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How clubs and countries manage players’ injuries and fitness together

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Shortly after the last European Championship, a Leeds United supporter won a charity auction for a golf day with Kalvin Phillips. The winning bid was substantial, a few thousand pounds, and Phillips got himself organised one Saturday night, ready to play the next morning.

When the time came to tee off, he was nowhere to be seen. Phillips had gone to Leeds’ training ground instead to complete an extra running session arranged for him at short notice. Apologies were made and the round went ahead without him, money raised for good causes regardless.

The reason for the midfielder’s late withdrawal? Phillips had been on international duty with England, part of the side who reached the final of Euro 2020, and when he resumed training with Leeds, his weight readings were over the limit set by his then-coach, Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa’s targets were exceptionally strict. The England camp did not crack the whip with quite as much ferocity. Phillips was made to run and run, until he came in under the red line. Additional training took precedence over 18 holes of golf.

That scenario highlights two things. The first is the way in which clubs lose a degree of control when players join up with national squads. The second is how useful it is to be able to monitor the well-being of those players as closely as possible when they are away.

The USA play the Netherlands in the last 16 of the World Cup this Saturday and injuries to Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic in their final group game against Iran threatened implications for their chances of progressing further in the competition. But as the USMNT’s coaching team awaited updates, medical staff at the players’ clubs — Norwich City and Chelsea respectively — would have been equally keen for the results of scans and assessments to filter through to them. The same was true of the ankle problem sustained by England and Tottenham’s Harry Kane last week.

Harry Kane holds his ankle during England’s win over Iran (Photo: Getty Images)

Conflict between the interests of a club and the needs of an international coach has always existed but this year, and for this World Cup, the condition of footballers who appear in Qatar is more critical than ever. There was little over a week between the Premier League pausing and the World Cup beginning last Sunday. England’s Carabao Cup resumes 48 hours after the final in Lusail on December 18, and the Premier League season kicks off again the following Monday.

FIFPro, the world players union, recently compiled a report on the workload facing its members over the course of an unprecedented 12-month cycle. Its findings showed that on almost every front — minutes played, days of rest allocated, preparation time available — the 2022-23 season with the World Cup in the middle of it was flogging those involved harder than at any point in the past. Players were being “forcefully pushed beyond their limits”, FIFPro’s report said, calling for “effective player workload safeguards and a responsible calendar solution that protects player health and supports player performance”. On the ground, many in the game want the same. 

How, then, do clubs in England and beyond ensure that their internationals come back from Qatar in one piece and good shape? How much can they control training loads and playing time and what levels of cooperation should they expect from national associations when it comes to accessing and sharing physical data? Are countries open with their stats and are there any back doors into them, ways in which a club can track fitness and conditioning and look for red flags? How has science helped quell the club-versus-country arguments that have been a staple diet of international football for years on end?

Managing data at international level is sensitive. National coaches are aware of a certain duty to club managers but when international fixtures come around, they want the freedom to pick squads and line-ups without interference or undue pressure. Associations are mindful of the fact that in any given squad, the spread of represented clubs is very wide — and in a squad like England’s, where the majority of players are called up from the Premier League, domestic rivalry is something to manage, a potential cause of arguments and grievances.

When Jose Mourinho was manager of Manchester United, the Football Association was using sports science and coaching staff from various Premier League teams on a part-time basis. They included a masseur from Manchester City and, more significantly, Chelsea’s assistant manager, Steve Holland. Mourinho looked at this and saw their presence on the international scene as a potential advantage for the clubs who employed them week to week. In theory, injury news or delicate physical data relating to players in Mourinho’s Manchester United team could be pocketed and used to influence domestic matches. Whether or not that amounted to unfair paranoia, the FA heard the complaints and accepted that a conflict of interest was possible. Senior posts became full-time. Holland left Chelsea to become Southgate’s permanent No 2 in 2017.

Generally, though, clubs and countries have a strong relationship when it comes to managing footballers’ health and trading performance stats. Data has changed many of those relationships for the better because numbers in black and white demonstrate how hard or otherwise a player has been pushed. According to one analyst with knowledge of Gareth Bale’s time at Tottenham, the ability to feed back numbers was helpful in maintaining good terms between Spurs and Wales’ backroom staff.

Bale could be injury prone and there was a natural fear at Tottenham that Wales would handle him differently to them, raising the risk of him returning with a problem. Wales, for their part, knew Bale was world class and crucial to their success. Agreements would be made about how much he would train and how many minutes he would get. If he did pick up a knock or a strain, Wales could placate Tottenham by showing them the exact load he had been carrying. Spurs in turn could not argue with the output. “It was a good way of diffusing things before an argument even started,” the analyst told The Athletic.

