Robin Sainty: So many questions still to be answered as City enter new territory

PUBLISHED: 12:00 13 June 2020

Canaries head coach Daniel Farke and head of performance Chris Domogalla have much to consider Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

Canaries head coach Daniel Farke and head of performance Chris Domogalla have much to consider Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

Paul Chesterton

We’re six days away from the return of competitive football, but what can we realistically expect when next Friday evening arrives?

There is a big clue in the decision to allow five substitutions per game and to have nine players on the bench. Players will be coming into an intense period of highly competitive football - at least for those fighting relegation or trying to get a European place - while being severely under-cooked in terms of preparation.

Let’s look at it in the context of a normal preseason. Players would normally build a high level of core fitness before introducing ball work then play a series of increasingly tough and competitive friendlies before getting into the real thing, with limitless massages and physio available to soothe aching limbs and muscles.

What we are actually getting now is a limited period of group training and a solitary friendly with physio sessions limited to 15 minutes before City’s players are thrown into a full-on battle for their footballing futures. Make no mistake there are going to be injuries, and lots of them.

The experience of the Bundesliga already shows this, with a high level of muscular strain injuries occurring in the early games of its return.

Pre-lockdown there were an average of 0.27 injuries per Bundesliga game, but that figure has risen to 0.75 since the restart. That represents a near three-fold increase in the number of injuries, with over a third of those currently out injured suffering from soft tissue or muscular problems. For the most recent round of matches, nearly one in eight Bundesliga players was unavailable due to injury.

Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud has already expressed his concerns in a recent interview, saying: “Normally in pre-season, you’re very demanding with your muscles and use them a lot, especially when you haven’t been training for over two months.

“Muscles strain and creak but we respect the rules from the government and the Premier League.”

However, those necessary restrictions mean that player care is being set back as Newcastle’s club doctor, Paul Catterson points out.

He said: “We have had players asking if they can have ice baths after training and they can’t at the moment - all we can do is give them ice to take home. It’s like going back 15 years.”

It’s worth pointing out that Premier League players are more used to fixture congestion than those in the Bundesliga, but it doesn’t matter how much conditioning work players have done in lockdown, there is simply no substitute for match fitness, because of the stresses put on an elite athlete’s body during a match, requiring strength and endurance but also the ability to contort tired muscles in unnatural ways, and there is a significant risk of players suffering much more serious injuries than muscle strains as a result.

And, of course, there is also the added problem of key players testing positive for COVID-19 and being sidelined just when they’re most needed. It’s going to be a very strange few weeks, but the bottom line is that these circumstances will inevitably favour the clubs with strength in depth in their squads rather than the likes of City.

However, what it does mean is that youngsters like Adam Idah and Josh Martin, who City are very excited about, are likely to see Premier League action.

Another thing we must expect is a loss of sharpness in basic technique. Last week the French newspaper L’Équipe ran a study on this subject, with input from players across Europe who have noted a loss of basic ball skills during confinement. Marcelo of Real Madrid reported that for the first time during an extended break he felt his ball control suffering. Players reported puzzled laughter at mistakes in training that just wouldn’t normally happen. Patience will be required on all sides because this is all very new.

However, by far the most difficult thing for both us fans and the players to come to terms with will be our own absence. Up until now games have been played behind closed doors to punish clubs but now it will be the norm, and we really don’t know how it will affect performances.

It was interesting to hear Stuart Webber talk last week about how City had been using their contacts in Germany to get an insight into how Bundesliga players had responded, with the consensus being that there was initially excitement at being back doing what they are used to followed by a sense of “what are we doing this for” after a couple of weeks.

No doubt there will be attempts to make stadia less sterile, with cardboard cut outs, flags and even piped crowd noise being touted but realistically there is no substitute for the atmosphere created by fans. We know that the energy from the stands can lift players to greater things; it’s something that Daniel Farke has often talked about in interviews, so how will its absence affect things?

Again, if the Bundesliga is any guide then it seems that empty stands will favour away teams and work against hosts. In the first four rounds of matches in Germany home teams won eight times compared to 12 wins for away teams and 15 draws.

Of course, that may or may not be relevant because we are about to enter totally uncharted territory but undoubtedly it will be even stranger for the players who are used to turning out in front of thousands than it will for us watching from a distance.

Welcome to the new normal.

- Canaries Trust chairman Robin Sainty was a guest on the latest episode of the Pink Un Podcast, which can be listened to above or via the links below.

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