Misfortune, myth or neglect? Arsenal's injury problems investigated
In recent years, Arsenal have been cursed with massive injury setbacks to key players, being labelled ‘fragile’ in comparison to other teams on similar competitive levels. There is no doubt Arsenal suffer more injuries than most teams in the Premier League (as this article will show), but many theories exists as to why this is the case, and it’s time to find out.
This article will – with the help of researched data and professional opinion from physiotherapist Tom Goom – attempt to draw some conclusions from the ever-growing injury list at Arsenal and the best way to counter this problem in the future. The club opened a new medical centre at Colney in 2011 (specialising on long-term injury treatment), so measures are already being taken to solve our injury problems, but what more can be done? And what are the most common theories as to why we suffer so many injuries?
Before we begin, I just want to point out that injury statistics for this article were collected from PhysioRoom.com – a site focused on sports injuries and medical equipment, co-founded by Arsenal’s own assistant physiotherapist David Wales. The stats collected from PhysioRoom.com were then combined with performance data from Opta to translate the data into meaningful numbers.
Keep in mind that PhysioRoom.com obviously doesn’t have the level of in-depth information about exact injuries and lengths that the corresponding clubs would have on record. Exact number of injuries and length might vary from case to case, but since all the data came from the same source, we can assume that the margin of error is the same for all teams.
Gilles Grimandi – ‘Possession Theory’
When asked about our injuries, former Arsenal midfielder-turned-scout Gilles Grimandi had his own guess about the problem. His assumption was that since Arsenal have more possession than other teams, we will always receive more tackles as the opposition team is trying to win the ball back. My first reaction was that this sounds like a plausible explanation; several minor problems combine into a big one.
The exact quote was:
We have so many injuries because we keep hold of the ball more than other teams and this exposes the team to more knocks from opponents. It is also because we have a lot of small-sized players, and the fact we take part in so many competitions increases risk of injury.
This theory is divided into four main problem areas – possession, tackles, player size and exhaustion. But let’s break it down even further and see if statistics support some, or all, of these claims.
Do we sustain more injuries in matches with higher possession rates?
We must be careful when answering this one, as we have to take into account that Arsenal usually have high possession rates in all games, even against stronger opposition. But in general the answer is no; in 2008-2009, the average possession in matches leading to injuries was lower than the overall average possession rate of the season (55.7% vs 59%). And in 2009-2010 it was the same story; average possession in matches leading to injuries was lower than the overall season average possession (58.5% vs 60%).
Is our injury rate equivalent to other clubs with similar possession rates?
The only way to see if possession has anything to do with injury counts is to compare numbers with other Premier League clubs. I avoided making comparisons with teams in other leagues, as the cultural differences in tackles and approach might distort the relevant numbers. If possession has anything to do with injuries, we should see less damage at clubs that usually have low possession rates, and vice versa.
In the 2011-2012 season there were several teams with similar possession rates – Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea and Swansea were all above 55% average at the time this section was written, and although Man Utd was leading the injury list at this stage, Swansea hardly had any injuries, and Man City had none at all. If the problem was solely connected to high possession rates, we’d see a correlation between average possession and injury count. Man City are proving the theory wrong by being at the top of the possession list, but at the bottom of the injury list.
Are Arsenal subjected to more tackles/fouls than other clubs?
As I started researching these numbers, I quickly realised that it might be irrelevant to compare tackles with other teams if the amount of tackles sustained didn’t follow the same curve as injuries sustained. This is the only area where there should actually be a logical interaction between numbers that should affect each other.
Although this is the clearest connection yet, it’s logical that more tackles translates into more injuries. So the next step is to see if Arsenal receives more tackles than other teams. In 2009-2010 (which was the worst injury season in last ten seasons), Arsenal conceded the second-most fouls per game in the Premier League. Only Everton conceded more fouls.
And as David Wall confirms, Arsenal have suffered by far the most tackles in the Premier League in the last five seasons – 4,938 tackles in total, compared to second-placed Chelsea with 4,423 and third-placed Spurs with 4,355.
Is there a correlation between amount of matches played and injuries?
No. Using a linear trendline in a graph showing injuries and matches played since 2002-2003, these two values (matches played and injuries) are actually moving away from each other, indicating that Arsenal players are more likely to sustain injuries in seasons with fewer matches. However…
…the most logical conclusion is that the effect is actually mirrored, and that it’s actually the amount of injuries affecting the length of the season. More injuries means Arsenal won’t go as far in cup competitions. So the claim ‘more games = more injuries’ is misleading – it’s actually ‘more injuries = less games’.
