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In the future: player safety won’t be used for competitive edge

In the next ten years, elite football clubs will rely on predictive analytics to help identify players at risk of injury or fatigue. Leagues will even reach agreements to pool sophisticated (and anonymous) player fitness data and make it accessible to sports scientists, physicians and academics. Together they will research best practices in training, nutrition, and basic fitness to protect players from injury and fatigue. Long-standing questions about the effects of fixture congestion and over-training will finally get some answers grounded in irrefutable scientific evidence, rather than hearsay and opinion.

Today, the debate over fixture congestion and injury prevention continues with little public agreement on how much is too much when it comes to fitness training, or, as is the case in England, playing a busy schedule over the Christmas period with minimal recovery time. In a World Cup year, what kind of toll do these extra games take on players facing an added month of fixtures at the end of the club season? And what effect could it have on a club’s title chances? Answering these questions are vital not only for a national team like England, but also for a club like Arsenal, a club second only behind Tottenham in the injury table and in need of players in the January transfer window with the Premier League title still up for grabs.

4315841 Theo Walcott is stretchered off after sustaining an injury in Arsenal’s FA Cup Third round win over Tottenham at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday 4th January.

Guardian columnist Sean Ingle proposed a few weeks ago that England players might benefit from a winter break, referring to research from Prozone’s analyst Omar Chaudhuri:

“Physical [fitness] data can be noisy and affected by a wide range of factors – the scoreline, whether a team is playing home or away, position, level of possession and so on – but players who had more rest and played fewer games had a significantly higher physical output. And while the sample is not huge, most of these results are statistically significant.”

That data sample will grow over time as more and more teams from various sports start to apply intelligence to player tracking technology, which will become invaluable for advanced injury research.

In 2012 for example, IBM provided predictive analytics to rugby side Leicester Tigers in order to help identify at-risk players. “There is a tremendous value to be gained by retaining experienced players within the squad and we are confident that, by adopting IBM predictive analytics, our team will be able to leverage data about the physical condition of players for the first time and considerably enhance our performance,” explained Leicester’s Head of Sports Science Andrew Shelton.

Reliance on real-time player fitness tracking technology is nothing new in football. As Chris Morgan, Head of Physiotherapy at Liverpool FC explains, “In recent years the advent of GPS within training has allowed us to monitor each player’s training load in a way which just wasn’t possible before. We obtain training reports on a daily basis.” Darren Burgess, Liverpool’s Head of Fitness and Conditioning (from 2010-2012) used a range of data sources to create a ‘neural network’ which predicted injuries based on identifying and correlating performance and training load. Such injury prevention analytics are commonplace in the Australian Football League where Burgess now plies his trade, and also being adopted by some of the more innovative teams in the National Basketball Association and National Football League teams in America.

Yet when it comes to information sharing with other football clubs, at least in the Premier League proprietary concerns still exist – “…if we do have a particular approach, intervention or analysis which we feel is particularly effective, we won’t be looking to share it with our rivals!” Morgan says.

This will change however, as player associations like the PFA and FIFPro pressure leagues to do all they can to aid injury-prevention research, so that player safety isn’t used as a competitive edge. Moreover, the benefits of information sharing for medical research will outweigh any proprietary gain. Statistical research using pooled player fitness data will reveal previously unknown correlations between different variables (e.g. intensity of output, fouls suffered etc.) and different types of recurring injuries. It will allow clubs to do better fitness assessments on transfer targets to ensure they reach a deal in good faith. It will also provide solid answers over the link between fixture congestion and injury risk, answers which will be used to prevent fixture congestion when football governing bodies plan various tournaments.

This last benefit might ruffle some feathers within English football, which has long maintained an intense winter schedule even as other continental leagues allow their players a mid-season break. Several key figures, including England national team physio Gary Lewin, have long argued for the benefits of giving players a rest over the holidays:

“Even if we had a small break, I believe that the mental relaxation a player enjoyed in that time – without deconditioning much – would have a beneficial effect towards the end of the season…

…Uefa have even done studies which indicate that a player is four times more likely to be injured in the last three months in the Premier League than other leagues in Europe.”

Shortly, Darren Burgess will publish further compelling research that demonstrates the negative impact of England’s fixture schedule on national team performance. From his time with the Australian national team (from 2007-2010), Burgess collected data in the lead up to the World Cup in South Africa that irrefutably shows that Premier League players arrived at the tournament with higher levels of fatigue than other players competing in leagues who enjoy a mid-season rest.

Yet even if it doesn’t convince the powers that be in England to consider a break from tradition (and commercial revenue), improvements in sports science through information sharing could help teams better tailor training regimes that don’t overtire players, such as the ‘periodisation method’ – an approach often championed by the Dutch conditioning trainer Raymond Verheijen, which emphases quality and timing over quantity in training preparation.

“Injuries on the training pitch account for around 25% of all injuries”, says Mike Davison, Managing Director of Isokinetic Medical Group, a FIFA Medical Centre of Excellence. “Medical & Science teams need to monitor closely in these environments, and coaches need to accept that their mistakes in preparing players for games often deny them of their first choice starting 11”.

Those clubs who adopt such techniques and embrace sports science will achieve a better return on investment in the transfer market by helping to ensure their best players are fit and healthy for the duration of the season. It will also mean a boon for player development, as prospective talents train according to the best fitness science available, reducing the chances of possible career-ending injuries early on.

In the end, player health and safety should be football’s first priority. Players are what drive the sport, and – in the future – clubs, leagues and governing bodies will realise that competitive and monetary gain are actually fuelled by maintaining the health and safety of football’s prized assets.

This article by @RWhittall is the fourth post in the ‘Future of Football’ series for @21stClub.

Related posts:

#1 The Future of Football series – how teams will win 10 years from now

#2 In the future: the manager will become obsolete

#3 In the future: football clubs will be more social

About Richard Whittall

Richard Whittall has created 28 entries.