UTD Unscripted: Rising to the challenge
It was last February when I first had a conversation with the staff in our department about the possibility of some looming challenges.
“Look, let’s pull a few resources together,” I said, “because we might be coming into something here that we’re going to have to respond to.” We had to ask ourselves: if we do have to stop our levels of service here at the training ground, what resources have we got now to actually provide what players need?
We’ve got a great team in our physical performance department. I’ve got Ed Leng who manages a lot of the sports science elements, Mike Clegg is gym-based and supports Charlie Owen with the outfield players and manages the goalkeepers and the gym-based work for lads in rehab. Charlie is the on-field fitness coach, Paolo Gaudino has responsibility for players in the transition from rehab to training, Tom Whitehead is the Performance Nutritionist. Those five are the team and they work really well together.
So, maybe two or three weeks before COVID-19 really kicked in, in our own way, we’d all put our heads towards a solution. That way, when it did happen and it was clear that nobody was coming into the training ground, we weren’t fully prepared but we had a good idea of how we were going to deal with it. Certainly we had to deal with it in mini-phases because at that time we didn’t know how long it was going to be. The biggest difficulty from players’ perspective and our perspective in terms of what players need is this: what are you planning towards? What’s your goal?
We didn’t have a goal.
Nobody said to us that we were going to be back training in eight weeks’ time. It might have been four weeks, 12 weeks, 16 weeks… we didn’t know. That was the unknown and then it was a case of finding the right approach in terms of giving players space, not invading their privacy, getting them involved in some levels of conditioning so they didn’t totally de-train, while also keeping the level of engagement with the squad. Those were our biggest challenges, really, and the staff were brilliant. Everyone pulled together and came up with a programme that we felt worked.
Once we were happy with that, it required buy-in from the most important people of all: the players.
Back when I first came to United in 2008, that buy-in for sports science was by no means guaranteed. I’d worked at the FA for eight years, then for Bryan Robson at West Brom and Sheffield United before I arrived to initially work under Tony Strudwick with the remit of helping to bring a more objective approach to the conditioning of players and move the science that was out there from the theoretical onto the field, to try to help us make some better decisions in terms of the management of players.
Over time, the industry has expanded, the technology has advanced, there are a lot more opportunities to become a lot more insightful as to what players’ needs are. As we’ve progressed as an industry it’s become more bespoke. You identify individual player needs, you’ve got the staff resources to cater for what every individual requires to improve. It’s really layering on the scientific information to allow us to make some objective decisions and be really clear in terms of what the players’ needs are and get them on board, get the players involved in that journey to prolong their careers and improve the levels of performance that they can consistency produce.
If I go back to when I first started, it was a case of working with Neville, Scholes, Giggs, Ronaldo, van der Sar, Ferdinand… many more besides, who were all established, experienced players who had won it all. It was new to them, us saying that we needed to put things in place, monitor their sleep, look at nutritional perspectives of things. They could have taken the approach that they’d gotten so far without it, they didn’t need it, but the approach we had – and have today – is to be totally above- board and transparent. Some of those players were in what we call the ‘roll down’ phase of their careers where it’s a case of trying to maintain the level they’re at for as long as they can, and year- on-year they kept on getting contract extensions. At that time, I found that the older players bought into it because if they could add another one or two years onto their careers then it was good for them. The younger ones maybe felt they didn’t need it just yet, they felt bulletproof and then bought into it as they got a little bit older. You just have to be transparent, make the players understand why we want to implement certain aspects to their conditioning or educate them about lifestyle, to help monitor and see how they’re recovering. We didn’t throw it all into the mix in one go; it’s all about scaffolding, really, and each year you’re adding on layers and over time it just becomes the norm.
In some ways it’s easier now because this generation of players has grown up with sports science. They’ve been exposed to sports science initiatives and monitoring, they’re more aware and, to be honest, they expect it now. They expect something bespoke to them to help them improve.
Since the manager came in, we had gradually increased the workload of the players, so come February and March 2020, we’d had 13, 14 months of a different type of training, a different type of focus. The workload had increased from the pre-season that we had. We’d built up, the players had done more than they’d done the previous year at the same stage, so by the time we’d gotten to the end of January and we’d just come back from Spain – we had a little camp in Spain that had gone really well – we felt that the players were in good shape.
