There is no shortage of targets to blame for Liverpool’s recent glut of injuries.
From the aggressive approach taken by neighbors Everton in the derby to the scheduling doled out by the Premier League fixture computer, the defending champions have had plenty of external factors affecting fitness this season.
A lesser mentioned cause, however, is intensity.
Liverpool’s success in the past couple of years has been based on the speed the team moves the ball and the ground its players cover.
The gegenpressing or ‘counter-pressing’ tactical philosophy introduced to the club by manager Jurgen Klopp delivers outstanding results, but it also requires huge amounts of energy.
Liverpool has had more sprints than any other team in the previous two seasons, and, while the distance covered by the side is not always the highest, sprinting under fatigue carries a higher risk of injury.
The number of games the team is playing this season with little recovery time between has resulted in a brutal injury list.
The loss of talismanic center-back Virgil Van Dijk in the fifth game of 2020/21 season has been compounded by shorter-term absences from Alisson, Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara, to name a few.
The past fortnight only added to Liverpool’s woes, after Trent Alexander-Arnold was withdrawn halfway through the clash with Manchester City, Joe Gomez suffered a serious injury on international duty. Then, left-back Andrew Robertson hurt his hamstring for Scotland and captain Jordan Henderson withdrew from the England national team.
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It’s a difficult one for Jurgen Klopp to tackle because his priority will always be results, changing the way the team plays to prevent potential injuries could do more harm than good.
If his side races into a 4-0 lead early in a game the chances are the rest of the contest will be played at a lower intensity and key players’ minutes can be reduced, which is arguably the best injury preventer.
Star striker Mohammed Salah has consistently been amongst the players with the most sprints in the Premier League in the past three years but has managed to remain largely free of injury, racking up over 100 games during that period.
This suggests his periods of intensity are being expertly managed by the player himself and the sports science team.
Unfortunately for some of Salah’s colleagues’, bad luck has been a factor this year too.
Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and bad luck
Shortly before Van Dijk was injured, I wrote a piece suggesting the club’s impressive array of sports scientists would be as crucial as manager Jurgen Klopp in the bid to retain the Premier League title.
To be fair to the scientists, there’s been very little they have been able to about the two worst injuries the team has suffered.
Van Dijk was hurt by an impact injury; a result of a rather reckless challenge from Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
But even more cruelly Joe Gomez’s long-term setback came despite the best efforts of the sports science team.
The center-back was given additional recovery time by England because of the number of games he’d played for Liverpool, unfortunately, when he finally took to the training pitch for the national team, an awkward landing resulted in a serious injury.
“[Joe] Gomez was given a day off because of data from Liverpool,” says high-performance coach and former head of sports science at Southampton FC Simon Clifford.
Clifford, who also mentors Premier League and Championship players, tells me that the national team goes to great lengths to work with the clubs like Liverpool to protect players.
“In the past, there was a real struggle between club and country. There’s a far more collegiate approach to it now.
“A lot of the sports scientists and staff know each other, and data is shared very freely between the clubs [and national teams] in terms of the players [information on the number of minutes played].”
It must have been a particularly bitter pill for the sports science team to swallow having taken precautions to keep the player fit.
The Premier League’s increased speed
The challenges posed by this season schedule are unlikely to be repeated, but there is a longer-term trend that sides Liverpool must consider as they evolve their style of play.
“Liverpool players have played 12 games in the last two months [which is a challenge],” adds Clifford.
“The other bit added on to that is the type of game of [soccer] is today. Even to if went back 10 years, it’s a very different game.”
The speed at which the game is played has gone through the roof, the high-performance coach says.
Clifford backs this up with research, he sent me through an academic paper published in May after our interview, from a Danish university which proves it.
The paper explains that between 2006/2007 and 2012/2013 match running distances in the English Premier League increased by 20%, a 3% per year rise.
There was a 50% jump in the distance covered at high intensity and total sprint distance increased by 8% in the same period.
Such changes have required players to become even more athletic.
Fortunately, the ever-increasing budgets of Premier League teams have enabled them to invest in the infrastructure to support this transformation.
The size of the sports science departments and playing squads have grown to cope with the demands.
The paper predicts the increase in intensity will continue at the same rate, which means by 2030 the high-intensity running of players will be nearly twice what it was in the 2012/2013 season (a further 40% increase).
Clubs will have to be ready to respond to this next leap.
“You’re going to get more injuries, there’ll be more strain on players,” Clifford continues.
“Even players that previously didn’t contribute as much physically, who didn’t have as much of an attacking role to attack, for example; the central defenders and goalkeepers [they] will be expected to contribute more.
“They will cover more distance at higher speeds, executing a higher number of passes and kicks.”
Clifford believes that it will eventually require action from the authorities.
“It’s something that the governing bodies are going to have to look at because we’ll have to think about the player’s health and their long-term health,” he adds.
The speed of soccer increasing isn’t all bad.
If you thought the pace of Liverpool’s attacks was breath-taking now, just imagine what it will be like in 2030.
Source: Forbes – Business