That approach is common these days and an employee with a leading data analytics firm, who asked not to be named for reasons of confidentiality, said that before major tournaments, clubs are in the habit of packaging up and sending data files for each of their selected players to the relevant countries. The information paints a picture of the current state of their fitness and their typical training load at club level. It highlights any injuries they have suffered and explains how those injuries were or are being treated. It is helpful for associations but it also draws a line in the sand by presenting a country’s sports science department with cold, hard data. If a footballer is subsequently overloaded and pulls a hamstring, his national coach cannot say he did not have the stats. “That’s when clubs get upset and people fall out,” the employee said. “If you ignore the data, you’re taking risks.”

In 2019, Steven Gerrard — then-manager of Rangers — and Scotland coach Steve Clarke argued publicly over the treatment of Rangers midfielder Ryan Jack. Jack, Gerrard revealed, was managing a knee injury and the Scottish FA had been told about it in advance of the call-up. Nonetheless, he was promptly put through a double training session in which he covered 11km. The intensity of the schedule, or the perceived intensity of it, angered Gerrard but Clarke insisted the distances covered had been inflated by set-piece practice. He said the latter part of training “wasn’t a session where we put a lot of load into the players’ legs” and denied being unreasonable.

Steven Gerrard and Steve Clarke were at loggerheads over the fitness of Ryan Jack (Photo: Getty Images)

“In a sense, the data allowed Clarke to defend himself,” the analyst told The Athletic. “It probably won’t have satisfied Gerrard but what you can do now is point to the numbers and say, ‘Listen, this is what we actually did on the day, or over a few days, and this is the physical impact it had’. It’s not just a case of a club manager being able to decide what’s gone on without the stats demonstrating otherwise. You’re not in the dark. But even so, these arguments do happen from time to time.”

More and more, club managers and sports science staff understand the value of building up relationships with counterparts in the international game. Several people who spoke to The Athletic said positive channels of communication behind the scenes were essential in avoiding competing agendas from colliding.

Countries, as a rule, do not open up data to clubs while a tournament like the World Cup is going on. Most collate it when a competition concludes and send it on, to help clubs rest and reintegrate footballers sensibly. National staff are obligated to pass on news of injuries and to discuss treatment plans or travel home in the case of tournament-ending setbacks. Clubs often foot the bill for private jets, or air ambulances in the case of serious problems, to spare associations the cost.

Some medical employees on either side of the fence will either have worked together before or crossed paths during their careers. Email and WhatsApp make interaction very easy. What clubs cannot control, though, is the speed with which problems are relayed to them. “Some tell you sooner than others,” said one Premier League official. In that respect, injuries differ from discipline. Certain breaches of discipline on international duty are never reported to clubs. Some national coaches have been known to use those breaches to their advantage, leaving a player in their debt in return for saying nothing.

Data companies themselves treat international stats with high levels of confidentiality, ensuring they are kept strictly in-house or anonymised in certain circumstances to stop leaks or misuse, even though levels of trust are fairly high. What they cannot control is the growing appetite of players themselves to track their data and follow their own physical performance. If a club wants to know how much load a footballer is carrying, that footballer can tell them on the quiet. “There’s no doubt that this happens,” said the data employee, “and some clubs will actively try to make it happen because these days, players are so on top of what data looks like and means.

“In reality, 95 per cent of the time this isn’t an issue because it’s not as if the vast majority of players aren’t looked after well by their countries. Most go back to their clubs in decent shape. But if you know the right people you can find out most things.

“A lot of the data industry is interconnected. They’ve studied together, worked together, met at seminars, that sort of thing. Everyone knows you have to be careful, that there are limits, but put it this way: if a club has a concern about someone or suspects something isn’t being handled well, there are ways of looking into it without going in with two feet first. In reality, though, clubs and countries try hard to cooperate.”

What everyone agrees on is that a club being seen to meddle during a World Cup on that scale is not a good look. While some international friendlies seem pointless or unnecessary, attitudes change when a major honour is at stake, as it was for England in the final of the Euros last summer. It is merely the case, as Phillips found last year, that once national duty is done, the priorities of clubs come into sharp focus again, and never more rapidly than they will when the World Cup wraps up next month.

Many domestic seasons will depend on how the elite players emerge from Qatar.

(Photo: Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images)

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