Pre-season with Paolo is always said to be hard work but does all the running work? Alex Cooke looks at the evidence.
Fitness has been something of a theme for Swindon Town; the club’s foundations were being laid by the Victorian ideal of ‘muscular christianity’, its badge carries the exhortation to effort; ‘Salubritas et Industria’ and one of its greatest managers using the shock therapy of ‘boot camps’ to power his side to one promotion after another And in just over a season manager Paolo Di Canio has earned himself a place as part of this trope.
Fitness has also been a personal theme for Di Canio the manager, just as it was for Di Canio the player. Despite being known as a child as Palloca or ‘lardball’, Di Canio has always worked hard – he cites Gianluca Vialli as the greatest he ever played with precisely because of the former Juve man’s desire to continually better himself on the practice pitch. Of course, Di Canio did exactly the same thing at West Ham, frequently joining the kids after training to hone his skills and sharpness. So it is no surprise that Di Canio’s very public pre-season training has already gained a reputation for intensity.
Using the model of the Italian ‘retiro’, his players are taken away from the distractions and comforts of home and family to bond and to develop, but most of all to work. There Di Canio, his assistant manager Fabrizio Piccareta and fitness coach Claudio Donatell can train and test the players in a controlled environment and observe them almost 24 hours a day.
But what difference does all of this focus on fitness really make? Obviously last season a title was won at a canter, but Swindon also had more players, better players, and better-paid players than many other teams in the division – so how significant was Town’s fitness, and will it help the team in their League One season to come?
The evidence that Di Canio works his players hard is clear from their comments in interviews and on Twitter. Many talk of daily double sessions when their previous clubs only did single ones and we also know that this intensity of training goes on throughout the season.
“This club’s unique in the fact that we train or we’re in training every day. Monday to Friday we’re in and even Sundays when there’s a Tuesday game”, Paul Benson told the Advertiser. “There was a time between January when I first joined and probably the middle of April or the end of April when I only had three or four days off. When I was at Charlton I pretty much had that in one week.”
While players at almost every club gripe about how much time they spend on the training pitch, fans at almost every club believe their team will benefit from running, running and more running. But what matters is the balance – between training, resting and the other demands. After all a fit side without a shape, structure and understanding isn’t really a team.
If you’ve already read the article on how the goals were scored last season you’ll have part the picture. If Swindon’s physical conditioning was vastly better than the oppositions’ we’d expect to see late goals being rattled in game after game as their rivals flag and fail. Obviously that didn’t happen as just 6.1% of home and 19.2% of away league goals were scored in between the 76th and 90th minutes of matches, included added time.
Of the goals conceded Town didn’t show that their defence longer than their opponents either: a surprising 25% of home and 12.5% of away League goals were conceded after the 76th minute but before the final whistle.
One other key consideration is that Paolo Di Canio used a remarkable 41 players in the league, 21 of whom started less than 10 league games. That makes a huge difference to any side at any level if you are able to call on that many fresh bodies throughout the season.
Few other statistics provide anything like clear evidence: win ratios and possession percentages certainly aren’t proof of performance, however, the high passing completion percentages of Simon Ferry and Jon Smith hint that their technical ability was matched by concentration and mobility – something that stems from strong physical conditioning. However, obviously the sample size for these is too small to draw any conclusions from.
More useful is the disciplinary record, which shows that players weren’t making poor tackles due to tiredness throughout the season. With Football League figures showing that with just 433 fouls committed in the league (putting Town 20th in the division) and 60 yellow cards, 4 red and 4 penalties conceded, concentration obviously wasn’t an issue.
The antecedents of these statistics can be seen in the training videos and photos that have been posted online over the past week by the club, Advertiser and BBC. Long gone are the days of army camps and running until vomiting – these days players return fully fit after their breaks, and anyway pre-season testing reveals those who have shirked over the summer. We also know that Di Canio, in line with many other managers, tests at his team again at key stages throughout the season due to his comments about Medhi Kerrouche’s poor performance in a bleep test.
His methods are modern too. Batches of sprints, 400 and 800 metre runs with short rests between are recognized to be much more representative of the ebb and flow of a match than long cross-county runs. And while some fans have commented with surprise that players were already working with the ball on passing and shooting drills these are usually at the end of a bout of hard physical work – precisely to make sure that they can repeat the same actions accurately once they are tired and sore – just as they will be by the end of a match at the end of the season. An excellent article from former Swindon player Stuart James details these drills and how they are combined.
Obviously constant, intensive training has a price beyond bored or stroppy prima-donas refusing to run – and that is injuries, at least according to Raymond Verheijen. Verheijen may be one of the most outspoken coaches in football, but he is one of the most interesting and effective – particularly in reducing the number, and frequency, of injuries.
“The main reason for injuries in football is accumulation of fatigue,” he told the Australian edition of FourFourTwo. “Injuries do not happen because of bad luck. Football players have made football actions all their lives. All of a sudden a hamstring or ligament snaps and that has to do with the status of the body at that particular moment: fatigued.“
For Verheijen fatigue comes from an imbalance in training. “It is very important that you are doing the right football training at the right moment and in the right sequence. As an example, if you play four versus four in training today, which is very demanding on the body, you will definitely be tired the next day. If you do sprint training or shooting exercises the next day, then an already fatigued body, with fatigued muscles, is doing more maximum explosive actions in a higher frequency than they normally would in a game. You are asking for trouble. You are overloading a fatigued body.”
Perhaps Town’s training was ‘in balance’ last season as Town suffered relatively few injuries. The most high profile and longest lasting of injuries were to Paul Caddis and Matt Ritchie although both seem to have been from hard tackles or impacts during matches. In fact, Lukas Magera and Oliver Risser seems to have been the only players to have spent any significant time out after suffered a strain. However, Verheijen would already see signs of fatigue in Town’s squad: Paul Caddis has trained alone due to a knee injury and Gary Roberts has a hamstring problem. Verheijen would claim that such injuries occur precisely because the training hasn’t been structured and too much has been done too soon.
Di Canio is unconcerned by such niggles, as he told the Advertiser, he takes a longer view of pre-season. “It’s important that 90 per cent of the players come through. Now we are not worried because when you run at this level and maintain the speed and high intensity, you can go inflamed and have a little problem and then you stop for two or three days and start again.”
The evidence for Swindon being fitter than their rivals is hardly conclusive, there are other arguments that make a stronger case for having been decisive in the league – having more gifted players than any other team for one. But what is clear that Swindon’s physical conditioning provided a foundation for all of these factors – foundations which once again Paolo Di Canio will be looking to build upon on League One.