Generally speaking, as a player, once you get to March – providing you haven’t been out with a long- term injury – then we wouldn’t be looking to increase the load on you significantly during that final two or three months of the season. You look to maintain a good level of intensity to your training but decrease the volume. Based on that, we knew the players were in good shape and we felt: Ok, we don’t need to do an awful lot of work with them, but what they’d need to do is of good quality so we can maintain them at a good level, so if we do have to come back in at short notice and the games resume, then are the players safe to play? Are they relatively free of injury risk? That was the main thing.
I was having conversations with my counterparts at other clubs and the Premier League and they were asking how long we’d need after coming back before we could play games again. Some clubs said they needed four weeks, others said three, I felt we could deal with two if we needed to. Ideally it would be three, but we were in a position where we could deal with two. I think in our heads and in our planning, we wanted to make sure that players could cope with a situation where they thought: if we’re back on Monday and we’ve got a competitive game two weeks from now, we’re prepared. That’s the scenario we worked towards. Once we were given the dates of when we were going to resume, that’s when you could really kick in your plan, the players could visualise how things were going to happen, what we were working towards and everything seemed to work fine.
For me, those eight weeks in the first lockdown flew by. The staff were working with the players throughout, giving them information on nutrition, keeping them engaged, giving them their individual training sessions they had, providing the groups sessions through Webex – it was programmed in a way that the players could have the time to do their fitness work and also have time with their families. I’m sure a lot of them appreciated that. If you look at the December schedule they’ve just gone through, for instance, there were two days off in the entire month, so when you think back, that family time earlier in the year was invaluable. There were cases where their partners had just given birth and they could spend time at home when normally they wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity.
The players had a lot of contact with Charlie, more than anyone else. The nutrition staff had contact with the players and their families about sourcing the right places to get suitable foods, advising them what they should be doing, how their meals should be cooked in a certain way and giving them a lot of advice in general from a nutritional side of things. The players realised our interest in their wellbeing, first and foremost, then the performance element came after that.
I think we enjoyed the challenge. The staff I’ve got around me in this department, all in their own ways, add so much to the level of service that the players get. I give them a fair bit of autonomy. They all know the remit they’re working towards and they just get on with it. Everyone’s open enough to talk about any potential barriers, but in terms of thinking where players can train, what type of sessions they can do, the ideas that they came up with worked really well. I wouldn’t say it was uncomfortable, but everyone was pushed outside the barriers that they normally work in.
Day one in Spain gallery
Check out our exclusive photos as the Reds put in the hard graft on the first day of the warm weather training camp.
Some of the methods we implemented have carried over and we’ve brought them into the environment here at the Aon Training Complex. For example, the feedback that we give the players, keeping them totally involved and engaged in what they’re doing on the training ground either individual programmes, match performances, training performances, feeding back data. The group have their own private Instagram accounts, so they’ve got a nutrition one managed by Tom Whitehead and a fitness one managed by Charlie Owen. Those didn’t exist before lockdown, and all of a sudden they’re in place, they’ve worked really well, the players have engaged in it and those types of things are something we wouldn’t have done otherwise. Now it’s helping get our messages across. Other players are aware of what their colleagues are doing and it creates that positive competitiveness, really, which is what we’re after.
Ultimately, it’s down to the players. It’s down to them to try to keep them positive. They’ve got that buy-in, they all feel they’ve got a part to play, they all feel they’re going to contribute at some stage, making sure they do themselves justice and they can give themselves the best chance of doing that by doing the work that’s prescribed for them and doing it to a high level. The message was: see some positives in your own environment, but when you do the work with us, let’s get focused and make sure we can finish off the season. Through it all, we had that inner belief that we could bridge the gap and end last season on a high, which we did by coming back strong, focused and we ended up finishing third.
Of course, there was always going to be a bit of a knock-on effect on this season, with last season going on for so long. The difficulty, if we look back, was dealing with the Europa League, some players going on internationals, some players having different quarantines… the fitness elements at the start of this season weren’t so much of an issue because we’d worked that hard during the lockdown phase and they’d only really had 12 days or so off. The main challenge was more for the coaches and the gameplan from a tactical perspective, given the lack of time we had with those players in the lead into the first few games of the season. Again, we reverted to those lads in quarantine who might be away for five-to-seven days somewhere then come back in, through the Instagram groups there were always top-up programmes there and work they could do anywhere. They were hotel room programmes, really. For us, always the priority is the hamstrings and groin area, and there’s a lot of work there. If we can reduce the amount of injuries we sustain in those areas then at the end of the season, player availability will be better than it has been.
