Previously accepted wisdom that players such as Ashley Cole need to keep on playing to avoid injury has been debunked in the laboratories of Milan and elsewhere
Two scenes: both minor-key tragedies from London's playhouses during the past week. First Ashley Cole's hamstring twanging like a misplayed guitar chord during Chelsea's FA Cup victory over Manchester United on Easter Monday. Then, three days later, Gareth Bale scooped on to an orange stretcher, arms crossed as if marking the spot, during Spurs' Europa League game against Basel.
Star players crocked, headlines written, physios' diagnoses followed up. And – in most cases – a dull acceptance: injuries are inevitable, shrug shoulders and move on. But are they? Few would dispute that raking an opponent's knee with the kamikaze violence of a gardener uprooting Japanese knotweed will threaten the toughest of ligaments – but what about non-impact twists, tears and sprains? Injuries such as Cole's?
Last Tuesday Ray Wilkins, one of football's more engaging analysts, blamed Cole's injury on Rafael Benítez's decision to rest him against Southampton two days' earlier. "I honestly feel he has to play all the time, Ashley," Wilkins confided, and chided. "He is one of these machines. You have to keep it well-oiled and it will fly. Had he played on Saturday, he wouldn't have done that."
Everything about Wilkins' response – language, imagery, and particularly the secondary school science diagnosis – could have come from Life on Mars. Teleport back 40 years and you could almost imagine a Brut 33-drenched Butch saying it at Chelsea, perhaps while handbrake-turning his Ford Capri into the King's Road and sending the fuzzy dice in his rear-view mirror flapping like Peter Bonetti at a deep cross.
His view is rooted in the days when playing on Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Easter Monday was the norm, and rotation was something practised only by arable farmers and gymnasts. Times have changed. Suspicion of tinkermen has given way to grudging acceptance: perhaps they are on to something after all.
But just how much science and data is altering how elite clubs anticipate and sometimes thwart certain injuries may surprise you. And two of Wilkins' alma maters — Milan and Manchester United – are leading the way.
After the Argentina midfielder Fernando Redondo suffered a career-ending injury while jogging on a treadmill at Milan – having aced a rigorous medical – the club asked two simple questions: can we stop this happening again, and if so, how? And so the Milan Lab was born.
Under Jean-Pierre Messerman, players underwent a battery of tests for 45 minutes every 15 days. Computers compared and cross-referenced data and scientists worked on algorithms to predict injury. If anything appeared unusual, individual training programmes were altered.
Results were impressive. Non-impact injuries fell sharply. Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta were able to play into their 40s. Doctors and data danced in tandem. "I supervised it but it was the work of mathematicians and engineers really," Messerman told me recently. "When we put the results of Redondo then into our system now, he comes out as a tremendously high risk."
The original Milan Lab project was hugely expensive, but they will soon make it cheaper and more time-efficient. From next season players will be tested every day for six minutes before training, with computers immediately red-flagging anyone at risk. "It boils down to a few simple tests," explains Messerman. "Anybody could buy the equipment for £30,000–40,000."
Just over five years ago, United decided to model their approach to sports science on Milan's. But quietly and impressively they have found their own way.
According to Tony Strudwick, United's head of fitness and conditioning, they monitor 29 variables that may increase a player's susceptibility to injury – ranging from cumulative minutes played and trained to heart-rate variability and metabolic power – across roughly 200 training sessions and 50 matches a season. "Sometimes two or three players will be pulled out just before training," he told the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit, adding: "If we are not using the data it is pointless collecting it."
Strudwick pointed out that for teams playing in the Champions League, peak injury incidence came between November and January, before positing that the lack of natural vitamin D in winter months was worth examining.
United have also noticed that certain players suffer not only an immediate post-game dip but also another two or three days later – which can pose difficulties when matches come along in, say, a Sunday-Wednesday-Saturday-Tuesday cycle. But everyone is different. "It's now about micromanaging individuals," explained Studwick. "The data lets you manage where everyone is at."
This isn't just about football. At Leicester Tigers for instance Andy Shelton – the head of sport science – is piloting a scheme, using three years of historical data and a control group, to predict injuries. "Ninety-four per cent of Leicester Tigers' game days missed are down to injury," he says. "This season when we have run our control group and not intervened we have predicted 50% of injuries."
Tiredness is usually a significant factor. "Fatigue acts against the strength of the tissue," says Shelton. "It's like if you take a sheet of paper and micro-tear it repeatedly: it's going to take a lot less force to rip it completely."
Which brings us neatly back to Wilkins, who reckoned Cole's injury was caused by not playing frequently enough. In more cases, however, the reverse is true.