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Untold Injury Review of the Season: The First Team, and how it is impossible to stay fit all season.

Untold Arsenal on Twitter @UntoldArsenal

Untold Injury Review of the Season – Part 4, The First Team

By Dale Higginbottom

Here we are again, more injury stats and this time more specifically, injuries to the first team, the typical starting eleven.

In part three I put together the lists of the most used players by each team to create their most common starting eleven. Using these I’m now going to show just how often these “first-choice” players have been unavailable for selection through injury.

Firstly we’ll look at the players in the first eleven who have been available all season, that is, players who have effectively been fit for every league game during the 2010/2011 campaign. Some of these players may not have been selected, been at the birth of a child, or been suspended for a few games during the season but the table below shows the players who have not missed a single Premier League game as a result of a reported injury.

Team # of injury-free players Who?
Man Utd 0
Tottenham 0
Arsenal 1 Wilshere
Man City 2 Hart, Milner
Chelsea 3 Cech, Malouda, Cole
Liverpool 4 Reina, Skrtel, Lucas, Maxi/Suarez*

*(Maxi was not injured up until the point he was replaced in the starting eleven by Suarez)

Now, whilst this information doesn’t in any way show the extent to which the first team players were injured during the season, it does show just how many players have had injury-free league campaigns. In total 10 out of 66 players have been injury-free this season and we can’t even come close to making a team out of those as 3 of the 10 were goalkeepers. Put another way, a first choice Premier League player for a top six club has a 15% (15.15%) chance of having an injury-free league campaign. This drops to 12% (11.66%) when looking at outfield players only.

I know that other players have gone the season without a reported injury (e.g. Arshavin, Chamakh) but it’s the players that would usually play week in, week out that are putting more stress on their bodies and are probably more at risk of injury.

Personally, even though I’ve been collecting this data all season, I hadn’t really realised just how difficult it is for players to stay fit for an entire season. We’ve all noted how van Persie seems to struggle to get through a season uninjured but maybe that’s just the norm for a top Premier League player in 2011. If only 15% of players can be fit and available for an entire season then it must be quite unlikely that fans will ever see the first-choice eleven all fit at once for any game, let alone see them all fit for a big game against Man Utd or Chelsea when you arguably need them the most. (More on that in a bit)

That statistic really shows just how much the value of a good squad is in the Premier League in 2011. This is something that I think has slowly become an increasing issue as the game has become more physical, maybe not in terms of harsh tackles but in the need for players to run further, faster and more frequently. If we look back maybe 40, 30, 20, 10 even 5 years the necessity for deep squads was really not there (I’ve previously made comment about the Invincibles’ squad being on the thin side) so this new squad-depth requirement has proven to be something of an unwanted addition over recent years that maybe we didn’t foresee when the plans and financing of the Emirates were being drawn up.

On a similar vein (and going back to the point I made earlier), let’s look at the teams as a whole. Obviously we know that the first choice eleven of every team has suffered injuries but how many games has each club been able to select from all of their first eleven?

Team # Games with full 1st XI available Which Games? (by Gameweek)
Arsenal 0
Tottenham 1 1
Man Utd 1 38
Liverpool 4 1, 2, 3, 6
Chelsea 6 1, 2, 32, 35, 36, 37
Man City 13 1, 11, 12, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 25, 29, 37

The very interesting point here is that Arsenal has never been able to field their full strength eleven in a league game. In fact, there has been no game all season when Vermaelen, Fabregas and Nasri have all played together. This is obviously in stark contrast to Man City who finished only three points ahead of us, yet were able to field a first choice team on 13 occasions.

I need to just clarify that this is obviously excluding times when players were suspended or left out of the squad for other reasons such as form. This is purely a look to see if the manager’s typical “first choice” eleven were all available for selection and if any players were absent it was due to non-injury reasons.

Personally I would be surprised if City come anywhere close to repeating this feat next season. As we’ve seen with Tottenham’s injury woes this season, playing in the Champions League can have a massive impact on squad fitness and the additional games that require the club’s best players to play (unlike Europa League football) will certainly mean fewer league games where the best players have to be withdrawn through injury.

I think Chelsea might’ve been a little lucky to have six games with their full team available but I think the norm for a top-six Premier League team will be in the region of 1-5 games in the season, which isn’t that many come to think of it.

Finally, let’s look at the totals. The total number of injuries to the first eleven players (the five “star” players plus the 6 others).

Stars 1st Team Total 1st Team
Tottenham 73 45 118
Arsenal 64 33 97
Man Utd 17 58 75
Liverpool 37 29 66
Chelsea 21 30 51
Man City 10 28 38

So, here are just the raw actual totals for each team and one interesting thing here is that the top three remain the same as when comparing the whole squads (from the last article) but the bottom three have switch around a bit. Man City, who were fourth in total squad injuries with 145 are now a distant last.

