Football might be starting to make its way back to everyone’s daily lives and becoming a topic of discussion amongst those that follow the sport religiously for all the positive reasons, however it might be wrong to expect too much quality or the standard and playing level of those elite lucky few that get to turn out in the Premier League each week when it does make its return.
After a near two-month hiatus due to the unprecedented global pandemic, clubs in the top-flight were recently given the green light to return to training – with the caveat of only doing so in small groups and continuing to adhere to social distancing rules that have been laid out by the government.
Many professional sportspeople will have access to a home gym or have equipment available to them in order to continue maintaining their fitness levels during the current hiatus from sport, however it would seem that may not be enough for those Premier League footballers looking to make the return to elite competition after an unexpected break.
At least, Ryan Fredericks appears to share that view, with the West Ham United full-back stating that being ‘match-fit’ is a lot different to just being, perhaps, fit and healthy. The 27-year-old admitted that it was just as important to be mentally ready as well as physically.
“The difference is huge,” says the defender. “You can spend as long as you want – years, even – running up and down the pitch or running around cones, but 10 minutes in a Premier League match is 100 times harder than any of that.
“You can’t fake anything on a Premier League pitch. You have to react to so many things – mentally, as well. If you get caught out, you’re stuck.”
Those views, perhaps unsurprisingly, are shared by West Ham’s Head of Medical Services, Richard Collinge, who stresses that the psychological aspects could be just as important than the player’s fitness levels and mentions the science behind the idea.
“There are different aspects to it,” he says.
“The science behind it all is now a major guide as to objectively clearing a player to return to training and then to return to a match, but the player has to also be psychologically ready.
“Those two things have to match, otherwise that player is not going to be ready to play.”
Collinge also mentions that the club have collected data on each of their players and know what they are aiming for, where they need to be and outlines how they are using it.
“We have benchmarks and training data over several seasons so that we know what each player has got to achieve,” says Collinge.
“How fast he needs to sprint, the number of accelerations and decelerations he makes, the distance he covers.
“You also have to break that down into positional analysis. Match fitness is very different if you’re a goalkeeper from a modern-day wing-back. Using GPS data and distances covered, if a player has had a six-week hamstring injury we can tell what we need to prepare them for based on their position.
“We do some change of direction testing, too, because they have to be able to pivot acutely. They have to be able to withstand the force of an opponent and strike a ball.
“The rehabilitation period is not cleared until we can match as best as possible the loading of the tissue that will be required for full training and then a 90-minute match.”
Fredericks admits the sprinting elements are not the hardest parts of the training sessions and that being in the scenario is what helps sharpen them up.
“The hard miles in games don’t really tire you out,” he says. “Sprinting up and down isn’t really what we find hard.
“The hard stuff is the short bursts of pace, when you’ve got to quickly get tight to someone. Nobody can tell you that you’re match fit unless you’ve been in the scenario where you’re having to struggle in the last 10 minutes and you’ve got to grind out a game.
“That’s when you find out about yourself, not doing runs in training.”
As mentioned, the psychological aspect is considered extremely important and the duo both stress that being confident and comfortable is equally as vital to being match-ready.
“When placed in front of spectators and a worldwide audience then the anxieties of the player come into play as well,” explains Collinge. “That can affect the tissue tone. It’s all interwoven. The player needs to feel comfortable that he can play a game.”
“Match fitness comes from confidence,” Fredericks remarks in agreement.
“Going into the game knowing that you’re at a higher risk of injury or that you might blow up after 60 minutes isn’t ideal. You need to play two or three Under-23 games or training-ground games to get that. It’s unheard of to have a long time out and then go straight into the Premier League.”
However, with nine games still left to be played (and in some cases 10) of the current campaign before having to likely jump into another full-blooded season, it is ever-more important for clubs to manage their players’ fitness levels and ensure things are done in the right and correct manner – although some of the elite teams in the country always have their finger on the button.
To ensure players are ready and comfortable to play in a fixture, at West Ham at least, Collinge has revealed he speaks to David Moyes and the coaching staff on a constant basis in order to assess where the players are in terms of fitness and in order to set realistic aims and targets when required.
“It’s all about clear dialogue,” says Collinge. “The process is one of joint decision-making.
“We might look at the frequency of games coming up and pencil in particular players for particular games. Then we discuss what that player needs to do to prove himself fit and available for that game.
“We as medical staff and coaching staff want the player to be confident, ultimately. We want to make sure that the psychology and feedback from the player is positive, so that they can feel primed for competitive action.”
Collinge and Moyes may be in daily communication and have a clear dialogue about their decision-making, however these trying and unprecedented times coupled with the club’s top-flight future, may put some strain on them, therefore some of those realistic targets they like to set their players may have to go out the window with what is at stake.