Managing Workload: The Science of the Season

This season belongs to the many, not just the few. It belongs to us, the fans, the players, the manager, the owner, employees and the backroom staff. Our triumphs and our losses also belong to those mentioned but with differing accountability. I used to have a great deal of accountability. As a former Head of Sport Science it was my job to keep players fit, improve performance levels and return those who were injured to the field of play. It is likely, because of this, that I noticed the increasing efficiency at my own club this season, how well we were dealing with injuries and managing the workload.

Managing Workload: How It Works

Firstly, let me provide some context and some general understanding of how recovery and performance works. The body takes on a degree of load, be that a training session, game or gym session. This puts strain on the body’s muscles, tendons and joints and requires a period of recovery typically anywhere from 24 to 36 hours. As the intensity increases and frequency of this load increases, the body has shorter periods to recover. It is required to run at sub-maximal performance, like a car with less fuel and a small hole in the exhaust. This means the body is more susceptible to impact injuries, soft tissue injuries but also viruses, partly due to overtraining.

The Player Recovery Cycle.
The overtraining cycle for players. Credit | BodyExpert Studio

Coming off the back of the 2019/2020 season the players had extraordinarily little recovery. In the same way that it takes 24-36 hours to recover from a session it takes a period of time to recovery from a full season. Typically, you would have 2 weeks of full rest with 4 weeks of gradual workload building, as well as preparing the players bodies to get strong enough to cope with the full season. This lack of rest hampered many players meaning that injury rates were likely to be high.

The season started and we saw lots of small injuries early on Hakim Ziyech picking up a knee injury in a warmup game, likely due to an early finish in the Eredivisie, whilst Silva and Chilwell were both fighting to be fit for Frank Lampard’s selection. It was here the precedent for the season was set.

Chilwell and Silva were held back for fitness reasons for the first few games. Although Edouard Mendy had been training recently, he was also held back from his debut until he had achieved the desired fitness levels. It was this cautious approach which I believe saw us maintain depth in the squad, something which the likes of Liverpool, Leicester and Newcastle were unable to do. The impact of all of these players can be seen below in the fantastic victory against Sheffield United, a testament to the manager’s patience.

As the season progressed, we saw a cautious return to play for both Billy Gilmour and Hakim Ziyech, with small knocks to Werner and Callum Hudson Odoi being shrugged off in a short period of time. It’s important to realise the worth of the backroom staff. Both the Werner injury and the injury sustained to Callum Hudson Odoi, were turned around at least a week before originally planned. Showing care, consideration and a fantastic return to play strategy which saw Callum return and get on the score sheet in the mid-season, although not without controversy. It is small acts like this that shows that marginal gains and working as a team can have a huge impact on the progress of a team.

Player Workloads: Finding the Underlying Issues

Heart Rate Variability, saliva testing and blood samples can all show pre-indicators of illness, but a simple PCR test was enough to keep Havertz away from the squad for more than three months with coronavirus, something which affected only two of our players during the whole pandemic, compared to the Premier League average of six per squad which saw both players and managers suffer. Even against all the odds, Frank Lampard and his background staff managed to shield his players from a harmful virus so that they could continue to play at the level required.

Shortly after James’ injury, Lampard departs. However, most of the backroom staff remain. Tuchel picks up the torch of medicine and continues to heavily rotate his squad. This is to manage their workload and ensure he has the tactical upper hand. It is also to maintain the depth in his squad to guarantee that when the difficult games come down the road, he can carry pride and trophies down the Kings Road.

There then came a period of calm, Ziyech sustaining frequent injuries, whilst the rest of the club remained fit. His injury possibly derives from his lack of strength work in the pre-season. Zouma, Kovavic and Kante were the only preventable injuries to occur towards the close of the season, partly due to an excessive workload and strain. This was something which Tuchel managed very well, putting ownership on Mount, Jorginho and Gilmour to fill in.

At the beginning of the season I could see the impact that back to back seasons could have, that, coupled with a brand new squad set my Chelsea ambitions at top 4 and a cup final. We came out with two cup finals, a European Cup and top 4, something beyond my wildest dreams, yet the hard work is not over.

A well managed workload helped Chelsea win the Champions League. Credit | Pierre-Philippe Marcou/Reuters

Not only has the season seen long arduous work and minimal time to prepare the players, we are about to couple this season with a European competition. Tired players are due to head off to their national side to compete at the top level, for Gareth Southgate, this mean inheriting players who are likely in need of a break and for Tuchel there are simply prayers that they do not break.

The 2020/21 season can potentially be riddled with injuries, those competing towards the end of the competition will have little time to get back into the swing of things and will be given extra time off to be able to compensate for their lack of recovery. A heavy weight and cardiovascular workload is likely to be put on hold for the sake of the bodies recovery, which means muscle will not be as strong, powerful or supple and we are certain to see players crumble under the pressure, resulting in another open season.

The key to Chelsea’s success will be getting those players who are not off to the Euro’s a vigorous off season plan. A heavy weight session including an eccentric hamstring plan, core stability and high intensity interval training. This will mimic the tough season that is to come. Those who are on international duty should be given a lot more rest before returning to play, with some of the key players missing the first few games of the season so be warned for a bumpy ride with a reduced squad.

What gives me a great deal of hope as I sit in the Matthew Harding end each game, is not just that we have a young, developing side, but also a backroom staff and manager who understand the importance of squad rotation, recovery, workload management and athletic performance. If the likely culprits of Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool continue as they have this season, we could see a very dominant Chelsea. In Tuchel we trust and in science, we are sure.

Written by Rob Edwards (@robrambles)

Edited by Dan Hill (@idanknow05)

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