The difference between the top and the bottom is huge, which is quite something considering that these two teams were fighting it out for the final Champions League spot for so long. Man City had first team injury levels that were 32% that of Tottenham and 39% that of Arsenal. I say this again, with Champions League football to contend with, City will not be in the same position next season.

United were quite lucky on the injuries to their star players, significantly fewer that the two teams above them but I wonder how thinks may have been a little tighter if say Vidic and Van der Sar had the sorts of injuries that Vermaelen and Fabianski had to contend with last season.

Now putting in the values from the last article, where the star players’ injuries are valued 25% higher, we get the following table.

Stars 1st Team Total 1st Team Value
Tottenham 91.25 45 136.25
Arsenal 80 33 113
Man Utd 21.25 58 79.25
Liverpool 46.25 29 75.25
Chelsea 26.25 30 56.25
Man City 12.5 28 40.5

Tottenham still top but now the difference between top and bottom is greater due to City having very few injuries to their star players. The gap has also stretched between North London and the rest, due to the far superior injury levels in the “star” category.

Liverpool are also now a lot closer to United and that further shows the value of having a deep squad (1st Vs 6th in the league).

I think the main thing that comes out of this is that teams competing in the Champions League are at greater risk of getting injuries to their key players, their “first-choice” eleven. Carling Cup, FA Cup and Europa League games usually are games in which the big clubs can rest their players so maybe this coming season will be one in which we see Liverpool and Tottenham with slightly fewer injuries than last season and City with a few more. I would also be surprised if Chelsea don’t suffer a few more; last season must have been a fluke.

About goats, the rain gods, and a new Ivorian striker: Going to the 1.FC Köln

The press have been saying for at least 8 years that top players will leave Arsenal.  But when did we first hear that claim?

At least don’t blame his bust

We have a definite link between buying a club and match fixing: why journalists in the UK are not as exercised by the issue as those in other countries

Arsenal History

The Wenger Years reaches the cup win in 2003 and the statements that the top players were leaving

Making the Arsenal: the story of 1910

17 comments to Untold Injury Review of the Season: The First Team, and how it is impossible to stay fit all season.

  • Justin G

    Interesting stuff. I wonder if somebody who follows La Liga could do the same type of research and then compare it to the Premier League to see if injuries affect the English clubs more than the supposedly softer La Liga.

  • WalterBroeckx

    Wow, impressing article and data. I know that keeping up with all those numbers for a whole season is a very difficult and time consuming thing to do. But when at the end you can see all these kind of data it really is worth the trouble.
    So thanks Dale.

  • WalterBroeckx

    It brings another way of looking at the season. Because having a high number of injured players doesn’t stop when they are back. No because after the injury it can take some time for a player to come back to his best. But this is something that I think cannot be measured?

  • nicky

    The whole matter of industrial injuries to professional footballers is intriguing. Here we have highly trained young men, carefully looked after by qualified coaches, physios, masseurs, dieticians and medicos, yet injuries abound,for instance particularly in the groin area.
    OK, their bodies are subjected to a lot of stress (much of which is in training,I suspect) but unlike both rugby codes, association football is not overly physical.It seems as though footballers are similar to top quality race horses who, although trained to perfection, are still subject to the slightest bodily malfunction.
    Sunday morning pub players must wonder how they manage to cope with a whole season uninjured…it must be their diet.

  • Domhuaille MacMathghamhna

    The elephant in the room not mentioned here is the club’s style of play and their opponenet’s response to it. Arsenal and the Spuds both have similar pass and run games and similar attack-minded/oriented philosophies. They also coincidentally(?)have the two highest injury stats! I would like to know what these two clubs’ injury record is against the all EPL teams. My bet would be on Stoke,Bolton and Birmingham having the highest records of causing injuries to us and the Spuds?

  • Shard

    Arsenal and Spurs have the same style of play?? Sorry Dom but you are completely wrong about that. Spurs are a total long ball team.

  • Ugandan Goon

    @Shard & Dom,
    ……”Spurs are a total long ball team” or something. They are managed by harry redknapp, end of?
    But i think the only link between us and them is a certain Daniel commolli, now at Liverpool. They had an inside track on our transfer targets and bought smaller, more skill full types while football in England is largely agricultural in its nature- hence the similar injury record.
    We need better referees, we need direct action- banners, outside the stadia anything to get this into the mainstream media, we know they haven’t got the balls to start it themselves, i am starting on my “dowd is a c**t” range of T- shirts, flags, toilet paper, paper plates, beer mats, beach towels etc- there is an issue with the amount of pornographic content but i am seeking a happy balance between my true feelings about this guy and serious thought crime.

  • Ed

    thanks for some great analysis. I think it would also be interesting to compare to 10 years ago, or even 20 years ago if data is available. However, i do understand the difficulty due to the lower number of games played.