In terms of how this season differs to a normal season, the schedule so far has been normal for any team in European competition. The challenge is to those international players. Normally in September, October and November, those three mini breaks allow those players not on internationals to recharge their batteries. However, the lads who are playing internationals, if they’re involved in every game, there’s no let-up for them. It’s really hard. That’s where a knock-on effect for us, and maybe other teams as well, is the discussion around five subs. It would help to manage the squad better. Whether it’s for us, for other Premier League clubs or for countries going into the Euros next summer, there might be a consequence if we don’t do it.
In the shorter-term, we have dealt with a few players at the club suffering from COVID-19 this season. How that impacts on the player depends on them as an individual, based on the experiences we’ve had. The challenge first of all is them not coming in to train for two weeks, so how can we manage that? Again, from the experiences we’ve had during lockdown, we just go back to the lockdown programme. This is the way it works, some players will work independently, some will do a Webex session with Cleggy, but we’ll maintain that contact and make sure they’ve got a plan to follow for two weeks before they come back in.
Ideally, we want them to run – we’d much rather that than have them sitting on a bike – so if they haven’t got a treadmill then we arrange to get one there to allow them to do the type of work required. We want that transition from quarantine to normal training to be as quick as possible. When they’ve come back, different players have responded differently, experiencing different levels of fatigue from low level training. We’ve got to be careful in that transition that we keep on top of the player, keep those levels of communication… all players want to play, but you want to be honest with them and say: ‘We’re not looking short-term, we want to think long-term and manage your exertions and your body in a way that will allow you to run the rest of the season without any issues.’ With some, afterwards, two-to-three weeks after coming back, it’s taken that sort of time for them to really feel back to normal.
There’s always a lot of planning and communication around player availability and rotation from game-to-game because there are so many variables to consider. We’ve got to identify players who can reproduce the required levels of effort from one game to the next with such short breaks between games. The manager is rotating where he feels he can. Our challenge is to ensure that the players stay focused, recover well, stay on top of their nutrition, do the right things, live their life the right way and that’ll give us the best chance to roll through these games unhindered from an injury point of view.
So far, we are doing ok. We’re in a situation where our player availability is good; we just have to keep doing what we think is right. At the minute, I’d say a lot of the credit is down to the players’ application during lockdown. It’s a shift in the training programme the players have had. The work that Charlie does with them and the varying stimuli that he gives them is excellent, but it’s their application during lockdown that has had a big influence on where we’re at, at the minute. That doesn’t mean to say we’re invincible to setbacks – it could catch up with us and I do think these things work in cycles – and I’m a big believer in looking at what’s happening. If you’re having a spate of a certain type of injuries then you review it and see what you could have done better, but there’s an underlying philosophy for everything we do and we’ll stick with that. We know that what we’ve been doing over the last 18 months is working, so if something happens, that isn’t going to disappear overnight.
We know that managing the squad and monitoring everybody’s freshness is going to be so important over the rest of the season. Having virtually no pre-season was always going to have a knock-on in terms of freshness when we get into the last couple of months of the season and the games are still coming every two or three days through to the end of May. We know the physical demands, but you can’t measure the mental freshness, that preparedness to be able to pick themselves up to go again, drive and perform game after game after game, so it’s vital that we monitor that very closely.
The players understand that the squad is better all-round than it was 12 months ago. They’ve got a belief in the squad, they feel there’s a good mix of senior players and young players. We were the youngest team in the Premier League last year, we’ve added a couple more to the squad and they know there’s depth there. Across the league, you could arguably say we’ve got the best squad in terms of depth. What they have bought into, is how important the recovery operation is and their focus on recovery post-game and the day after.
They know all these little things are important to enable them to recover and play again two days later. They understand that their availability is important to the squad doing well, whether they play or not. That’s where the coaches’ and manager’s skills come in: managing the expectations of those who aren’t starting, because they’re all going to contribute at some point. I always like to see the reaction of the players on the bench when we score, and that for me shows that we’ve got a really strong cohesive unit. You can see it in the way the players are around the training ground.
They know that whether it’s them out on the pitch or their team-mates out on the pitch, as long as we win they’re happy and they can contribute to the next game or further down the line.
COVID or no COVID, being at Manchester United is always demanding for the staff and for the players, but this is a club that has always embraced adversity and we’re certainly relishing the challenges of this season.