First, I’d like to take this opportunity of welcoming everyone back and wishing you well for the upcoming campaign. Liverpool and Norwich City get us underway on Friday evening at Anfield, and with less than 48 hours to go until the FPL deadline, plans for the opening weeks are already in full flow. The pre-season programme throws up a myriad of discussion points, and factor those players who have been injured, or been involved with their national teams, and the clamber to assemble a fully fit and a functional squad capable of hitting the ground running begins to ramp up. While the early rounds may not serve as a yardstick for your year, navigating them safely will save you many a sleepless night. However, a good start can be the cornerstone to success.
Football has evolved significantly in recent years and gone are the days when players effectively downed tools after the final game, only for them to return at the beginning of July with a few additional pounds to shift (unless of course, you’re Eden Hazard). It would then be a race against time to be fit, or more specifically match fit, for the opening fixtures after 6-7 weeks of hard labour. Nowadays players are typically given an off-season programme to ensure base levels of fitness are maintained.
“Today, the players are so professional,” Pep Guardiola said after his side’s penalty shootout win over Liverpool. “Even on holiday, they take care of themselves really well. They know the competition is not just outside but inside the locker room - they have to fight to take a position in the team. That’s why they are so professional. Last season, before the Community Shield, we had just one week of preparation with most of the players, and they competed. Today, you can trust the players.”
The inclusion of Nicolas Otamendi last weekend stands testament to this notion after the Argentine played 90 minutes having only returned to the club three days earlier following an extended break. But there are no hard-and-fast rules which can be applied. Guidelines for those returning following international involvement differ from players recovering from injury. There are countless factors to consider - squad strength/depth, upcoming fixtures, an individual’s propensity to take risks – all of which influence the decision-making process. And while there may be some short-term gain in an early return to play, long-term the after-effects can sometimes be felt throughout the season.
Take Tottenham for example, who had several players involved in the latter stages of the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. Almost all returned to the starting XI at St James’ Park on the opening day only to suffer setbacks later in the season. Dele Alli recently admitted while on the clubs’ tour in Shanghai.
"It's the most injuries I've ever had [in one season], and it's tough not just physically but mentally as well. You have to dig deep," he said. "Sitting in the treatment room and watching the lads train and watching at games is not nice. You obviously want to be out there helping your team. We had a great season as a team, but individually, I was disappointed to get the injuries. I've got to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Just a week before kick-off and Alli is once again is sidelined having suffered another – his sixth in 12 months – hamstring related injury as his problems persist. And Alli wasn’t the only player – Eric Dier, Jan Vertonghen and Harry Kane all suffered significant time loss injuries while Kieran Tripper admitted there are “no excuses” for his drop in performance levels after limping through the season due to a niggling groin complaint.
Former Head of Medicine at Notts County, Chesterfield and Scunthorpe Johnny Wilson says that you cannot underestimate the importance of some time away from the game - both for physiological and psychological reasons – combined with a conditioning period which is tailored to enable your body to tolerate the demands of playing.
Undoubtedly, Sadio Mane will feature highly on everyone’s wish list, but having only returned to training this week, his involvement at Anfield won’t be without risk, and I can’t see anything other than a place on the bench (at best) despite what Jurgen Klopp has to say.
“We all know, Sadio had 16 days off – he will be in a good shape. He doesn’t drink; he doesn’t eat too much. He had a training programme, maybe after ten days probably he started with a little bit of running, so I think he will be fine. But we have to see.”
No-one can expect players to be at peak fitness at this stage and my advice would be to select the core of your squad with premium players, and the reminder focussing solely with the first four games in mind. The international break will allow for a period of reflection/analysis.
Tread carefully around those players returning from long-term injuries. It may take several matches – sometimes longer - for players to return to previous levels, so bear this in mind for short-term planning although it could dictate medium-to-long-term squad solutions.
Jack Wilshere is attracting interest following an impressive pre-season, but optimism was also high 12 months ago, and injury all but ended his campaign in December, just 389 minutes played. Teammates Yarmolenko and Carlos Sanchez are ones to watch initially, although Manuel Lanzini should be ready having made his comeback in late February. Only Declan Rice and Issa Diop (outfield players) have played more minutes during pre-season, and his three goals will tempt managers with a favourable set of opening fixtures (City aside).
Following the news that summer signing Lloyd Kelly (ankle ligaments) suffered a setback in training, Diego Rico has popped up on my timeline quite a bit, and while I was keen initially, the return of Charlie Daniels last Friday did dampen my enthusiasm.
"It was a huge boost,” Eddie Howe said after the left-back played 79 minutes against Lazio. “When we talk about the players we've missed, his experience, Steve Cook's experience, they were big misses for us, so we're delighted to have them back."
To be or not to be injured
Historical data is a good predictor in determining risk, quite simply put, if a player has been injured previously, then the likelihood of injury incidence increases. Checking minutes played, and availability rates will help for those strategising game time. Don’t expect Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to suddenly return over 2000 Premier League minutes; this has only happened once in his career, in fact, only twice has he surpassed 1500 or the equivalent of seventeen full games meaning the data would indicate a playing potential of less than 50 per cent. Understand their limitations and factor those into your planning. Be selective; their role may be adapted to minimise injury, and quite often these players will be used from the bench for the last 20 minutes, or they will be the first to be replaced as managers look to protect their most fragile of assets.
Recognise the need to involve the otherwise uninvolved
Consider a deep bench, particularly around busy fixture periods when managers are more likely to rest and rotate their squad. A recent study carried out by FIFPro – the players worldwide representative – recommends that back-to-back competitive games with less than five days recovery must be limited to protect the “long-term health of elite players....
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