A few things in life are guaranteed in the month of November:
- You’ll get exactly 30 days.
- Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving.
- Arsenal will have their worst month in the Premier League season.
There’ve been a few theories about why this is, but like Jose Mourinho losing to managers with surnames starting with the letter ‘P,’ some of these things are difficult to show or prove logically, technically or scientifically. Either way, the numbers are there for all to see (thanks to the excellent @Orbinho of Opta). Interestingly, in Arsène Wenger’s 19 and a half seasons at the club, this is the worst November of all the bad Novembers in terms of number of points gained – this year beats 2009 and 1997’s tally of 3 by a solitary point.
Personally, I don’t really give a lot of attention to this kind of stats even though sometimes they are fascinating. What’s more important, as the saying goes, is how you finish, so I’m more interested in where the team will be on the league table in May (cue the famous quote about when Wenger prefers to be judged).
The other issue that gains a bit of momentum around this time of year is injuries. And every season, everyone from bloggers to Dutch fitness experts either try to explain what the cause is, or they join the bandwagon of those blaming the manager for that year’s crisis, which is an easy thing to do when you neither have all the facts in front of you nor the expertise to accurately analyse the information even if you did have it. Now and then we get a novel idea of where exactly the problem may lie, but generally it all regresses to the mean about the small physical size of Arsenal’s technical players, or the standard ‘outdated training methods’ retort.
A perspective that I found interesting came from former Arsenal strongman Martin Keown. In an article for the Daily Mail he said the following:
“Towards the end of my career at Arsenal we trained on a hybrid surface — artificial fibres combined with grass — that replicated the pitch at Highbury. It looked like a snooker table and was very stable but it was too firm for me… Every player is different but I suffered with back problems, particularly with jumping and landing. I don’t know what they use these days but training day in, day out, on a firm surface can take its toll.”
It’s a passing thought from a former player which seems to have been glossed over, and understandably so as it isn’t some earth-shattering discovery that will solve the club’s injury problems. But, since even the club’s own inquisition, which cost a fair bit of money I’d imagine, yielded little to no fruit (besides perhaps the gift that was Shad Forsythe, bless him), perhaps the answer has been right under everyone’s noses all along…at London Colney.
What Keown describes above, as I understand it, is what is known as a Desso pitch. The simple description is that it’s a hybrid surface consisting of roughly 3% to 5% artificial fibres that intertwine with the natural grass giving it a firmer, more durable and easier to drain pitch. Desso – interestingly a manufacturer of commercial carpets – provide a more detailed description on their site and a list clubs who have installed their GrassMaster product.
If so many other stadiums have Desso pitches, what is special about Arsenal’s use of this system? Well, I had to go back a year and one and a half months to make what I think is the ground breaking link we’re all looking for. (Of course this isn’t a completely new theory, but please humour me).
Tickets for any team in Europe – Barca or Madrid under 70 quid (Click above)
Those of you who frequent the club website’s Arsenal Player may be familiar with The Breakdown where Adrian Clarke (top man!) analyses the weekend’s game. During international breaks, with no league football played, they do a few behind-the-scenes features in and around the club. Last year during the October interlull, they did a tour of the training ground with facilities manager, Sean O’ Connor. This is what he said about Arsenal’s use of Desso pitches:
“We have ten of the very highest standard fields. Of the ten we have five fields which mirror the Emirates, identical Desso fields…We’re definitely leading the way in grass, absolutely no doubt about it. No teams have the Desso pitches installed at their training grounds.”
On the face of it, it’s fairly logical that the club uses the same type of pitches at both the training ground and the stadium. You want the players to be familiar with the surface they play their matches on, while the other 5 fields are probably used to replicate pitches they would play on at away games.
What stands out here is that Arsenal is the first club (and the only one at the time) in the country to install the Desso innovation at their training ground (okay, since that training ground tour, Manchester City have also installed Desso GrassMaster at their new base). When you consider the amount of injuries we get every season, many of them being muscular and quite a few occurring at training, there’s a case for investigating the potential role that the fields our players are training on might play. We have to look at what we have or are doing that’s different to other clubs in order to better understand what might be hurting us (quite literally so in this case).
Is our use of Desso pitches at the training ground playing a role in the high rate of injury our players experience? We obviously can’t say for sure, but it’s worth having a look, especially in the light of Martin Keown’s comments. Correctly, he is not blaming the part-synthetic surface for his injury problems, but he does feel that there’s a chance that the firmer surface may have played its role. As he says in the article, it might work differently for different players. And of course as a central defender he would have done more jumping and landing than most other players on the pitch, aerial duel after aerial duel, so perhaps he was more exposed than others to any potentially harmful effects of the pitches.
Besides Arsenal, the other 2 English training grounds listed on Desso’s sports website are Manchester City’s academy and England’s St George’s Park. But the Independent did report last year that Louis van Gaal ordered new Desso GrassMaster pitches to be installed at Manchester United’s Carrington grounds before he commenced his tenure at the club. If indeed both Manchester training facilities use Desso pitches, it’s curious to note that both clubs (and England national teams who have also experienced a few injuries at training during international breaks) have had their own struggles with keeping players fit.
For a some time now, Arsene Wenger’s training methods have been blamed for Arsenal’s poor injury record. It has always seemed weird to me that the same methods that effectively revolutionised much of English football and extended the careers of the club’s old guard at the time would, within a few years, become the reason for half the team being decimated by injury every season. How have these methods gone from helpful to harmful all of a sudden?
It got me wondering: before the move to Colney and the installation of those Desso surfaces, was the club’s injury record as bad as it has been since the move? Considering that Keown can link his own injury issues to the introduction of this new surface (hey, it could very well have been the age starting to take its toll), would it be possible to compare Arsenal’s injury numbers under Wenger pre-Desso to post-Desso? I’m not sure how good the injury records in general were kept back then, but there may be some insights to be gleaned from that analysis.
I’ve heard people say they don’t care how many injuries other teams have, all that matters is how well Arsenal is dealing with their own set of circumstances. Those who think the injury table comparing clubs to each other is meaningless, this brilliant piece by Matt Scott from a year ago to the day might change your mind – amazing how exactly 12 months later the conversation is exactly the same. In that piece, he shows the inverse relationship between a team’s number/extent of injuries and league position/performance over the season. We don’t play our football in isolation, so we can’t look at our injury record in isolation either. The injury table/log provides the context of the league we’re playing in and how other clubs are performing on the same measure. Keeping tabs on where we are injury-wise gives us perspective.
This discussion might seem a little silly – how can a modern, innovative pitch be the reason for a team’s players getting injured so often? I have only focused on Desso’s offering – other clubs have their own suppliers and versions of synthetic and hybrid pitches (Chelsea use SISGRASS) which may or may not contribute to their players’ injuries. As a matter of course, I am not claiming that Desso pitches are to blame for Arsenal’s injury record, but the problem is probably somewhere between that, and the training routines, and muscle conditioning, and Spanglish being the dominant language spoken in the dressing room.
Injury prevention is not an exact science. You don’t plug in a set of variables and get a report on when and how a player will suffer an injury. It’s rather a balance of probabilities from sets of data that may indicate which players are at risk of injury, but can’t really predict how and when it will happen – of course a Stoke player could just shove you into the advertising hoardings while you’re still in the air and leave your shoulder dislocated. My hope is that one day we’ll able to look back and be grateful that injuries don’t derail our season any longer.