Lockdown because of the pandemic sweeping the planet has meant a number of footballers have had to get used to a new norm, just like much of the world’s population. The majority (if not all) of them will have the equipment at home to keep themselves fit, although it seems that those exercises can only go so far and will not help put them in the prime condition that they want to be in when the action returns to the field, as, say match practice would.
However, with the current global situation, those exhibition games now appear to be a luxury of some-sort and one that a certain professional footballer believes are an important part of the process of being ready, especially to be competing at the top level in the Premier League.
“The difference is huge,” says West Ham United defender Ryan Fredericks. “You can spend as long as you want – years, even – running up and down the pitch or running around cones, but 10 minutes in a Premier League match is 100 times harder than any of that.
“You can’t fake anything on a Premier League pitch. You have to react to so many things – mentally, as well. If you get caught out, you’re stuck.”
It is not just bout being ready to run around the pitch for 90 minutes to try and help the team obtain three points every time they take to the turf, though. State of mind is something that also comes into the equation that helps performers produce at the top level, which is helped by some former data to help identify certain aspects.
“There are different aspects to it,” says Richard Collinge, Head of Medical Services at West Ham United.
“The science behind it all is now a major guide as to objectively clearing a player to return to training and then to return to a match, but the player has to also be psychologically ready.
“Those two things have to match, otherwise that player is not going to be ready to play.”
“We have benchmarks and training data over several seasons so that we know what each player has got to achieve,” says Collinge.
“How fast he needs to sprint, the number of accelerations and decelerations he makes, the distance he covers.
“You also have to break that down into positional analysis. Match fitness is very different if you’re a goalkeeper from a modern-day wing-back. Using GPS data and distances covered, if a player has had a six-week hamstring injury we can tell what we need to prepare them for based on their position.
“We do some change of direction testing, too, because they have to be able to pivot acutely. They have to be able to withstand the force of an opponent and strike a ball.
“The rehabilitation period is not cleared until we can match as best as possible the loading of the tissue that will be required for full training and then a 90-minute match.”
Fredericks appears to suggest that doing the hard yards on the pitch is not the hardest part of the role, either, with the full-back revealing it was the constant change of pace and situational play that makes it essential to be match-fit.
“The hard miles in games don’t really tire you out,” he says. “Sprinting up and down isn’t really what we find hard.
“The hard stuff is the short bursts of pace, when you’ve got to quickly get tight to someone. Nobody can tell you that you’re match fit unless you’ve been in the scenario where you’re having to struggle in the last 10 minutes and you’ve got to grind out a game.
“That’s when you find out about yourself, not doing runs in training.”
Building match practice via developmental games is clearly a useful tool for many players in order to rebuild their fitness levels, however they only appear to offer an individual just a small fraction of the equation mentioned earlier.
“When placed in front of spectators and a worldwide audience then the anxieties of the player come into play as well,” explains Collinge. “That can affect the tissue tone. It’s all interwoven. The player needs to feel comfortable that he can play a game.”
Fredericks agrees, stating: “Match fitness comes from confidence.
“Going into the game knowing that you’re at a higher risk of injury or that you might blow up after 60 minutes isn’t ideal. You need to play two or three Under-23 games or training-ground games to get that. It’s unheard of to have a long time out and then go straight into the Premier League.”
The final part of that equation, though, is communication; something Collinge has revealed is a process whereby everyone makes a joint-decision when looking at how fit an individual actually is.
“It’s all about clear dialogue,” says Collinge. “The process is one of joint decision-making.
“We might look at the frequency of games coming up and pencil in particular players for particular games. Then we discuss what that player needs to do to prove himself fit and available for that game.
“We as medical staff and coaching staff want the player to be confident, ultimately. We want to make sure that the psychology and feedback from the player is positive, so that they can feel primed for competitive action.”
Indeed, for David Moyes’ side to have a solid chance of retaining their Premier League status for the following season, there could be an argument that the 27-year-old is crucial to their potential survival.
According to data collected by WhoScored, Fredericks has managed to amass 1688 top-flight minutes for Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini prior to his sacking, creating two assists; perhaps leaving a little to be desired on the attacking front. The full-back has not shied from his defensive duties, though. He’s averaged 3.2 tackles per game, is just a shade under one interception per match (0.9) and clears the ball an average of 2.2 times every 90 minutes in the 20 appearances he has managed to total so far.
With fixtures set to come thick and fast against relegation rivals Norwich City, Aston Villa and Watford – as well as against some European-chasing behemoths – Fredericks and the entire West Ham squad might just have to find a way to deal with the ‘huge difference’ he talks about, otherwise, it could be a rather costly problem for those at the London Stadium.