So, Özil is out for 10-12 weeks apparently. The reaction of the Arsenal fans was amusing to witness – it was less disappointment and more a matter of immediate acceptance, as if to say “Oh, was wondering when that would come about”. Unfortunately for the club (and its supporters) we’ve simply become used to having our squad ravaged by knocks, sprains, pulls, tears and breaks.
How can a team possibly be so injured? Training methods? Poor preparation? Overuse? Understrength players? Well, like anything medical there are certainly a host of reasons that all culminate in our players’ frequent trips to the physio room. I don’t doubt that all of the above factor into the situation. However I prescribe to “overuse” being the critical reason for the constant breakdown of our players.
Now, I have no medical, physiology, or kinesiology background. What I put forward is merely hypothesis based on what I see and what little I’ve read. One of the most influential “texts” I’ve read on the game is “Conditioning for Soccer”, as edited by Dr. Raymond Verheijen. Don’t let its cheesy cover fool you; this book, written in the late 90s, is a brilliant compilation by many Dutch coaches and fitness professionals (including Verheijen) that provides an analysis of how to best condition a footballer at different competitive levels. I’m sure some of its research has since been outdated (as happens over time) but it provides a great introduction to the science of a footballer.
Dr. Verheijen, et al, discuss overuse from a very practical point of view:
“…players have to take part in a large number of games but these games are held at irregular intervals. In principle the body can adapt to any situation that it regularly encounters. The Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday cycle [of professional matches] is nothing new. Nowadays, however, it may be followed by a Wednesday-Saturday-Tuesday cycle. The body can adapt to any stimulus (or cycle) provided there is an element of regularity. An irregular fixture list does not allow the body to adapt and it therefore starts to protest. This may be one of the reasons why coaches are faced with so many injuries nowadays” Pg. 64, “Conditioning for Soccer”
This is a problem of itself, but essentially all top-flight teams have to cope with a demanding and irregular fixture schedule; the first thought is probably “what makes Arsenal any different?”. However, amongst the most tightly scheduled teams Arsenal are notorious for a lack of squad rotation. I was not able to find a statistics source that tracked Minutes Played for All Competitions 13/14 but I would say our most played non-defenders would be Giroud, Ramsey and Özil last year. Of those, all three are currently facing long lay-offs due to injury.
My concern comes down to cumulative wear-and-tear. These players play physically demanding positions and more minutes-per-season means less time to rest between overloads (games). You can give them extra time off during the Summer, but I don’t think an extra 3-4 weeks of rest can make up for a 40+ game season in which these players are appearing in 80% of all matches AND being relied upon as difference makers when called upon; especially in a World Cup year which entails an extra month of intense physical exertion.
My personal belief is that our lack of squad depth and (over)reliance on guys like Ramsey, Özil and Giroud means that these players are incapable of fully recovering over the long-term. Because of our lack of options outside the starting XI these players often come in as subs even in “rest” games to bail out Arsenal’s when they’re playing poor. Over the course of a season involving three major competitions (League, Champs League and FA Cup) this adds up. Instead of resting to 100%, a player like Giroud might only get to 95% full fitness before being asked to play again. The next time he starts, he might be at 94% of his maximum fitness (health). As the pattern continues player condition deteriorates rapidly – and with it their ability to be as prolific as before. Giroud’s cooling-off as 2013-14 went on was surely impacted by the number of minutes he had played along the way. When you start the game at four-fifths of your usual available energy, it’s disproportionately more difficult to make an impact.
We see the cumulative effect of this not in the current season but rather the subsequent one(s). After Santi Cazorla was our player-of-the-season for 2012-2013, he was much more tepid and spent more time on the treatment table in 2013-2014. Now, after abusing Giroud and Ramsey’s playing time last year, we are seeing them get stricken too. Recalling Özil’s minutes-played contribution last year, plus his World Cup campaign, it didn’t surprise me to see him injured this year too.
Arsenal has options off the bench in the form of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gnabry, Rosicky, etc. But they are not go-to guys in “big” games. Instead Arsene likes to rely on his core XI, give or take maybe one or two spots with regular variation, and it hurts us in the long run. That’s not to say those bench players can’t be difference makers, but it seems they’re relied on only when “must” rather than being legitimate options to replace guys from the default eleven.
To beat a dead horse, this is part of the reason why I was so upset when we didn’t sign Fabregas. Having quality players on the bench isn’t a “waste” because there are so many games in a year for them to get playing time. So what if we signed Özil to replace Cesc – why not have one on the bench resting while the other gets his playing time in? There is merit in having expensive players on the bench; while it might make for a bigger wage bill, there’s also value in saving lost-time due to injury. If Arsenal could “buy” health for their current players – eg spend 20m to have an immediate return of a healthy Giroud, Ramsey or Özil – I’m sure the club would. So why not spend 20m on a capable, starting XI calibre player who’s ability to take a role in big games let’s our other assets recover properly?
Anyway, it’s a thought I’d like to put out there. Without the stats and/or sports physiology background I realize it’s entirely speculative but perhaps we’re overdue for a fresh consideration of the injury issue as a club. Feel free to shoot me some feedback, support, damning criticism or any article marking my points completely wrong via Twitter or Facebook.