Clubs are pouring millions into sports science and performance to combat the growing risk of injury from busy calendars
In Malawi, Mo Salah also reached 72 games with Egypt on Thursday. If Jordan Henderson is selected for England’s game against Italy at Molineux, it will be 57 games in a season that was suspended just weeks after the EURO final at Wembley.
When Sadio Mané swept home a 98th-minute penalty in Dakar to hand Senegal a hard-fought victory over Rwanda on Tuesday, the curtain fell on a grueling 72-game season for the Liverpool striker.
But they are not isolated cases. A Fifpro study released last month showed that 72 of the 265 elite players they studied had played more than 55 games, a measure that puts them at serious risk of injury. They called for a reform of the schedule, but with a Winter World Cup looming, the demands only intensify.
Premier League clubs begin pre-season testing in the first week of July. Mané, Salah and those scheduled to attend Nations League games this week may be given an extra week’s leave but the big kick-off has been brought forward a year to include the World Cup in Qatar.
Within football, clubs prepare for burnout and further injuries to the game’s top stars.
“Since Project Restart there has just been no rest for the players,” says Jamie Harley, the former head of science at Everton and Newcastle United, of a busy schedule that has seen Premier League players compete almost non-stop since June 2020. “It’s hard to predict how next season will go, but it’s going to be a very challenging season for players and clubs.”
Having worked alongside Rafa Benitez at Goodison Park last year, Harley knows clubs have been preparing for the unique demands of this season for months. The season starts in August, lasts 15 weeks before the World Cup and then restarts on Boxing Day when league, cup and Champions League games have to take place before the end in May.
The five-week World Cup break is a complex issue for the clubs: those who are left behind have to continue so that they are not deconditioned. For those in Qatar, the demands of traveling and playing in a hot country will place further strains on their return. Clubs are also making plans to deal with players returning demoralized after being eliminated from the World Cup but who are expected to ‘go again’ within days.
“It’s almost going to be two seasons in one,” says Harley. “There’s a 15-week season and a 24-week season with a five-week break [for the World Cup] in the middle.
“It’s a challenge, but at least it’s written and you know about it. With the pandemic, it was the unknown that made it challenging – we didn’t know how long we wouldn’t play or if we’d even come back.”
This beefed up schedule comes as the game has never been faster. Players in the modern game have to do more sprints over longer distances, which puts them at a higher risk of injury. Experts have found that the way players slow down seems to predict whether they are likely to get muscle strains and tears.
Before the project restarted, there was concern that an epidemic of soft tissue injuries sustained in matches would follow the enforced 11-week Covid break. That’s what happened in the NBA during the 2011-12 lockout season when team owners began a five-month walkout.
As it turns out, there hasn’t been a spike in matchday injuries, but clubs have seen growing problems on the training ground – so many have changed their schedules to cope. Crystal Palace, for example, reaped the rewards of this approach last season.
Other players were less fortunate. Premier Injuries founder Ben Dinnery researched the England squad that reached the Euro 2020 final and found they paid the price for their dedication.
56 per cent of the 17 outfield players who played for England at Euro 2020 suffered more injuries last season than in the previous two seasons. 66 percent of them played fewer minutes last season than in the previous two seasons. Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips went from 2,430 minutes in 2020-21 to just 1,596 minutes last season.
For some – Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford are the prime examples – seriously shortened seasons could have been the result of marginal involvement in the tournament.
“It was a double whammy for them – they didn’t play much in the tournament so probably only got involved in lighter training sessions, but then had a break in preparation and missed the benefits of it,” says Dinnery. “The importance of proper pre-season preparation should not be underestimated. Research shows that the more involved you are in pre-season, the more resilient you are and able to handle the rigors of the season.”
Those who work with individual athletes attest that many have experienced burnout.
“It’s a brutal schedule they have. Players are entering their third year and kicking ass. This is not only associated with physical, but also with psychological stress,” says Brian Moore, CEO of the sports science company Orecco.
“The law of diminishing returns will apply. You always put more in, you get less out. Players describe that they have achieved too much or too little. They report feeling like they’re playing with the handbrake on. That’s what you’re dealing with – players whose fatigue is compounded by not getting enough rest or recovery. All of their systems become overloaded and that puts them at risk of soft tissue injuries.”
To counter player demands, clubs are investing millions in their performance teams, using science, data and technology to give them an edge.
Liverpool have enlisted the services of Zone7, a Silicon Valley artificial intelligence company that has developed an algorithm capable of predicting injury risk.
But others begin to search the player’s body for answers. Irish sports technology company Orecco works with eight Premier League clubs as well as top stars such as Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison and a variety of NBA teams.
They pioneered the use of regular pinprick blood tests, taken a few days after games, which reveal a treasure trove of ‘biomarkers’.
The blood tests last four minutes and show inflammation levels, oxidative stress and the level of free radicals in the body. If they go too high, red flags will be raised and a player may be taken out of practice or their “training load” reduced.