The importance of height in playing soccer has been long discussed, and it has clear that a good mix of taller and shorter players is indispensable in a modern team. Generally, goalkeepers tend to be the tallest. Defenders tend to be taller than other outfield players, and as you move forward the pitch, players tend to get smaller in size. To show this relationship and the necessity of height, player heights were taken from every player at the 2018 FIFA World Cup – a competition many regard as the pinnacle of soccer. From the visualization, it is clear that height is almost always a necessity for the modern goalkeeper. The tallest goalkeeper at the competition stood at over 200cm tall (or 6’7) with the shortest at just under 180cm (or just under 5’11). Furthermore, the average goalkeeper at the competition stood at an impressive 6’3, showing just how important height can be for a goalkeeper. The impressive height of the most elite goalkeepers is unsurprising considering the position demands that the goalkeeper is able to stretch his body across the goal to stop shots that may be looping away from him.
Tall defenders, more specifically centre backs, are also highly sought after by the top clubs in the world: Liverpool has Virgil Van Dijk at 193cm (6’4), Barcelona have Gerard Pique at 193cm (6’4), Juventus have Leonardo Bonucci at 191cm (6’3), and so on. It is imperative that centre backs are able to win headers and physically dominate the opposing forwards. Thus, it is not surprising that defenders at the 2018 FIFA World Cup were generally taller than any other outfield position. The average defender at the competition stood at 184cm (6 feet) and the tallest defender was 200cm (almost 6’7) tall. It is also worth noting that the dataset includes fullbacks, a position where height is far less important (or even arguably a liability). As a result, the average height of the centre back at the competition is easily multiple centimeters higher than the value shown by the visualization.
Moving up the field to the midfielders, it is clear that height plays a much less significant role. As explained by an article by The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/in-soccer-being-short-can-help/372617/), creative and attacking-minded players tend to require agility and speed, two qualities that can be compromised by an overly-tall frame. Looking at specific elite midfielders, the lowered necessity of height is clear: Luka Modric stands at 172cm (5’8), and N’Golo Kante is even smaller at 167cm (5’6). This is not to say that height is always a liability for midfielders; it is simply a matter of playing style and covering weaknesses. For example, Sergio Busquets, a lanky 188cm (6’2) midfielder has long been one of the best holding midfielders in the world. He is able to make up for his lack of speed and agility with his faultless positioning, immaculate passing, and comfortability under pressure. Looking back into the history of the game, one can look to Zinedine Zidane as an example of elite, tall, attacking midfielders. As one of the greatest midfielders to ever grace the field, Zidane alone debunks any myth that height can hurt the performance of a midfielder.
With forwards, height tends to be more variable; taller forwards (especially strikers) are definitely effective as a result of their physicality and ability to win headers. Perfect examples of this are Cristiano Ronaldo (though he also possesses many attributes of smaller strikers), Edin Dzeko, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mario Gomez, Romelu Lukaku, Robert Lewandowski, Arkadiusz Milik, among others. Shorter strikers tend to be fast, agile, and tricky with the ball. Over the years, world-class forwards that fit this ball include Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Eden Hazard, Mohamed Salah, Lorenzo Insigne (he is 162cm or 5’4), and Antoine Griezmann. Thus, it is clear that with forwards, unlike centre backs, height is almost insignificant as long as the player is able to utilize his strengths effectively.
Below, I have embedded the program for this visualization.