17 April 2018

Campaign Casualties: The Challenges Of Achieving High Performance On Multiple Fronts

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

When pushing for glory in more than one competition, football managers are forced to rotate their squads to ensure that their best players don't burnout out in important matches, towards the back end of the season. For those in charge of the fitness and conditioning, this creates a challenging dimension.

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil ghosts past a CSKA Moscow defender in a Europa League match. 

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil ghosts past a CSKA Moscow defender in a Europa League match. 

Ever since two groups of primates first fought each other with sticks and stones, it has been common knowledge that you don’t want to fight a war on multiple fronts. You don’t have to possess the leadership of Alexander the Great to know that divvying up your manpower, resources and attention diminishes your chances of victory.

It is unquestionably to compare sport with war in an age where millions of people around the world have had their lives torn apart by the ravages of conflict, but in this case the parallel has legs.

The majority of athletes and coaches have no idea what it is like to have the enemy closing in on both flanks, but for those who ply their trade in the upper echelon of club football, this challenge is all too familiar.

For clubs like Barcelona, Boca Juniors and Al Ahly, battling it out for multiple trophies in the same campaign is standard procedure. With domestic league and cup titles up for grabs, as well as continental glory, managers of these historic institutions require well-resourced and fully stocked barracks at their disposal.

It is telling that of the four semi-finalists in this season’s Champions League, only Germany’s FC Bayern Munich will lift a major trophy back home with Real Madrid, Liverpool FC and AS Roma left with just this final chance of silverware.

Having already wrapped up their 28th Bundesliga title (their seventh in a row) and with place in the semi-finals of the Germany's cup competition - DFB-Pokal, the Bavarians are not just fighting on multiple fronts, they’re conquering.

Since the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League at the start of the 1992/93 season, no other team has managed to reach the last four of the competition in the same season as winning their domestic league, as frequently as Bayern have.

Die Roten (the Reds) have now achieved this rare double nine times. Barcelona is the next best team with seven league titles complementing a semi-final appearance in the Champions League in the same season. Manchester United have done so six times, Juventus on five occasions and Real Madrid achieved their fourth double last year. Porto, Ajax and AC Milan all have two doubles to their name, while Inter Milan, Chelsea, Panathinaikos, Dynamo Kiev and Monaco have pulled it off once.  

The obvious advantage Bayern have is that they are almost untouchable at home. Of all the major European leagues, no other has a bigger gap between second and first, than the Bundesliga’s 20 points at the time of writing. This allows manager Jupp Heynckes to rotate his troops throughout the campaign, ensuring that they are at their fighting best come the business end of the gruelling battle on the continent.

For other league leaders, such as England’s Manchester City and Spain’s Barcelona, more competitive opposition at home means their managers are not afforded the same luxury. One of the reasons given for these sides’ exits in the quarterfinals of the Champions League was that both sets of players were spent after a tiring season.

Some critics have argued that this is a failure of management, with City’s Pep Guardiola receiving the brunt of it. Had he not pushed his team so relentlessly during the Christmas period, as some have suggested, his players would not have been so easily swept aside by Liverpool (who incidentally are 17 points adrift in third).

There are cases to be made on both sides. On the one hand, a manager will understandably want his best players playing at all times for an unforgiving fan base in a league where there are, as is advertised, ‘no easy games’.  On the other, resting a star player with one eye on a more important fixture over the horizon, could very well provide the best chance of securing more than one trophy come May.

One man who understands this dilemma more than most is Dr. Darren Burgess, the Director of High Performance at Arsenal FC, whose job includes helping manager Arsene Wenger make informed selection decisions based on the fitness of his players.

“One of my roles is to provide the manager with as much information on the physical status of his players as best as I possibly can,” Burgess tells CONQA. “That includes saying whether or not a player has trained too much or too little, whether a player is fit or close to injury or whether or not a player is simply fatigued from too much work. When the coach has over 26 years’ experience at the top level, my spreadsheets aren’t always going to have the answer.”

Burgess joined the Gunners last year after working with AFL side Port Adelaide in his home country, Australia, but has prior experience in the Premier League having spent three years at Liverpool. His CV also includes a stint with the Australian men’s national football team where he was the head of fitness for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Now back in England’s top flight, Burgess serves as a vital lieutenant for one of the game’s most seasoned generals. “I give my opinion but am 100% in support of every decision he makes. My role is to get the doctors, physios and strength and conditioning coaches to sing from the same sheet. We’ll debate different viewpoints but it’s my job to relay the message to the boss. If I advise that a player shouldn’t play and the coach still plays him, that’s the final word on that.”

Burgess explains that he has never received any instruction from a manager to prioritise the fitness of one player over another, but admits that he is aware that some players are more important than others. As such, he can sometimes feel pressure to rush a particular player back from fitness prematurely.

“Subconsciously you know that a guy like Mesut Özil or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is more important to the team than a youngster coming through the youth system, but I’ll never treat any player differently when it comes to his fitness. What I try achieve, is to be more lenient with a veteran than a rookie. Some players have earned the right to get some preferential treatment.”

This may come in the form of taking it easy during an intense session or missing out on a drill entirely. Burgess says, that he has learnt to trust the word of veterans of 10-12 years and no longer uses his seniority as a stick with which to beat players.

“If I had advice for a young strength and conditioning coach, it would be to leave your ego at the door. In my early days, I thought I was more important than I was. I thought the role of sports science and fitness was the be all and end all and the reason why we won or lost.”

Dr. Burgess continues, “The community online with S&C coaches and physios has helped with the sharing of ideas, but sometimes it heightens our sense of importance. I am under no illusions that Arsenal was a very successful club before I came here. You just have to watch these guys train to remind yourself that they were doing just fine before me. I listen to the experienced players and will try and incorporate their desires in to my training.”

This does not mean that Dr. Burgess has adopted a nonchalant attitude. He speaks candidly about his authority and he admits the odd clash with players who simply cannot accept that they will not be signed off as fit for match day.

Dr. Burgess explains that players in the past have offered him handsome sums of money to sign off on their fitness, and is honest about the pressures someone in his position might feel from both players, and the manager to rush a star player back to fitness. Having said this, Dr. Burgess states, “nothing compares to the pressure I put on myself.”

Building up player’s, for the challenges of multi-competition football, whilst at the same time allowing him to rest is one of the hardest balancing acts a strength and conditioning coach must achieve in modern football. There is a temptation to allow star players to sit out of winnable matches in the league with a European tie coming up, but Dr. Burgess explains that there is no substitute for match sharpness.

“I would never deselect a player based on the opponent. Instead I’ll look at his training load. If it’s been good for four to six weeks, he can rest up. If his training loads have been poor, it is really important that you get some miles in his legs, no matter who you’re playing or what competition is coming up.”

When it comes to fighting on multiple fronts, an astute general will want his best troops where the action is at its most intense. Through intelligent squad rotation, an able deputy like Dr. Darren Burgess and a little luck with injuries, one’s trophy cabinet can be filled with spoils from more than one campaign.

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