Injuries are not unavoidable - and players need to be protected

Professional footballers are under more strain than ever before due to a brutal schedule, and they need help to stay injury-free

10:00am on Tuesday 5th October 2021
Paul Macdonald

September, October, November. Three consecutive months of two-week international breaks. The burden of virtually every top-level coach and their respective clubs, as they fret over what condition their players will return in.

During this period, professional players will scatter far and wide, to every continent, to represent their country at the behest of FIFA. Travel weary and far removed from their attentive club staff, it’s no wonder that injury incident rates spike, along with the use of inevitable injury cliches that are wrung out for maximum usage.

‘Cruel blow’, ‘very unfortunate’ and ‘unforeseen problem’ are the type of anecdotal headlines covering the plight of players before, during, and after these abrupt breaks in the domestic season.


Such language removes accountability and replaces it with fate - a Russian roulette of travel, fatigue and lost rest days that makes injury not just more likely, but practically inevitable.

As this FIFPro report from 2019 states, Heung Min-Son had, until that point, travelled over 110,000 kilometres to play for South Korea in his career, much of the time from Germany or England. The same applies to Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, who has also racked up over 100,000 travelled kilometres to play for Senegal while based in Europe.

And yet, injuries are still treated with some surprise, and as an unavoidable event that couldn’t be foreseen. Even while players are ‘At the Limit’ - literally the name of FIFPro’s report on the problem - the circumstance of injury is treated as random and unlucky.

It’s not true, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

The pressures of modern football, from a psychological, physiological and societal perspective have increased exponentially in the past decade. Games are quicker, with more overall distance covered as players regularly clock up between 12-13 kilometres in a single match.

Further data shows that the number of sprints in the English Premier League has increased 50% in the past decade, and yet when players break down, we shrug off the situation as if it were a roll of the dice, a mere by-product of the demands we place upon these athletes.

And yet, there’s technology already out there, assisting clubs and actively reducing incidences of injury.

Artificial Intelligence company Zone7 has already proven in numerous case studies, across multiple competitions, that injury management, and ultimately reduction, is not only possible but cannot be ignored. The US-based firm has worked with clubs in the English Premier League as well as La Liga, Serie A, MLS, the SPFL and many more. They have also expanded into other sports, with rugby and cycling joining the NFL, NBA and MLB as organisations that have tested the technology with hugely positive results.

And the key component of what Zone7 can do is in reducing that level of uncertainty, the very same one many are so keen to explain away as unavoidable. Based on their recent work with Getafe and Rangers, Zone7 were able to record an average 70% reduction in days lost to injury. Data is gathered on each player and a profile is developed - an injury passport, if you will - which can be used to make predictions and, therefore, recommendations, for adapting a player’s training regime to avoid injury.

Players are being put under more and more strain

Of course, not every injury is foreseeable. Concussions, leg breaks and serious ligament injuries happen, too. But what Zone7 is doing is mitigating lower body muscular problems to ensure that common complaints such as hamstring, calf and adductor injuries, which regularly affect players who are placed under an intense period of training and games, are acknowledged in advance of the actual injury occurring and can be acted upon.

And this is achieved not by simply removing the player from training altogether - a common misconception - but by managing their workload and schedule to ensure that the propensity of injury is reduced.

In football there remains a hesitancy to embrace advancement; advanced statistical analysis has also suffered from Luddites who would rather the sport they know stayed that way.

For many it remains a simple game; good teams want it more, feeling beats data, players get injured. But it’s a draconian stance and it’s one that simply isn’t acceptable any longer as part of any kind of discourse. Some injuries aren’t random and they can be predicted.

There were over 20,000 days lost to injury in the Premier League in the 2020/21 season, one marred and hampered by covid restrictions and regulations. The calendar is only going to get more intense, the matches more frequent and the demands on the players unsustainable. It’s time to help them out, and it’s now impossible to ignore.

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