But take a look at what Gilles Grimandi said again – he didn’t actually claim that more games was to blame for injuries, but that taking part in many competitions was the problem. You can interpret that as ‘more matches’, but what he probably refers to is fixture congestion; playing many games in a short time span.
Having three days between matches is standard among the top clubs, so instead I counted the amount of fixture congestions where Arsenal had only two days (or less) to rest in between matches. Combined with matches played and possession rates, a theory as to why we had our worst injury record in the 2009-2010 season presented itself: we had the highest amount of two-day congestion fixtures, highest amount of matches played and a very high possession rate in the season before (2008-2009) – leading me to believe that strains carried over from the previous year.
This theory could be questioned though, as the percentage of injuries in the first half of the 2009-2010 season (1 Aug – 31 Dec) was 57.8% of the season total – quite a lot more than the 51.4% we saw in first half of 2008-2009. Injuries carrying over from a previous year would most likely manifest itself by fatigue and exhaustion towards the end of the season, not at the start of it. And this theory doesn’t apply to any of the other seasons either.
John Cross – ‘Misfortune + Lack Of Depth Theory’
Eternal optimist and tabloid journo John Cross came up with his own theory not so long ago in The Mirror, claiming Arsenal’s injury problems were down to players not being good enough, and players having streaks of bad luck. This all sounds like nonsense as usual, but let’s take a look at the claim and see if stats and numbers can disprove this theory.
The exact quote was:
The problem at Arsenal is highlighted more than when other members of the top four suffer injuries because, generally, the squad is not as strong and the replacements tend not to be the calibre of full internationals that Manchester United can call upon.” […] Van Persie getting injured regularly can’t be down to Arsenal’s medical staff. More that some players just seem to suffer bad luck.
So in this case the theory is divided into three main areas – squad depth, squad quality and misfortune. Again we can break it down further to see if statistics support this theory.
Do statistics allow for luck to be taken into account?
Unfortunately, this is more of a philosophical question, as it’s hard to determine what kind of margin we should allow as the ‘misfortune’ value. But I will say that since Arsenal have consistently stayed on top (first or second place) of the injury table every single Premier League season since 2002-2003 (and maybe before that, our records only stretch to 2002), the idea of being “unlucky” seems far-fetched.
Luck (or lack of it) isn’t constant. It fluctuates randomly, and is the result of chance, not of someone’s actions. If misfortune was a factor, there would be at least one season in the last 8-9 years where Arsenal aren’t at the top of the injury list.
John Cross also mentions Van Persie, and I found some interesting numbers when comparing him with the ‘big four’ strikers in the last few years (Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba):
It’s somewhat surprising to see that Van Persie, with all his injury problems, haven’t actually been more injured than these other top strikers. With 23 injuries in total, Rooney is leading the charts by a mile above Drogba in second place with 18 injuries. However, the numbers can be misleading, as lengthy injury spells means the other players have time to pick up more injuries.
Are the ‘top five’ club player ratings higher across the depth of the squad?
The answer is no. I’ve only researched 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, but numbers show that Arsenal have an equally-sized or smaller squad than both Man Utd and Liverpool (calculated from players used in the Premier League), but still suffer more injuries on average than all other teams in the Premier League – and also receive similar ratings over at WhoScored.com.
Numbers also show that Arsenal have more players above a 6.75 rating than Man City and Liverpool, and that 12 different Arsenal players were awarded a Man of the Match award, compared to only 9 different players at Man Utd and Man City. This proves that Arsenal players are usually highly rated across the depth of the squad – second only to Man Utd, and level with Chelsea in 2009-2010.
If we take a look at players rated 7.00 or above, Man Utd and Chelsea slightly lead the ‘top five’ clubs with 9 players each, while Arsenal and Liverpool are level with 7 players each in 2009-2010. The difference of two players isn’t exactly mind-blowing, so the conclusion here is that Arsenal players don’t perform worse across the depth of the squad than any of the other ‘top five’ clubs.
Do Arsenal have less “full” internationals than the other top 5 clubs?
I’m not sure what John Cross is referring to when he says “full” international. He does say “calibre of full internationals”, so it seems to be another comment about squad depth, rather than international status or reputation.
The ‘Gary Lewin’ Theory
Many have contacted me about this theory, and although I was suspicious at first, when collecting the numbers I was surprised at the results. The theory is that when Gary Lewin left Arsenal in 2008, our quality in the medical department took a hit, and more players became injured as a result. Initial thought was just another conspiracy theory, but hard to argue against these numbers:
Before Gary Lewin left the club, our yearly (August to August) average amount of injuries was 59.4, but in the year following Lewin’s departure, our average skyrocketed to 76.3 per year – a 28% difference. However, there is an increase of injuries across all teams around 2008-2009, so it could be a result of outside factors like a change in leniency from refs, for example.
