Big Man, Little Man: Physical Diversity in Serie A

Romelu Lukaku endured a frustrating dip in form for his club Manchester United in autumn 2018. Looking back, he attributed his malaise to the additional muscle mass that he had accumulated whilst on international duty during that summer’s World Cup. The higher intensity of club football meant that he had simply become too big to carry out his duties.

Amidst the high-tempo era of fleet-footed attacking players and false nines, the days of the powerhouse centre forward seemed to be numbered. But Lukaku is a member of a select group, which keeps the tradition alive. He represents something of a physical anomaly in Serie A, but just how much of an outlier is he?

Using data from ESPN.com, we analyse the heights and weights of every player to have appeared in Serie A in 2019/20.

Short, light and slight…

The average Serie A disciple could make a reasonable attempt at identifying the shortest players in the league, since they are all household names. Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) takes the prize at 1.63m, a full 2cm shorter than Alejandro Gomez (Atalanta) and 5 cm shorter than Stefano Sensi (Inter), Amin Younes (Napoli) and Gabriel Strefezza (SPAL). They are followed, in turn, by a raft of diminutive forwards and midfield players.

Turning to the lightest players, we again find a familiar name at the top of the list; Lorenzo Insigne barely troubles the scales at 58kg. He is followed by team-mate Dries Mertens (59kg) and Simone Verdi (61kg) – the latter currently at Torino, but on loan from the Napolitani. The preponderance of smaller payers at Napoli is a theme we’ll come back to later.

However, the list of players with the lowest Body Mass Index (BMI) diverges from the aforementioned lightweights. BMI is a screening tool used to assess an individual’s “healthy” weight, given their height. In Serie A, it is the tall, slight players who report the lowest BMI; exemplified by Napoli’s playmaker Fabian Ruiz (19.2), followed by Genoa’s Marko Pajac (19.3) and SPAL’s Mattia Valoti (19.4).

Heavyweights…

As you might expect the other end of the spectrum is dominated by goalkeepers and defenders. The overall award goes to AC Milan’s Asmir Begovic who, at 1.99m, is head and shoulders above most of the field. He is followed by the Brescia due of Jesse Joronen (1.98m) and then Jhon Chancellor (1.97m – and the tallest outfield player).

Turning to weights, Begovic again comes out top of the pile at a reported 99kg – some 5kg ahead of the next man. He certainly appears to be an outlier and alternative sources suggest that this weight may be disputed. However, for a man of his height this is certainly a plausible figure, putting his BMI at the top end of the “normal/healthy” range.

Begovic is followed by the man who inspired this analysis, Inter’s Romelu Lukaku (93kg), then a trio of goalkeepers (Samir Handanovic, Juan Musso, Etrit Berisha) and Genoa’s French centre back Adama Soumaora, all weighing in at 92kg.

The players with the highest BMI are Genoa’s Soumaoro (26.9), followed by fratelli Lukaku. Remarkably, the brothers have an almost identical BMI (25.5) despite Jordan being 13cm shorter and 10 kilos lighter than Romelu. It must be in the genes.

BMI can be controversial measure, particularly where sportspeople are concerned, since it fails to differentiate between muscle (which is more dense) and fat. All of the aforementioned players are above the NHS’ “healthy” threshold of 24.9 – though you’d struggle to argue that these players are anything other than muscular.

For what it’s worth, Serie A’s ‘other’ archetypal powerhouse forward Andrea Petagna (1.88m, 88kilos) has a BMI of exactly 24.9. One player often criticised for his weight, but appearing less obviously muscular to the naked eye is Gonzalo Higuaín. His BMI of 25.4 puts him amongst a group of just nine players who might find themselves on the receiving end of unsolicited advice from their physician.

Team-mates…

Turning our attention from players to teams, it quickly becomes apparent that Napoli are something of an outlier. With an average height (1.79m) and weight (79.3kg), they lie considerably below their competitors on both measures. In fact, there is a gulf of nearly 2cm and 2kg to any other team (Torino and Fiorentina, respectively). The recruitment of small, technical players certainly appears to have been a conscious strategy for the club.

Remarkably, of the eighteen players in Serie A that measure 1.7m or less, eight of them are employed by Napoli (Insigne, Younes, Demme, Politano, Mario Rui, Lobotka, Mertens and Verdi). As you might imagine, the same crop of players contribute to a similar outlook in terms of body weight.

But that only tells half of the story. With the towering Kalidou Koulibaly, Fernando Llorente, Nikola Maksimovic and Sebastiano Luperto also on the books, Napoli also have a concentration of taller (1.91m+) players within the squad. This dichotomy between “big” and “small” leads to by far the greatest variance of height and weight within the league. To put it another way, Napoli have relatively few players of “average” stature, but plenty of outliers.

Udinese’s squad have the greatest average height at 1.85m, ahead of Roma and, perhaps surprisingly given their diminutive talisman Papu Gomez, Atalanta (both 1.84m). Udinese are also distinct in having a relatively homogenous squad (low variance); no player below 1.8m in height has turned out for them this season.

Juventus lead the charts in relation to body weight, with an average of just over 77kg, from Lecce and Udinese (both ~76.5kg). Of the top five teams in the league, four (Juventus, Lazio, Roma and Atalanta) are clustered towards the higher end of the spectrum in terms of both height and weight. The key exception, ironically, being Romelu Lukaku’s Inter.

Looking back…

Finally, we compare the squad heights and weights of the 14 clubs who were present in Serie A in both the 2004/05 and 2019/20 seasons. And it makes for interesting reading.

There has been a universal increase in the average height of Serie A squads in 2019/20 compared to 15 years earlier. Over a relatively short period of time, the average height has increased by 2-3cm (vertical shift of best fit line). This is a trend also observed in another academic studies focusing on other leagues and covering longer time periods.

On the other hand, average squad weights have remained stable over the same period. Combining these results suggests players have become leaner, with a corresponding reduction in the average BMI. Of course, this measure might be concealing underlying (and counter-veiling) trends in terms of fat reduction and muscle gain.

A previous study covering the 2002/03 season found that Serie A had the lowest average BMI of the top 4 European leagues. So a further decline in this measure suggests that the playing styles and associated evolving physical demands of Serie A have further polarised in recent years.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this check out my other analytical pieces here.

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