Why are some of our players so dramatically improved
By Tim Charlesworth
My last article (yesterday) observed that a number of our players were showing some surprising improvements over the last twelve months. Why? There are a lot of things that, as supporters, we don’t see at a football club. Most of the real action goes on at training grounds behind closed doors. What we see on matchday, is really just the results of that preparation work. It is difficult to know what is happening to explain these strange player developments. One possible explanation is strength and conditioning. Certainly the improvements in Monreal and Coquelin are at least partly attributable to apparent increases in speed, agility and strength.
In the summer of 2014, Arsenal hired Shad Forsythe, who had been working with the world cup winning Germany team as ‘Head of Performance’. There didn’t seem to be any immediate impact. The start of the 2014/15 season seemed to be as bad as ever for injuries. But slowly, our injuries seem to have reduced to at least a ‘normal’ level compared to other premiership teams and this has been true for about ten months now.
And this is the kind of impact that you might expect an improved strength and conditioning regime to deliver. No strength and conditioning can eliminate injury entirely. What you can do, is build up the strength and flexibility of players, enabling them to better withstand the inevitable impacts that they sustain in a football match. As a result, a given impact or stretch, is less likely to result in injury, or will result in a more trivial injury. You might expect it to take six months to see a genuine improvement in player conditioning. Strength is not improved overnight, especially with professional sportsman who are playing and recovering twice a week, and most of whom have played a summer World Cup. And this is exactly what we have seen. From the start of 2015, six months after Forsythe joined, our injury record has subtly improved. And we have also seen these extraordinary improvements in some of our players. So why only some?
Well, I’m speculating here, too. But it seems unlikely to me that Arsenal had never thought of having strength and conditioning training before Shad Forsythe arrived. Wenger has always been interested in player conditioning, and this was much commented on in the early Wenger years. I think we are seeing the effect of an improvement in quality, not quantity. I suspect that the pre-Forsythe regime was a bit generic, and Forsythe has made it more specific to individual players. Arsenal have talked publicly about their increased use of individualised data (and the acquisition of the StatDNA company in December 2012). So the old regime was probably great for Koscielny and Gibbs, but not ideal for Monreal or Coquelin. Perhaps the new regime is better tailored to individual players?
And there’s another possible explanation. The players who have improved are mostly the ones who had time off the pitch. Again this is what we would expect to see, if strength and conditioning were the explanation. You cannot build up a player who is playing twice a week. They spend virtually all their time playing or recovering. Muscles need to recover from strength work. Generally speaking, strength is improved via micro-tears in muscle fibres caused by slightly overworking the muscles (by, for example, lifting heavy weights). The body rebuilds the small tears stronger than they were before. But this process takes more than three days. So, if you do serious strength work with a player who is playing three days later, you will impair his performance.
If we pursue this line of thinking a little further, we might note changes in a few players that I didn’t even mention in yesterday’s article. Walcott shows signs of being a changed player. He always had pace to burn, but it was too easy for defenders to knock him off the ball. Now he seems much more able to hold onto the ball under physical pressure. Is he just stronger? He looks less lean and more heavily muscled than he used to (as does Ozil).
And we cannot ignore the case of Sanchez, who joined at the same time as Forsythe. This guy is a freak. He plays virtually every match, usually for 90 minutes, and has played major tournaments with Chile for the last two summers. This might be understandable if he were a quiet, genteel player, but he is the opposite. He is a kind of Duracallbunny-Tigger-love-child. He is all action and never seems to stop running. By all common sense, he should be breaking down with a major injury (rest assured, I am touching wood as a write this). Sanchez obviously has natural athletic talent, but is the new regime playing a part in his story too?
We might also note that Arsene Wenger has form on this front. Ten years ago, there was a lot talk about how Wenger had achieved his spectacular success at Arsenal. In recent years, this interest has waned, for obvious reasons. A commonly cited explanation ten years ago, was the radical changes that Wenger made to the fitness regime at Arsenal in the late 1990s (Tony Adams talked a lot about his new stretching regime, diet and stopwatch training). It was also notable that Arsene Wenger didn’t bring an assistant with him like most new managers do. Instead he retained Pat Rice. What he did do was to bring in Boro Primorac, who Wenger had worked with before, as ‘first team coach’. Primorac is a shadowy figure, whose contribution on matchday is not obvious, yet Arsene has retained him for 19 years. He must be playing an important role. I suspect he is the implementor of the fitness regime on a day-to-day basis. The Arsenal teams of the late 90s and early 00s, certainly seem to have had physical advantages over their opposition. Their pace and strength often seemed to overwhelm the opposition.
But football is not a closed world. Players and staff move from club to club, and there is constant press scrutiny. So, if you are doing something that gives you an advantage, you can expect to be copied in due course, even if you are as private as Primorac. Over the years, other teams emulated Arsenal’s regimes and maybe even moved ahead. Alex Ferguson has commented several times on how he studied Wenger’s methods. Certainly the game of football seems to have become faster and more physical over the last 15 years, and many commentators have made this observation. Wenger is also widely credited with changing the English game after his arrival.
By the late 00s, our teams looked comparatively frail in a physical sense, and the injuries started to mount up. Many fans have complained that referees failed to protect the Arsenal teams of this period, and there is truth in this complaint, but it also strikes me that Martin Keown, Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit didn’t need anyone to protect them. Perhaps, over time, Arsenal lost the edge that the Wenger/Primorac training regime bought to North London in the late 90s. Maybe Forsythe has come in and helped reinforce the physical conditioning regime, thereby helping Arsenal to catch back up with the other teams. Maybe Arsenal are even a little bit ahead again?
Really this article is quite speculative, and could be totally wrong. However it does seem to me that we have seen significant improvements in strength and conditioning at Arsenal since Forsythe arrived. Those improvements appear to date from about six months after his arrival, much as one might expect, and seem to have affected some players more than others. I have no insider insight into Arsenal’s strength and conditioning regimes. I suspect that we will find out more about Shad Forsythe in the years to come. After all, as observed above, football is an open world. But certainly, something unusual is going on at Arsenal. Long may it continue.