What does the Physio say? (by Tom Goom)
Finding one key variable in Arsenal’s injury record is a near impossible task. It’s far more likely that this is a multi-factorial problem which makes it much harder to fully understand. Arsenal were involved in the UEFA injury study published in 2011, which looked at injury data from 50 top European teams. The research found that, a player has two injuries on average over a season. So with a squad of 25 players you’d expect around 50 injuries per season. According to the data from PhysioRoom.com, Arsenal averaged 66.2 injuries per season between 2002 and 2011 (the worst season being 2009-2010, when we had 86 injuries in total).
While we appear to have more injuries, I wonder if it’s who gets injured that really makes our injury problem appear worse. In recent years we’ve had long injury lay-offs for Van Persie, Eduardo, Diaby, Ramsey, Walcott, Wilshere, Vermaelen and Rosicky – all players involved in the first team, most would have been part of our best starting XI. The impact of these injuries will be massive compared to losing a squad player and yet the numbers will be the same. We’ve also tended to lose multiple players in one or two key positions; last season’s unprecedented loss of full backs being a good example. Previously we’ve found ourselves incredibly short of centre backs or forced to play Arshavin upfront on his own as all our strikers were injured simultaneously.
The ‘who’ rather than the ‘how many’ also has an impact on the rehab process. If you have no full backs then you have to rush them back before they’re ready and risk injury recurrence – see Sagna at the end of the season, or Cesc pulling his hamstring again coming off the bench to score against Aston Villa.
Look at the previously mentioned players again; they’re all also international players – Van Persie’s ankle injury occurred on international duty, as did Vermaelen’s ankle problem, and Wilshere first felt his ankle playing for England against Switzerland. We know fatigue plays a part in injury and the UEFA study confirmed this by finding an increase in injuries in the later stages on the season.
Our key players are picking up injuries, being rushed back prematurely and facing the added demand of international duty. The result of all this is a high injury recurrence rate. The UEFA study reported that re-injuries made up just 12% on all injuries, I would anticipate that our stats would be higher than this. Especially if you include new injuries picked up when attempting to recover from long term absences – look at Diaby’s and Eduardo’s persistent muscle injuries and Wilshere’s second stress fracture, swiftly followed by patella tendon problems.
All this doesn’t perhaps explore the question of why our first team players are injured in the first place. Ix has touched on some of the reasons above. Of them all I think it’s the lack of rotation of players which sees certain people overplayed – it’s no coincidence that Wilshere picked up an overuse injury after a 49 game season.
I don’t want to criticise the medical staff – I’m sure they are experts in their field – but I wonder whether their advice is fully heeded by the players and by Wenger. I have heard from multiple sources in the physio world that Wenger doesn’t like his players using weights and doing strength and conditioning work, preferring them to be training with a ball at all times. Maybe this lack of strength work is part of the reason behind the injuries? Perhaps it’s just an unfounded rumour in the physio world.
A final consideration is the nature of the injuries we’ve had; we’ve been particularly unlucky to pick up such long term problems. According to the UEFA study, a player misses, on average, 37 days per season. Tell that to Wilshere, Vermaelen, Rosicky, Diaby, Ramsey and Eduardo who have all missed many months of football.
The reason for this is the injuries they had – fracture dislocation of the ankle (Diaby and Eduardo), avulsion of hamstring attachment (Rosicky) fracture tibia and fibula (Ramsey) and possible stress fracture of the navicular are all complex injuries that unfortunately need long term rehab. Even the best medical team in the world can’t return a player quickly from the type of injuries Eduardo and Diaby had.
So with all this data (and even more data we couldn’t fit into this massive article), what is the verdict? Well, as expected there is no simple answer. When I started writing this article, my intention was to ignore pre-determined opinions and just collect as much data as I possibly could before drawing any conclusions from it. After months of research, some numbers stood out, especially the two-day congestions, amount of tackles conceded and the post-Lewin figures.
In my opinion based on all of the above data and input, Arsenal’s injury problems are a result of a perfect storm between close fixtures, opposition tackles/fouls and lack of useful training. Just one of them wouldn’t necessarily mean many injuries, but the combination of them makes us highly susceptible to damage.
Obviously we can’t do much about some of these issues. We can’t really play fewer games at our level, and can’t directly control how opposition teams deal with our playing style. But we could easily adapt our tactics to reduce the amount of tackles in the long-term, and we’re in full control of how our players train. The new medical centre proves that the club is ready to solve our problems, the only question is how long it will take.