There are few things more exciting in football than watching a player take on their opponent by knocking the ball behind them. With one touch, the game of football, which is so often associated with delicate skill and flawless technique, can come down to a flat-out sprint for a brief moment.
But raw speed isn’t just a quick thrill for spectators to enjoy, it’s also becoming an integral component of strategy and tactics. It’s never been a secret that pace can’t be taught nor defended against, to an extent. Considering not every footballer has the positional awareness of Franco Baresi, the most effective solution to nullifying fast players is to mark them with someone even quicker.
More and more managers and coaches are subscribing to this logic as the game shifts towards an increasing reliance on swift counter attacks and high-pressure defensive lines. So if the game is geared towards uptempo ball movement and the rapid closing down of opponents, what does this mean for modern football?
A previously assumed gulf in athleticism between forwards, midfielders and defenders is far less obvious than it once was. Nowadays every position needs players who can accelerate quickly to burst into space, turn an opponent or intercept a pass. In fact, even goalkeepers are expected to sweep up balls slid or lobbed behind their back four.
With more space to exploit behind defences, more bodies to weave between in congested midfields, and quicker strikers to chase down on the break, a footballer can no longer afford to be caught on his or her heels anywhere on the pitch. With this in mind, it’s no coincidence the finest players on the planet at present are often also among the most rapid and fascinating to watch.
Here are the top 20 fastest players in world football.
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20 Jordi Alba
Although perhaps slightly less eccentric than Dani Alves, Jordi Alba is becoming the left-sided version of the adventurous Brazilian wingback. What the Spaniard lacks in his sense of defensive positioning he makes up for with penetrating runs into opposition territory. He’s the perfect fullback for a possession-based team like Barcelona: he makes runs ahead of play but also gallops back when opponents seek to hit on the counter. Alba also never seems to run out of energy, as demonstrated through his full-pitch sprint to score in stoppage time against AC Milan in 2013.
19 Aaron Lennon
Shipped on loan to Everton by his parent club Tottenham and without a senior cap for England since 2013; Aaron Lennon has seen better days during his football career. Although his final ball and lack of goalscoring instinct too often let him down, the flying winger has always been a danger to Premier League defenders with his searing pace. At a time when both Gareth Bale and Andros Townsend were at the club, Spurs teammate Kyle Walker has claimed no player at White Hart Lane could match Lennon in a short-distance sprint. Over a longer stretch might be a different story, but there’s no question the Toffees loanee possesses one of the quickest turns of pace in the business.
18 Raheem Sterling
Liverpool better get its act together if they want to hang on to their wantaway starlet, Raheem Sterling. The 20-year-old is in the market for a new contract and if the Anfield club isn’t prepared to meet his demands, there are surely plenty of others who can and will if given the chance. It’s no coincidence Sterling is both one of the quickest and best young talents in the Premier League. Speed can mask unpolished attributes like nothing else, and although the England international is constantly sharpening his all-around game, athleticism remains his greatest weapon.
17 Juan Manuel Iturbe
One of the most direct players in the Italian Serie A, Juan Manuel Iturbe is a force to be reckoned with when he shifts through the gears. Now at AS Roma having jumped ship from Hellas Chievo Verona in July 2014, the 20-year-old wide man has brought with him the same confidence on the ball he displayed during his time at Porto. He’s never afraid to take on his marker in a flat-out footrace – a decision that usually results in Iturbe racing away with the ball at his feet.
Gervinho and Juan Manuel Iturbe form quite possibly the fastest winger duo in Italy. Although it would be a close-run thing if the pair went head to head in a race, the Ivorian probably just edges his diminutive colleague when it comes to raw speed. With his lightning pace and dribbling ability, the former Arsenal man could’ve been a hit in the Premier League if not for his poor decision making and crippling inconsistency. Thankfully, Gervinho looks to have regained confidence in himself, and is quickly becoming one of the most dangerous wingers in the Serie A.
15 Victor Ibarbo
Hardly a commonly known name, Victor Ibarbo has been worrying Serie A defenders with his blinding speed since moving from his native Colombia in 2011. Before sealing a loan move to Roma from Cagliari, the striker allegedly attracted interest from the likes of Newcastle, Barcelona, Stuttgart, Juventus and Napoli prior to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He hasn’t quite lived up to the hype that once surrounded him, but the 24-year-old still has time to prove he can ally his deadly pace with more prolific goal and assist figures.
14 Seydou Doumbia
After plying his trade in Russia with CSKA Moscow for five years, Seydou Doumbia has at last switched to a competition where the majority of football fans will be able to see what he can do on a weekly basis. First and foremost, the Ivorian is incredibly quick in terms of both acceleration and top speed, making him a thrilling striker to watch torture defenders. Once Doumbia gets in behind, few professional footballers have even a faint hope of catching him, which perhaps partially explains his impressive goalscoring record in the Champions League. He is the fourth consecutive member of AS Roma on this list, as they aim to have the best possible line-up for FIFA players.
13 Kyle Walker
It’s no surprise Kyle Walker was a keen sprinter during his school days before football took priority. His surging runs from fullback certainly provide a secondary wide option in attack, although he does sometimes need to turn on the jets when he gets caught up the pitch. Whether the 24-year-old is getting forward or sitting back, his speed is valuable at either end of the pitch. When Walker and Aaron Lennon were both regular starters for Tottenham, they were arguably the quickest right-sided pairing in world football.
12 Antonio Valencia
Antonio Valencia is often mentioned as one of the fastest players in the world, and for good reason. Although the Ecuadorian broke his leg playing for Manchester United in 2010, the injury doesn’t seem to have slowed down by any notable degree. Valencia is capable of covering the pitch exceptionally quickly, and data collected by FIFA even suggests he rubs shoulders with the likes of Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale when it comes to top speed.
