Players are suffering more muscle injuries than ever in the Premier League this season due to the shortened English football season. It’s not only in the EPL, however, as the problem is just as rife in the Football League. In a season that has been truncated by COVID-19, what can the average manager do to prevent these happenings and lessen the risk while maintaining high levels of match fitness?
To find out, we spoke again to somebody who knows about football because they work within it. The Secret Coach knows plenty about players fitness, having helped players of various ages cope with the physical stresses and strains of the game we all love. They’re a professional football coach in English football… who will remain anonymous. The Secret Coach has worked with some of the biggest names in the game, been through the coaching badges and is currently part of the coaching team at an English league side… and that’s all we’re telling you. As ever, this week, The Secret Coach pulls no punches! They start by explaining to us exactly how it works at the top level.
“All teams have improved sports science departments these days, crunching the numbers of players’ GPS and fitness data so there is a lot more help and guidance for managers,” says The Secret Coach. “Pre-season is a gradual build-up, with some players not at optimum fitness when the season starts due to international tournaments and holidays to allow for rest. This season, that has not happened, with minimal preparation and players thrown into lots of games. That robustness has not been built up over time.”
The gradual process would usually have seen players catching minutes at intervals in a pre-season that allows them to build up to full fitness. Instead, Premier League players got four weeks off since the end of the preceding season due to Project Restart.
“These are highly paid athletes in an amazing position who are being paid to do their hobby in effect,” says TSC. “But they are finely tuned athletes and like a Forumla One car that is finely tuned, the smallest imbalance can cause a breakdown! Managers get the green light from the S&C team and medical staff on players optimum fitness levels and they see who is showing signs of fatigue and might be prone to injury. It’s then the managers responsibility to do with that information what they want – you don’t see the physio making subs! They might have their fingers crossed past the 60-minute mark, but they can only advise!”
On Sunday evening we saw that Leicester City were no match for Liverpool on the night but one annoyance that came up for Foxes fans on social media is the apparent lack of training in the build-up to the game. The international break had a big effect on many teams, but were those left at home possibly at a disadvantage because Premier League fitness levels are so high?
“Premier league managers do not get much time with players as a squad, especially those in Europe. They train on Monday , travel on Tuesday to play a European away game on Wednesday, then it’ll be a light session on morning of the game before they play the game, travel home on Thursday before rest and recovery or a light session on the Friday. Those players in European action will likely train on Saturday but not heavily due to another game on Sunday.”
It sounds exhausting just hearing about it, but while players are fit as fiddles, TSC believes managers have had to adapt like never before this season.
“Managers have to be creative in how they maximise their players training, especially for shape play and tactical work. Match preparation is difficult when they have players all over the place; that’s why pre-season is key, there is a lot done in the analysis suite.”
Fitness and squad depth are two massive points for discussion in the Premier League this year. How important does TSC think it will be in determining who wins the EPL title?
“Squad depth is always an interesting one,” they reply. “The bigger clubs have more money to pay wages and fans might then argue they are better players, but everyone has the same squad size in the Premier League. You can only name a 25-man squad and as many under-21s as you want, so strength in depth is subjective.”
When it comes to the two most successful sides in English football history, The Secret Coach is outspoken.
“I look at Manchester United and Liverpool and think they could add one or two quality players with their budget not seven or eight average players just to have bodies. They should promote their youth to give them a chance, otherwise how do they know if they are good enough or not? I used to get frustrated when authorities got involved in fining teams for fielding a weakened team! Who says it’s weakened? If I rest Ryan Giggs and put in a youth player who’s 21, what’s to say he won’t be as good as Giggs in the future? If I signed him as a professional footballer, he has a contract to play.”
The Secret Coach has plenty of ideas to change this, including allowing Premier League Managers to add two more substitutes in the form of under-21 squad players to help protect players from being injured. At lower league clubs, though, life is very different to the Premier League. How bad do fitness levels get in the lower professional league in England and what can coaches do to help players who aren’t being paid a king’s ransom to play?
“Lower league clubs have more time,” says TSC. “There are less internationals, so player fitness can be monitored very closely. At a club I’ve worked at, we had an excellent S&C team and medical staff. We had a fair share of injuries but the work they put in with the teamas a whole and individuals was awesome. Fitness work is not just a team thing – the whole squad has tailored plans, with six players doing one thing, 10 players doing another and with pairs and individuals working very differently before they join up to play as a team.”
Recooperation from injury is immensely difficult for any player, but in such a shortened season where there are no fans and the stakes are so high, is it more of a commonplace risk for teams to rush back players. Could the long-term effects be worse for players and, eventually, teams if the medical staff don’t take over?
“I’ve experienced physios saying, “He’s out for 3 weeks” only for the manager to say to player in front of the physio “If we strap it up will you be able to play?” We now have so much data on players fitness and well-being that it would take a poor manager to ignore advice and data from the medical staff and rush someone back, although players will try. Some need reigning in sometimes to save themselves from further injury by pushing too hard to come back.”
The best players are often either protected from injury by being rested or played when less than fit. But what is the best option?
“Leagues are not won with 11 players today,” says TSC. “They’re not superhuman and playing at the level they do, the physical demands can take its toll and you risk burn out, not just injury but when the body is stressed, the immune system is lowered so you’re open to colds and other such issues. Just like an office worker who has five meetings and three reports all due the next day can end up ill at the end of the week, managers need to manage the workload of players so fans get to see better players being rested for certain games. You see it all the time, especially with older players – look at Sir Alex Ferguson’s management of Ryan Giggs.”
With COVID-19 forcing players into Zoom calls, personal fitness sessions from home and more, the Coronavirus pandemic has a lot to answer for, but could it have had positive effects on some players’ fitness?
“With COVID, players have had to utilise the opportunities they’ve had. Fitness can be done anywhere; you have so many personal trainers unable to get to gyms doing things online with clients and only have to look at how many people are now ‘active’ after being allowed out to exercise in lockdown. Football players are no different.”
With clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool – both of whom lead the Premier League after the latest round of fixtures – training their players on Zoom when lockdown struck, the clubs who think outside the box may yet be rewarded with the greatest prizes at the end of the tunnel.
We’ll hear more from The Secret Coach next week, exclusively here on Calvin Ayre.