    The reason is thinking if some of these “injuries” are psychological as much as anything. Nothing against those with broken legs, ligament damage etc. but there are some who have “strains” or “niggles” which prevent them playing for 1 or 2 games.

    Whilst i do not want to question the players and it is up to them and arsenal what the long term risks are, i can’t help but feel players like Keown, Adams, Vieira etc. would have played through the pain?

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    Spurs aren’t a long ball team but neither are they a possession focused side. I think their wide players collect a lot of injuries and fouls due to their direct running style of play.
    Our injuries are almost certainly to do with our opponents tactics and the need to bring back key players half fit. Our system is designed around particular players and chopping and changing makes it appear dramatically worse.

  • Arvind

    I remember a point someone else made on another forum a few years back..which made sense. The pass and move game is the most mentally intensive; because you’re thinking..all the time. It depends on player intelligence on the pitch…so tactics and training can only get you so far. And sometimes, as it is with life, you can tend to think too much in football….and expend more energy doing so. That means you will have lesser energy for the physical side of things. But those have to be done as well…so your body is at its limit all the time..and hence more injuries. That .. plus the relentless twisting and turning cant do the muscles much good…add to that the tactics of the opposition as many have mentioned above…and there you have it – more injuries. Long ball team = lesser injuries.

    I wonder how many injuries Barca suffer; that would give us more insight into how much opposition tactics matter.

  • Arvind

    No Spurs aren’t long ball..definitely..never have been. Yes they have big target men in Crouch and Pavlyuchenko but it sort of ends there. They do try and play..always. I quite enjoy watching be a footballing side. And no.. I’m not from London ;)…

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    Not too sure about how mentally demanding playing football really is, I would think loss of coordination caused by depleted neurotransmitters would be minor compared to build-up of lactic acid in the muscles for instance.
    In my opinion the three primary causes of injury would be:
    Uneven poor quality playing surface;
    Primary and secondary trauma (impact with another player, falling over as a result);
    Existing injuries.

  • Arvind

    @Woolwich: Maybe there’s a point there, but then again – wouldn’t you say that a pass and move team like Barca or us need to think more with and without the ball? More than any of those long ball teams?

    If that is the case and there is thought involved; logically that should be a factor as well. And mental work is equally draining IMO .. in a different way. Just my thoughts..

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    No doubt, I expect the Barca players come off the pitch struggling to remember their own names. God knows the struggle to remember which club holds Cesc Fabregas’ registration…

  • Shard

    75 — Number of long balls per game by Tottenham

    82 — Number of Long balls per game by League leaders Birmingham

    45 — Number of long balls per game by Arsenal (20th)

    Spurs are a long ball team. Don’t let the media fool you into thinking they are anything but. I can’t be bothered to look up their passing stats now but just look at any pitch maps at the guardian website and you’ll see a big hole in the centre midfield in terms of passes. Go long and win a knockdown, or go long to the flanks and cross to the big men is ALL they do.

  • Arvind

    That’s an interesting stat Shard..thanks. I did however watch a few games..snippets mostly where Modric did control a lot of the play. Anyway..this is an Arsenal site .. so… 😉

  • Pete

    Hi Guys,

    Fantastic site – keep up the good work.

    I wrote an article for the Online Gooner at the end of 2009/10 season assessing our injury record. I calculated from published data that, at any one time, 30% of the 1st team squad were unavailable through injury. Not only is this unavailability likely to be unbalanced (e.g. all the GKs out at the same time) but, as Walter comments, players take a while to get up to match sharpness when they come back. I defy anyone to demonstrate any football team ever that has suffered so badly!

    2010/11 was slightly better but still dreadful. To my mind injuries are the biggest problem at Arsenal.

    Surfeit of injuries could be due to one or more of:

    – Our quick one-touch passing style of play: This invites late tackles.

    – The smaller average size of our players. This makes them less robust(?) and also invites a physical approach from the opposition.

    – Lack of protection from referees. Contentious!

    – The turf at our home stadium – do the artificial fibres reduce the give? You never see divot marks at home games… However I haven’t tried to analyse where injuries are incurred (predominantly home or away?) Certainly the deterioration in our injury situation seems vaguely related to the move to the new stadium.

    – The relative youth of our players. Does this make them less robust?

    – Poor fitness/conditioning training and poor medical care. There have been a couple of comments that, while 10 years ago we were at the forefront, we haven’t moved forward and other clubs have at least moved level with us.

    – The fact that both the doctor and the physio are relatively new and inexperienced. Has this impacted the quality of medical care?

    – Bad luck.

    Anyway, we seem to be in fairly good shape so far pre-season (Conor Henderson excepted – but he is not yet a 1st team squad member) and we always seem to do better when there has no been no World Cup or Euros in the close season (all Wenger League Titles were prior to rather than post a major international tournament). So lets hope for an easier time this season…