to overlap, and Messi feeds Alves the ball (deftly breaking the offside line), opening up a whole tract of land behind the left back for Alves to work with. He can cut in. He can cross. He can throw himself on the ground and pretend he was fouled. That kind of play is all about the manipulation of space, and it’s made possible in part because of how much space is available on their pitch.
Of course, the opposite is also true; the less space available, the easier it is to defend. That same play, done on a smaller pitch, wouldn’t isolate that left back as much; the centerback and left midfielder would be closer to the action simply because there isn’t as much area for them to stand. If control and defending are your game, it behooves you to have a smaller pitch, where there’s less room for wingers to operate and less area for opposing forwards to sneak in. If you’re looking for any advantage, however small, than having a smaller pitch might be something you’d look into.
Take, for instance, Fulham. The last couple of years have seen Fulham earn their stripes as a disciplined, drilled side that’s hard to beat at home, but a bit suspect on the road. Fulham’s pitch – at 100mx65m – is also among the smallest in the league, which can only helps them contain the opposition at Craven Cottage. Similarly, though, their away record shows that they’ve got a really hard time competing against pretty much anyone on the road. In fact, so far this season they’ve only managed one win on the road: against Stoke City, one of two teams that plays on a pitch smaller than Fulham’s.
Is pitch size THE deciding factor? No, of course not; a lot of more complicated factors play into the equation. It is, however, ONE of the factors that players face, and it’s one that’s unique to soccer. It’s also a factor that, for the most part, goes completely unmentioned during commentary.