Why are footballers so unfit?

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Or, if Roger Federer can stay in good shape for Wimbledon every year, why are so many top footballers missing crucial games because of torn adductor muscles, torn cruciate ligaments or mumps?

Or, to put it another way, why haven’t the hordes of sports scientists, nutritionists, fitness gurus, osteopaths and physiotherapists that advise the big clubs, dramatically reduced the level of injuries?

In 2002, a UEFA study suggests 29% of the players in Japan/Korea incurred injuries. Others, like Beckham, were struggling for match fitness before the finals started.

To take one extreme: a top flight English footballer in the 1980s was notorious for his 39-pint weekends, consumed in three major binges: Saturday night, Sunday lunchtime and Sunday night. As a result, he often missed Monday training and, making up for lost time on Tuesday, often pulled a muscle or three.

Today that footballer would simply not be able to function. Yet the revolution in diet and fitness that has swept across English football has not made his successors much more robust. They may, in fact, be the unfittest professional athletes on the planet.

If any club has come to epitomise the scientific approach to football in England, it is Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.

We don’t read about the Wenger revolution quite as often as we used to but as this extract from Jasper Rees’s biography of The Professor shows the shift from egg and chips to pasta and steamed veg was just one of a host of initiatives which, for a while, transformed the fitness of the Arsenal squad.

Wenger even introduced something called plyometrics, a muscle strengthening process with a truly excruciating name. Yet last season the club suffered 60 injuries, five more than the average suffered by clubs in a UEFA study.

I’m not having a pop at Arsenal in particular. But just as the end of the Cold War was supposed to yield a peace dividend, I’m sure clubs investing in the regimes described above expected a dividend in terms of player fitness. So where is it?

A UEFA study suggests that a player will typically suffer two minor injuries every season and a major injury every three years. And it offers scant comfort for English clubs.

A Ligue 1 team suffers 16 injuries every 1,000 hours of play.  A Premier League team will suffer 44 injuries per 1,000 hours. Which, even my dodgy Grade B GCSE Maths tells me, means that injuries at English clubs are very nearly three times as common among English teams as in France.

Some will argue that the crowded fixture list has cancelled out any gains from better diets and smarter fitness regimes. That might actually be true in Arsenal’s case: they had a young, small squad of 24 players in 2007/08 and, as Stefan Vasiliev has noted, five of those weren’t the finished article in terms of first-team football.

But most squads have grown and squad rotation is a fact of life, whereas, in 1965/66, Liverpool won the league using just 14 players.

The game is much faster than it was. That’s true. But does that really wipe out every benefit to be had from not drinking 39 pints a weekend, not eating steak and chips before a meal or, in the extreme case of Chelsea’s legendary keeper William ‘Fatty’ Foulkes, not eating all your team’s fried breakfasts?

I have read, 1000 times, that English football has experienced a scientific revolution. And, so far, the revolution hasn’t delivered. Indeed, I read the other day that drummers are now fitter than footballers.

So instead of buying books like Eat To Win, maybe coaches should be looking for that unlikeliest of volumes, Drugs, Cymbals And Booze: The Keith Moon Guide To Transforming Your Performance.