The reason for this probably lies in the increasing tendency for teams to play on the counter-attack, which means a fair amount of pace if a necessity to exploit the space the other teams are leaving going forward. It makes sense too, when you draw the opposition onto you, space opens up at their back for you to exploit, which works best if your players are fast and able to break away quickly.
The nature of modern football has meant that counter-attacking has become a major feature of almost every top club in Europe, and pace obviously plays a key role in this. The players on the pitch are more technically gifted players, matches are played on mostly pristine pitches perfect for passing on, and defenders are less able to escape bookings for cynical fouls. It even makes sense that teams are utilising a more conservative approach.
I picked up a nice comparison in regards to this topic on Zonal Marking, which I have quoted below.
The Arsenal side of seventy years later offers a good comparison. Theo Walcott versus Sebastian Larsson. Who is the better player on the ball? Walcott is a good dribbler; Larsson is more able to pick out an intelligent pass. But because Theo Walcott can sprint 100m in eleven seconds, and Larsson is quite sluggish (by Premiership standards), Walcott has been given four seasons’ worth of opportunities to impressin the Arsenal first team, whilst Larsson was discarded after only three league appearances, with an Arsenal coach hinting at the time that Larsson’s lack of pace made him incompatible with Arsenal’s system.Basically, for those of you complaining that it is not realistic that pace is so important in a player, give your head a wobble and try to actually watch real life football once in a while. Pace may not be the most important asset a youngster can have, but it certainly helps if you manage to snap up some pacey players to nurture and develop.
Take away the issue of pace, and there’s not that much difference in ability between the two. Indeed, it could be said that Walcott relies on his pace as much as any Premiership footballer today – Pete Gill at Football365 (perhaps slightly harshly) commented in the wake of Arsenal’s 0-3 defeat to Chelsea, ‘It’s just incredible that a football player of Theo Walcott’s stature has so little football talent. But for his pace he wouldn’t be a professional player. He has nothing else.’ Walcott’s own father puts it more politely, saying that ‘pace has been his killer edge over others’. But of course, you can’t take away the issue of pace, which is why Larsson is now at a mid-table club, and Walcott remains challenging at the top of the league.