| WENGER: Leaving nothing to chance
The Christmas period is one of the busiest and most physically demanding times of the year for all professional footballers. At Arsenal, the preparation the players have been put through in pre-season, followed by a maintenance programme during the autumn, will come into its own.
Most of the ‘training’ over the next two weeks — with five games in 11 days — will be recovery, warming down, stretching, footwork with the ball, maybe a little light eight-a-side, but low amounts of physical work. Fitness and strength levels will be there, built in. But that is not left to chance.
At Highbury, that engineering of the players’ fitness is the responsibility of Tony Colbert, a sports and exercise scientist brought in by Arsene Wenger on the recommendation of the late George Armstrong three years ago.
It is an important job which carries with it huge responsibilities. After all, Tony has to maintain perhaps £200 million worth of physical assets in tip-top condition. Although the Gaffer has a lot of input, he relies on Tony’s sports science background to get the players to a certain level of fitness, and keep them at peak level for 10 months of the year.
Arsene has complete trust in him, because he knows how good he is at his job. Tony is totally consumed by his subject. Although he watches the home games, he is most at home working with our injured players at the training ground.
The biggest problem for the fitness expert involved in football is that it is not just about fitness, but about keeping players fit who are getting lumps kicked out of them twice a week. Therefore, it not only becomes a case of how fit you are, but also how strong you are. We call it ‘core strength’, which is what enables you to physically compete at this level of sport with other athletes, physically holding off an 11 or 12st bloke, while holding your own posture in the fray.
How it has changed since the times of George Graham when I first started at Arsenal. In the old days, every Tuesday we had a physical at Highbury, sprinting and running around the pitch with a warm-up, banging out two or three hundred sit-ups. It was very regimented, and with fewer midweek games, Tuesdays were dreaded.
All the old sayings were trotted out — ‘You can’t buy this at a chemist’, ‘It’s all in the bank now’; everybody was run into the ground. We didn’t even warm down then, which is unthinkable now.
It is so much more scientific these days, with the emphasis now on how we move on from the summer, where players are prepared in the pre-season. That’s where all the core work is done and from there it is basically a maintenance programme up until just before Christmas, when the tempo is increased a little bit more to carry the players through the workload.
The focus of this core strength is the deep muscles around the pelvis, and the torso, which give you the core stability. According to sports scientists, if that area of your body is strong, it helps to cut down on injuries. Tony Colbert says the centre of your body is the key to fitness, and it is probably that which lengthened the careers of Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown and myself. I now swear by it.
Players do and will get injured. In the old days, you had treatment on an injury, you did your basic work in the gym, the injury cleared, and then you had a fitness test with the physio. If you got the OK, you then trained to get fit. These days, as soon as you can — even if you have an injury — your fitness level is maintained through the injury.
Ray Parlour is the classic example of that in recent weeks. He was out for three months with hamstring and knee problems and was able to come straight into high tempo games against Valencia and Spurs in the centre of midfield..
We know his fitness was good in those games, because Arsenal employ a company who measure the statistics on every player in every game. How much running or sprinting you did, how often you jogged, walked, tackled, every little detail of your 90 minutes on the pitch.
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence, either, that we have finished the final part of the season so strongly in recent seasons. A winning streak at the end of the season, often owes much to the fitness team for keeping the players going.
I’m sure most, if not all, Premiership clubs have this level of sports science. Certainly, all the teams involved in the Champions League must have because the level of fitness needed for the rigours of that campaign demands it.
The game has evolved to super-high standards, and it had to. You can't compete to the level players are now at without scientific back-up and monitoring.
When you think that Arsenal won the League Championship in 1989 with 13 players, it beggars belief. That would be impossible today. Now, you need a guaranteed 22 to 30 players, a top-class manager, and backroom staff brimming in expertise.