With the players having been back in training for a week, columnist and former Blue Pat Nevin looks in detail at important questions on fitness, injury and attitude…
What a lift it is to hear that most of the players are finally back in training, even if it is socially distanced training and the banter between the lads will be tricky to keep up from 30 yards apart most of the time! It is the first baby-step towards normality and if everything goes well, which we hope and pray it does, then the Blues could finally be back in action pretty soon.
It would be an incredible relief to so many people, but more than that it will bring back some joy to many lives that have been blighted by everything, from the most serious things like bereavement all the way through to boredom. Football can lift the spirits and now that we all have the sport in a suitable perspective having gone through the pandemic, we will hopefully be able to enjoy it for what it is at heart, nothing more or less than the beautiful game.
"This has been the kind of break a modern player only ever gets after a long-term injury."
— Pat Nevin
The Bundesliga is back and so far, so good in Germany, so I am getting very hopeful. I’ve not been so excited since they announced my golf club will be re-opening this week. Being in Scotland I did have to wait a week more than my English counterparts however, which is a bit annoying as my club is only 400 yards inside the Scottish border. 400 yards! That is just the distance of two decent drives away from England, but for that small distance I could have been back playing last week!
It is a small problem in the wider scheme of things I agree, so I am not complaining really. I am proud of myself because I actually managed to restrain myself from sneaking onto the course at 9pm for a few eight iron approach shots to the 15th, but I digress. Football is preparing to start and all the discussions of hub centres, fans or no fans, extended contracts and limited on-field celebrations will be replaced by actual, real football chat.
Among the last conversations will be the one about how fit the players can get in a limited period of time, having not played a match since hammering Everton on 8 March. This is interesting because you can have as many sports scientists and medics working on the numbers, it is impossible to say how long it will actually take for every single player because they are all different.
First of all they should have been staying pretty fit throughout the lockdown anyway, and although the one hour exercise per day during the worst of the lockdown might not have been enough, most players will have had access to an indoor treadmill at the very least. So, they shouldn’t come back looking like they have eaten all the pies and become specialists in viniculture, though some of the rest of us might have!
The sort of training regimes the players have had up until this week will have done little for actual ‘match’ fitness. This is of course a different level entirely. We always used to say that five or six weeks was around the minimum to get back after a big break in the summer, but in reality that rarely ever happens for many of the players now. With World Cups, Euros, Copa America and so on, how often do you really get that entire summer off now?
This has been the kind of break a modern player only ever gets after a long-term injury. How strange that at a time when we are surrounded by the dreadful news of the terrible consequences of Covid-19 for so many people, this break in some ways might turn out to be a great help to the fitness and health of some players in long term. I look at someone like Willian and think, at his age and with the miles he has already put on the clock, a prolonged break will have done him the world of good. It might even prolong his and quite a few other's careers.
He and the rest will still have to go through the pain of what is essentially a pre-season regime which is never easy but the next question is, will they really be match fit in time for the big restart? Maybe a better question would be, does it matter? That might sound odd, but if every player at every club has the same limited time to get near to their peak, what difference does it make if they are all at 85 per cent instead of 95 per cent? Surely no one then has gained an unfair advantage in these circumstances. The games may be a bit slower to start with, as I think they have been in the Bundesliga, but surely that is fine if they are all in the same boat.
There is of course the possibility of injury to players if they have not got themselves in absolutely perfect shape and I would not argue against that for a second. Yes, there is some increased risk there, but it might be worth it in extreme times and it has been slightly mitigated anyway by the slower pace, the possibility of using five subs and of course the larger size of the squads these days. Players also must use their match intelligence in a different way too, conserving energy when you can is an art, it is still used well be many players, especially those in the over-30 category.
The team might have to play a lot of games in a short period of time, but all the players will not have to play in all the games. It is up to those at the clubs to intelligently use the bigger squads that are available to them these days. They have larger squads now than they have had at any time in history.
I suspect one of the biggest deciders going forward for the end of this season, if indeed we can end it, is going to be the mindset of the players and more specifically the managers and the coaches. There are always excuses available in football and at the moment there are more and better excuses around than ever.
I have already heard some managers complain that they haven’t got enough time to get their squads right. I suspect the ones who have the opposite attitude, who see the joy of getting back to playing as more important, who get their heads down, work hard, accept the difficulties and don’t waste any energy moaning about them, they are the ones that will do best. Did I just give a perfect description of the attitudes of the Chelsea manager and his staff there? I suspect I did!