Project Restart leaving players vulnerable to injuries

The resumption of the Premier League last week brought excitement, but for some, it may have come too early. Gregor Kerr looks at the risk of injury for players in Project Restart.

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Bernd Leno’s knee injury against Brighton was the most high-profile injury of the returning weekend (Credit: Getty Images)

Project Restart in the Premier League brought anxiety around the difficulty of resuming. At the very height of concerns, rightly, was the risk of COVID-19 spread and the use of medical staff at games. Lower down on the list was the risk of injury for players who hadn’t sampled competitive football for three months.

In the opening weekend there was seven recorded injuries during games. Surprisingly though, only one, James Milner, was a muscle injury. Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Martinelli are two players who have already suffered from the resumption of games, both likely to miss the rest of the season with knee injuries picked up in the last week.

The chief ingredient for a cluster of injuries, usually muscle-related, is a lack of preparation. Contact training resumed for clubs on June 17th, leaving just three weeks for players to re-accustom themselves to the bumps, knocks and intensity that come with Premier League football. In a normal season, the league would restart in the first of second week of August, after a fair chunk of friendlies. In this scenario that time has been halved, with a couple of friendlies, some with unusual time periods, being the only way to prepare.

Germany provided the first case study of how players would cope having to jump straight into two Bundesliga games a week and the impact on injuries has been telling. Data collected by the Jena Institute of Sport Science showed that there were 0.88 injuries per game on the opening Bundesliga weekend, a huge jump compared to the pre-lockdown average of 0.27. The average for previous opening weekends in August was 0.4. But the average number of injuries has decreased every matchday, which naturally suggests that players will begin to re-adjust again in England.

A glass half-full person would note that this time off has allowed the players to recovery from existing injuries. Tottenham are maybe the best case of this, with Harry Kane, Steven Bergwijn, Heung-Min Son and Moussa Sissoko all returning from long-term injuries and starting against Manchester United in their first available game.

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The break has also allowed for players, such as Harry Kane, to return from injury when it appeared their season would have been over (Credit: AFP)

Professor Jan Ekstrand, the lead expert from a 15-year UEFA study into pre-season training, told iNews: “You have around six weeks normally and we’ve been concerned this is a very short period for preparing players for the load they’re going to meet during the competitive season.”

He added, “Muscle injuries are seven or eight times more common in matches than training, so most coaches want to have training mimicking matches – with at least part of the session at match speed.

“They have problems in reaching this intensity even if it’s a team training session, so if you have individual training it’s very difficult to get up to the intensity. There have been studies showing that modern football has increased intensity during last 15 years and that’s why muscle injuries have increased.”

Imagine running a marathon having only started training three weeks before to test your endurance. Now imagine doing that short training on a treadmill, without getting the feel for the outdoors; the real thing. Your calves and hamstrings would be screaming after the first half of the run. Project Restart has offered up a very similar scenario.

This intensity will be doubled due to most teams playing twice a week, as was already the case with Arsenal in the opening week. The fact that Pablo Mari, Granit Xhaka and Bernd Leno all suffered serious injuries for the Gunners can’t come as a surprise after being thrusted straight back into action.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola wasn’t keen on the heavy schedule either, “We are ready to play one game, but three days after another and four days after another…we are not ready,” he said.

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In the same week as he voiced injury concerns, Guardiola saw his main striker Aguero pick up a serious knee injury (Credit: Getty Images)

The NFL’s lockout in 2011 proved to be a minefield for achilles injuries after the league was stopped between March and August. In the time period between the Superbowl that year and the end of the lockout period there were just 2 achilles injuries. In the 12 days following the end of the lockout, there were ten achilles injuries, and two more in the following two weeks.

Precautions to avoid such a scenario were put in place by the FA. Teams are now allowed five substitutions in a match during this period, and a water break midway through each half takes place, but this has done little to negate the problem in the opening weekend.

Friendlies were permitted in the lead-up to the restart and saw a combination of Premier League and Championship teams testing each other. But again, this didn’t go as smoothly as planned. Tottenham had to cancel a friendly, leading to their only warm-up match being contested in four half-hour periods against Norwich City. Manchester United also saw a friendly against Stoke City cancelled after the opposing manager Michael O’Neill contracted COVID-19.

The FA and Premier League were both placed between a rock and a hard place. A null and void of the league would have sparked a civil war as being seen in Scottish football, while anything later than a September restart to the 2020/21 season causing disruption. Would two or three weeks of extra training really have made much of a difference?

It was an inventible problem and one that places even greater power in favour of the big clubs. With bigger squads, they can contend with injuries in the knowledge that adequate replacements can enter the fold, not quite the case for teams near the bottom of the league. Without the advantage of home crowds, which usually benefit the smaller clubs, they were already up against it. As it often the case with these kinds of issues, the smaller clubs lose out.

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