Football could very much be on the return in England as the government allowed Premier League clubs to return to training, albeit with the proviso that players can only train in small groups and that social distancing is still observed.
Now, that is hardly ideal for a sport that enjoys contact – even if referees look to try and take that out of the game when a tackle goes flying in. Nonetheless, that gives footballers the chance to work on the training ground with their fitness, than perhaps, spending more time on the treadmill at home or running around the garden.
However, can a player still be ready to play an important Premier League fixture with just fitness in the bank and no match practice for two months?
It would seem Ryan Fredericks would be of the opinion that being ‘fit’ and having ‘match fitness’ are two different things and that the two have different qualities to them as well.
“The difference is huge,” says the West Ham United defender. “You can spend as long as you want – years, even – running up and down the pitch or running around cones, but 10 minutes in a Premier League match is 100 times harder than any of that.
“You can’t fake anything on a Premier League pitch. You have to react to so many things – mentally, as well. If you get caught out, you’re stuck.”
Head of Medical Services, Richard Collinge, goes into further detail regarding the different aspects and highlights that the science behind the process is a major guide in determining whether a player is match fit or just fit.
“There are different aspects to it.
“The science behind it all is now a major guide as to objectively clearing a player to return to training and then to return to a match, but the player has to also be psychologically ready.
“Those two things have to match, otherwise that player is not going to be ready to play.
“We have benchmarks and training data over several seasons so that we know what each player has got to achieve.
“How fast he needs to sprint, the number of accelerations and decelerations he makes, the distance he covers.
“You also have to break that down into positional analysis. Match fitness is very different if you’re a goalkeeper from a modern-day wing-back. Using GPS data and distances covered, if a player has had a six-week hamstring injury we can tell what we need to prepare them for based on their position.
“We do some change of direction testing, too, because they have to be able to pivot acutely. They have to be able to withstand the force of an opponent and strike a ball.
“The rehabilitation period is not cleared until we can match as best as possible the loading of the tissue that will be required for full training and then a 90-minute match.”
The West Ham full-back echoes those thoughts and shares his opinion that doing the sprints are not the toughest things to do, but learns more about whether they are fit enough for a match when they have to do certain drills in training.
“The hard miles in games don’t really tire you out,” he says. “Sprinting up and down isn’t really what we find hard.
“The hard stuff is the short bursts of pace, when you’ve got to quickly get tight to someone. Nobody can tell you that you’re match fit unless you’ve been in the scenario where you’re having to struggle in the last 10 minutes and you’ve got to grind out a game.
“That’s when you find out about yourself, not doing runs in training.”
One reasonable assumption that can be made is that a player’s return for the reserves is a major landmark on the road to match fitness.
However, Collinge has revealed that this could be far from the case, though, and has stressed that there are several other factors that can help a player be ready to take to the field and give it their all other than just being able to go the distance.
Playing competitive football at a level below where a footballer would normally be could be seen as a great way for the individual to get up to speed and acclimatise back to match fitness after not featuring for a spell, but there are other elements that it can help with, with the player’s state of mind being an important one.
“When placed in front of spectators and a worldwide audience then the anxieties of the player come into play as well,” explains Collinge. “That can affect the tissue tone. It’s all interwoven. The player needs to feel comfortable that he can play a game.”
Hammers’ right-back, Fredericks, is in full agreement with that assessment, whilst he also added that confidence is also something that goes a long way into helping players feel ready for a match.
“Match fitness comes from confidence,” he says.
“Going into the game knowing that you’re at a higher risk of injury or that you might blow up after 60 minutes isn’t ideal. You need to play two or three Under-23 games or training-ground games to get that. It’s unheard of to have a long time out and then go straight into the Premier League.”
With the English game hardly used to a break at a certain point in the season, David Moyes’ side are going to need to be at their very best to avoid the real possibility of losing their Premier League status should the league’s ‘Project Restart’ kick into effect.
The Irons have nine games left, against a varying degree of opponents with plenty still left to play for at the top and bottom ends of the division, so West Ham and Fredericks can ill-afford to allow the anxieties concern them and will need to feel as comfortable as possible.
One way that can help them is the communication channels between the club’s hierarchy and the Medical Department, something that is evidently rather strong and transparent at the London Stadium outfit.
“It’s all about clear dialogue,” says Collinge. “The process is one of joint decision-making.
“We might look at the frequency of games coming up and pencil in particular players for particular games. Then we discuss what that player needs to do to prove himself fit and available for that game.
“We as medical staff and coaching staff want the player to be confident, ultimately. We want to make sure that the psychology and feedback from the player is positive, so that they can feel primed for competitive action.”