11 Arjen Robben
Selfish is an unfair word to describe Arjen Robben. There’s no doubt he prefers to go it alone more often than not, but his individualism usually makes things happen. Part of this is due to his blistering pace, an asset he has preserved throughout his career. The Dutchman currently holds the record for the fastest speed ever clocked by a footballer. FIFA claim the Bayern Munich winger reached 37km/h as he hit top gear in the Netherlands’ 5-1 thrashing of Spain during the 2014 World Cup group stages. A fair old effort for a veteran winger, but it’s slightly farfetched to believe he’s still faster than some of his younger peers.
10 Jonathan Biabiany
Like a handful of other freakishly quick players, Johnathan Biabiany earned his reputation as one of the fastest footballers in the world through his speed rating in the FIFA video game series. But the pace of virtual counterpart is by no means underserved; the Frenchman has been terrorising Italian Serie A defenders since 2007. Biabiany is currently a free agent after he terminated his contract with Parma in mutual consent earlier this week on 11 April. Given the threat he can pose down the flanks, don’t be surprised to see the 26-year-old snapped up by a club sooner or later.
9 Gabriel Agbonlahor
For a while there was an assumption among football fans that Gabriel Agbonlahor had shed a significant amount of pace once he opted to beef up his upper body a few years ago. Needless to say, it only takes a glimpse of the Aston Villa striker gliding along at top speed to realise he remains one of the fastest players in England. He might not have the skill or finesse of Eden Hazard or Angel Di Maria, but the 28-year-old is the last striker many defenders would want to see hurtling towards them on the break.
8 DeAndre Yedlin
It takes a lightning fast fullback to keep up with the fleet-footed wingers of modern football. Having played only 11 minutes of Premier League football for Tottenham, DeAndre Yedlin is still learning the ropes as a topflight defender. His defensive game is far from the final product, but the 21-year-old has bucketloads of pace to get him out of trouble in the meantime. Despite him giving the ball away cheaply to begin with, watching his recovery speed against Philadelphia Union in the 2014 US Open Cup final is truly superb.
7 Cristiano Ronaldo
Nike didn't need to create an advertisement showing their poster boy Cristiano Ronaldo sprinting faster than a Bugatti Veyron to prove he’s among the quickest players of his generation. The Portuguese may not be able to outrun the world’s fastest street-legal car, but he’s certainly got a few yards over most players he faces on the pitch. In fact, he supposedly ran 96 metres in 10 seconds when he stormed down the pitch to join a counter attack against Atletico Madrid in December 2012. It’s not exactly an official recorded time, but he’s demonstrated his incredible on numerous other occasions.
6 Ryo Miyaichi
Big things were expected of Ryo Miyaichi when Arsenal fans discovered the young winger could be capable of matching Theo Walcott for speed. Since joining the Gunners in 2011, the 22-year-old has been loaned out to no less than four clubs and struggled to impress with anything beside raw speed. If Arsene Wenger has any desire to mould this gifted Japanese talent into a decent footballer, he needs to consider testing him in the first team once he returns from Jong FC Twente.
5 Gareth Bale
Remember when Gareth Bale gave Maicon the runaround of a lifetime in the 2012 Champions League fixture between Tottenham and Inter Milan? He seemed like the quickest player in the world, didn’t he? Well, it seems the jet-heeled winger might actually have a case. Wales Online reported the Real Madrid winger sprinted 65m in 7.2 seconds to score the winner against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final in 2014. The goal even prompted lavish praise from the quickest man alive, Usain Bolt, who said the speed Bale demonstrated proves he’s “the fastest footballer in the world at the moment.” He’s certainly up there, but he doesn’t top this list.
4 Theo Walcott
Theo Walcott might be higher up this list if not for the serious knee injury he suffered prior to the 2014 World Cup. The 26-year-old speedster has long been regarded as the one of, if not the fastest player in the Premier League – an assumption backed up by his former title as the quickest player at Arsenal. In 2009, he reportedly broke Thierry Henry’s 40m dash record of 4.82 seconds with a 4.42 seconds effort, a time that has since been usurped by fullback Hector Bellerin. Perhaps Walcott will have a crack at reclaiming his crown once he returns to the peak of his powers. Hopefully he does.
3 Hector Bellerin
He might be only 20-years-old and experiencing his first season in the Arsenal first team, but Hector Bellerin is already making a name for himself as one of the quickest players in the world. The Spaniard has drawn plenty of attention since Theo Walcott revealed the fullback broke his 40m dash club record of 4.42 seconds by one-hundredth of a second during time trials last summer. If Bellerin can learn to utilise his raw speed to best effect, Arsenal could have a real talent within their ranks.
2 Marvell Wynne
If the name Marvell Wynne doesn’t ring any bells, there’s a good reason why. The 28-year-old American doesn’t quite have the skill or defensive solidity to ply his trade in Europe, but unbelievable speed is something he has in abundance. He clocked an astonishing 10.39 seconds over a 100m dash during his senior year at high school – a time unmatched by any professional footballer. It’s safe to say very few players in the MLS would rate their chances latching onto a through ball with Wynne in pursuit.
1 Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang
Professional footballers don’t come much quicker than the Borussia Dortmund forward. It’s no wonder Aubameyang is very, very rarely beaten to the ball – he’s said to have clocked a staggering 3.7 seconds over 30m in training – that’s nearly one-tenth of a second faster than when Usain Bolt set the current 100m world record of 9.58 seconds in 2009. Such blistering pace off the mark is vital in the modern game, but the 185cm Gabon international also boasts the long-striding style that burns markers over long distances, too. Aubameyang is the complete football speedster.
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