The United Injury Crisis: How a Change in Playing Style Crippled Manchester United
Let me preface this blog by disclosing that I am a HUGE Man United fan. I started supporting them way back when I was 7... my dad bought me a jersey while visiting Manchester on a business trip and I've loved them ever since.
These past 6 years post Sir Alex Ferguson have been tough, but when Ole took over from Jose Mourinho, it looked as if the club was back on the right track. Now, I’m not so sure.
Jose Mourinho is a man of many accomplishments. League titles in Italy, Spain, England, and Portugal; Champions League success and domestic cup success in multiple countries, but one of his greatest successes as a manager is not just his managerial record, but his injury record.
Mourinho is one of the few managers in the world who consistently plays with the same players throughout the season. When Chelsea won the title in 2016, he rarely had to make a change to his starting IX, and when he did make a change, it wasn’t due to injury.
Mourinho’s style of sitting deep, allowing the opposition to have the majority of the possession, and the hitting them on the counter, meant that players never had to over-exert themselves by pressing in the attacking third or with additional sprints in and out of possession. That lower demand from his playing style also meant that his players were able to recover from a match on Sunday in time for a Champions League game on the Wednesday.
This style has brought Jose great success, but it was never going to be a match for Manchester United, a club which has built its identity on fast, relentless, attacking football for 90 minutes. When Mourinho was replaced on December 18 (following a dreadful loss to Liverpool) by Ole Gunnar Solskjær, it wasn’t just about needing a change in results, but also a shift to the old Manchester United playing style of attacking football.
Ole hit the ground running, simply by altering the identity of United. United’s demolition of Cardiff, Huddersfield, and Bournemouth in a 10 day span (not enough time to implement his ideas on the training ground) showed that it likely wasn’t a shift in the content of training that was required, but a shift in mentality.
No longer sitting back and waiting for other teams to make a mistake in possession, United pressed their opponents much higher up the pitch, and looked to score 3 and 4 goals in a match, even after a typical Mourinho team would have settled for a 2-0 victory.
United came roaring back to life over the next 6 weeks, winning all but 2 of Ole’s games in charge, but cracks began to show during their Champions League knockout defeat to PSG at Old Trafford. To make matters worse, United picked up 2 soft tissue injuries to key players Martial and Lingard in the first half of the match.
A Monday night FA Cup victory at Chelsea softened the defeat, but then the unthinkable happened.
In the first half of the biggest game of the season against Liverpool, United had to use not one, not two, but all three substitutions in the first half, each due to a non-contact soft tissue injury.
Central midfielders Mata, Herrera and Lingard were all taken off with hamstring strain or pulls, which will rule each of them out at least 6 weeks (Lingard should never have been named to the bench, but that's an issue for another day).
Couple that with losing defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic to another a soft tissue injury the night before, and United now have a full blown injury crisis.
How could a team that seemed to be doing so well under a new manager suddenly find themselves with the loss of 5 crucial players in less than 10 days? I don’t have any inside information about the training or monitoring system in place at United, so I’m going to give my best 3 guesses based on what I can observe as a fan (and a coach).
1.) A Complete Change in Playing Style
What happens physiologically to a team when they change from a counter attacking style to a high pressing attacking style mid season? Let’s break it down.
If you played 2x10 minute games of 11v11 in training with an emphasis on sitting deep and playing on the counter, players might expect to perform an explosive action 2 times every minute (just a rough estimate). By the end of the 20 minutes, players would have performed 40 explosive actions. If you were to ask the players on a scale of 1-10 how intense the session was, they might describe it as an 7 out of 10.
Now let’s change the style to a high pressing, attacking style of play with lots of extra sprints in and out of possession. In a 2x10 minute game of 11v11, players might perform an explosive action 3 times every minute. By the end of the 20 minute block, players would have performed about 60 explosive actions, a 50% increase over the counter attacking style. If you were to ask players to rate it on a scale of 1-10, they might rate it as an 8 or 9.
A higher intensity means a higher training load and demand on players who may not be acclimated to it. You might get away with this for a match or two, but with a congested fixture list and not many options to rotate within the team, this can add up quickly.
This leads us to reason #2
2.) Fixture Congestion of the Christmas Period
Ole took the reins right before the Christmas period. A time where most other leagues are on winter break, and English teams are actually playing more games than they play at any other time in the year.
From the day Ole took over to January 5th, United played 5 games in an 18 day span, or 1 game every 3.5 days. Couple this with their new playing style with a higher physical demand, and the players will have started to build up fatigue. This would not have been a major issue if Ole had allowed the players to regain their freshness after this period. Instead, we introduce our third reason for the injury crisis.
3.) Dubai Training Camp
After that fixture congestion, United had an 8 day build up to their match against Spurs (one of the most defensive games I’ve ever seen United play, and they had to thank David De Gea for bailing them out). During that week, United went to Dubai for a training camp, designed to allow Ole to work with the players on his playing style and their fitness.
Straight from the Man United website, Ole is quoted as saying:
”It'll be a time to get some fitness work and work hard with them, so, if any of the players think it's a holiday, they're wrong, because we're there to stick together, work hard on the physical part of it and, of course, think a little bit ahead to the Tottenham game.“
This would’ve been a great time to allow fatigued players to regain freshness, as many other leagues around the world do with a winter break. Instead, United doubled down on fitness and overloaded the players even more than they already had been from the congested Christmas period.
The effects of this accumulated fatigue would not have become apparent until weeks later, when players bodies began to break down from the high demands.
Ole and the backroom staff deserve enormous credit for the turnaround that they have orchestrated in the time since Jose has left. They've taken a toxic dressing room and turned United into legit top 4 contenders. But if we are going to praise them for their successes, we need to be fair and point out their errors.
There is never a reason for a player to pick up a soft tissue injury in the first half of a game.
When you have 3 players pick up soft tissue injuries in the first half, it’s not bad luck, it’s a systemic training issue. You could blame luck if the coaching staff wasn’t involved in the planning of the training, but they are. They have direct control over the training load which the players experience.
To adjust to Ole’s more demanding style, it would have been wise for sessions initially to be shorter, to allow players to become more accustomed to the intensity before increasing the duration.
Jurgen Klopp experienced something similar when he took over for Brendan Rodgers in November 2015. He immediately implemented his gegenpressing style, which was more demanding than Rodgers style out of possession, and led to quite a few soft tissue injuries during the December period. Whatever he has changed since then has clearly worked, as Liverpool have one of the best injury records in the league this year.
For coaches who are watching this and looking on (like me), trying to figure out why this is happening, remember that your playing style is directly tied to your training load. The more demanding your style, the higher the load will be. Build your players up gradually with a progressive overload, or you too could be facing an injury crisis.