The Walking Wounded

It’s been no secret that Manchester City have been suffering with injuries of late. There will, of course, be little sympathy from the outside when a team that’s spent as much as the Blues have over the last seven years has players missing, even if they’re still governed by the same squad-size limits as sides that are run on a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, since the start of 2015-16, there hasn’t been a moment when all 24 of the first team squad have been fit and available for matches.

According to Physio Room, since the beginning of August this year, there have been 29 problems for the squad – though some have been suffered by the same player. In total, 15 different players from the squad have been absent through injuries or illness. While there’s not a lot that can be done about the latter, with 17 soft tissue absentees over the first three months of the season it’s worth wondering if there is an underlying problem more than it being simply bad luck.

It’s also worth remembering that some players – the likes of Vincent Kompany or Sergio Aguero – are injury prone and are pretty much guaranteed to have a problem over the course of a campaign, while others have weakness in specific areas of their body, such as David Silva and his ankle. They could skew the figures somewhat.

However, since the start of August there have been four groin strains (Fernando, Yaya Toure, Eliaquim Mangala, and Kelechi Iheanacho), four calf problems (Wilfried Bony, Silva, and twice Kompany), and eight hamstring issues (Fabien Delph, Raheem Sterling, Aleksandar Kolarov, Sergio Aguero, twice Samir Nasri, and twice Yaya Toure). That, combined with the knocks taken by the likes of Bacary Sagna and Fernandinho, or the knee and back problems suffered by Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart respectively, begins to put a lot of added pressure on the squad.

Surely that’s too many for it to be unfortunate.

Of course, all injuries can’t be controlled. There are two types that players pick up, intrinsic and extrinsic – or simply those that come from within the body, like muscle pulls and strains, or those that come from contact, such as knocks sustained in tackles. There’s not much a physio can do about the latter; the very nature of football means they will occur and no regime of warm-ups or training will prevent them.

However, the former can be managed. Christos Christofides is a ex-football league physio with Blackburn, Shrewsbury, Wrexham and Stockport County and he’s been explaining what goes on behind the scenes to Sam Roscoe from the Blue Moon Podcast: “We screen and we have different kinds of test protocols,” he says. “We’d test the players pre-season, mid-season and post-season so we’re able to compare results on things like flexibility.

“For example, if we test a player and one or both of his hamstrings are really tight then he’ll have to go on a programme of how to release them. The medical team needs to know that’s the body part we’re going to focus treatment on. [The tests also find if] Player A has this problem and if we don’t stop it, it can develop into this problem. This will be used as a medical plan throughout the year and it’ll be passed on to the management team so they know what problems their player have.”

The efforts behind the scenes in order to get individuals back to fitness as soon as possible might be ongoing throughout the campaign too, even when to the watching world they seem like players are working at 100 per cent.

Recovery is the key element to be getting the body back to its best and the physio explains that a lot of players suffer after matches simply because of the schedule. Some players are predisposed to injury because they don’t get the time they need to rehydrate properly or even to sleep fully. However, the clubs have been putting policies in place to help their team with programmes of warming down after matches.

When it comes to City’s two most regularly injured stars, there might be nothing the club can do to stop them picking up recurring problems. “Genetics is one thing that we can’t stop,” Christos explains when asked if Aguero’s short and stocky build is conducive to him picking up muscle issues. “He switched from a different league [to join City] and a different geographical location and the atmospheric changes can affect a player’s metabolism.

“His build and posture will predispose him to certain weaknesses. The medical team will do their best to strengthen that, but it still doesn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t go at any time. It’s the demands of the sport. Sergio Aguero is one of the players his manager will want back as soon as possible and there’ll be pressure on the medical team.”

It’s no secret that some players are brought back sooner than they should be because of their value to the team. City fans have regularly commented that both Aguero and Kompany have ‘not looked fit’ during games, but if they’re close to being ready it’s certainly understandable why the manager has picked them. It could be the difference between winning and losing.

Arguably, Manuel Pellegrini could have made an exception to practise this in recent weeks; Kompany came through 60 minutes for his national team, albeit against City’s wishes, and he’s been benched for the two matches since. Whether that’s as a message that he shouldn’t put his body at risk after injury for his club ahead of his country or whether it’s because the Chilean genuinely still believes he’s not ready is something that’s still up for debate.

Christos hates to see players rushed back and says, in his experience, it can be the source of friction: “It’s a massive risk,” he says. “As soon as a player gets a soft tissue injury, the manager is on your case. The first question you get, even while you’re on the pitch and getting the player out, is ‘will he be ready for next Saturday?’ And we really don’t know because everyone is different and the injury needs to be assessed in the morning.

“That used to happen to me every week.”

Perhaps this is where City do have a grievance. If reports are to be believed, Pellegrini took Aguero off against Newcastle despite him having the game of his life and having the potential to break all kinds of records because he had been complaining of a hamstring problem at half time. Both he and Kompany, who’d been out with a pulled calf since the defeat to Juventus in September, were used against the Chilean’s wishes on international duty the following week.

While the captain returned seemingly unscathed, the striker was carried off in tears from Argentina’s 2-0 win over Ecuador.

The old club against country argument reared its head again. Fans will always support domestic football, but it’s an honour for players to represent their international side – and that’s not something that should ever be taken away. Yet there needs to be a balance struck; players always want to play, so even if deep down they know they’re not ready and have been advised not to, there’s a tendency to say they feel fine when they don’t. They need to be made unavailable by medical staff, for both their club and their country.

There’s also the issue that international managers don’t have to pick up the pieces outside of tournaments. Marc Wilmots and Gerardo Martino aren’t with Kompany and Aguero for the weeks and months after they’ve risked them for their match, while their clubs will then deal with the fallout. Ultimately, that’s not on – but there needs to be safeguarding to stop clubs preventing their players being called up when there’s nothing actually wrong.

It’s not just at a national level that players are rushed back. City aren’t blameless on this front in the past and even on Saturday it seemed abundantly clear that Samir Nasri could barely move towards the end of the victory over Bournemouth. Having been introduced as a substitute just returning from injury that shouldn’t have been a problem.

The squad is under intense pressure and faces a run of fixtures that becomes unrelenting as soon as Christmas hits. Those suffering injuries need to be given time to be reintegrated properly, or this season’s crisis will last a lot longer than it needs to.

Written by David Mooney.


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