Due to the impact of COVID-19 on football around the globe leagues and teams alike have had to adapt in order to be able to complete seasons on time. The Norwegian Eliteserien is no exception and having lost two and a half months of the 2020 season due to lockdown measures, clubs are now competing every three to four days in league fixtures in order to complete their season on time. Due to this intense schedule, a number of clubs are now experiencing injury crisis' of some sort. How are they dealing with these issues on a day to day basis? We spoke to a number of experts in the field to see how they are tackling the problem.
by Ben Wells
It was Aalesund manager Lars Bohinen who first spoke out in the press about the potential problems of a condensed Eliteserien season with regards to players' injuries and fitness levels. It was an extremely valid point to make all those months ago and it's validity has only increased through the first month of the Eliteserien season, which has seen the majority of clubs in the league having to deal with injury outbreaks across their squad due to the intense current schedule.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many Norwegian clubs had to furlough their playing & non-playing staff during lockdown to save mounting costs with no steady income. For clubs such as Haugesund and Sandefjord, who furloughed their playing staff early on in lockdown, injury issues are now starting to pile up as a direct result of the condensed schedule. Furlough laws made it impossible for the clubs' fitness team to set or track any work done by the playing squad whilst away from the organized training.
However, clubs such as Rosenborg & Bodo/Glimt decided not to furlough their playing staff. This was due to the fact that they were in a much more stable financial position pre-lockdown and so were able to conduct workout routines for their players. Fitness coaches and physios were also allowed contact with players and as a result were able to monitor players' fitness closely during lockdown.
Christian Thorbjørnsen is a physical trainer & physiotherapist for Rosenborg and spoke to me about how the club handled their players' fitness throughout lockdown;
"I am not sure about other clubs, but during the COVID crisis we worked hard to maintain/improve strength. We did injury prevention exercises and the players did sprinting with maximum recovery every week.
The players also did 'football movements' every week within the framework possible (during lockdown) and I think this is a key factor as to why we have so far avoided any injury issues.
Obviously, playing 11 vs. 11 on a full size pitch over 90+ minutes is something that our players have not been able to fully prepare for. Only training in smaller groups has been possible throughout lockdown. The psychological adaptation to this is well known from earlier years playing in all competitions (League, Cup & Europe), but now this frequency of games comes after almost half a year away from any competitive football.
During this period, it is all about recovery and preparing for the next match. If the players avoid injuries then the result will be that we can maintain our playing style over 90 minutes, which should improve now compared to say a month ago."
It is key to note that despite playing 6 league games in under 3 weeks, Rosenborg have so far been able to keep any muscular injuries in their squad to a minimum with only minor fitness or injury issues affecting key players such as Pal Andre Helland & Samuel Adegbenro in recent weeks.
"There is no doubt that the injury risk is higher playing 3 games in a week, compared to the usual Sunday to Sunday rhythm. But we all understand this needs to happen to be able to complete a full season."
Christian goes on to explain how good communication between the fitness department and the coaching staff has also had a positive effect on Rosenborg's strategy during this period;
"The communication here is good. I clearly have the impression that he (Trond Henriksen, interim manager) will listen to the medical staff, fitness team and the players before selecting the starting XI and match strategy. Luckily, the coaching staff here have a lot of respect for the medical team."
Mike Brown has been working with Bodo/Glimt since March 2019 and is the clubs' physical coach. Like Christian & Rosenborg, his team also decided against furloughing players during lockdown and so Mike & the rest of the physical team were also able to closely monitor players' progression during this period.
"Athletes take time to build tolerance to training load and maybe that is why we are seeing more injuries in the teams who weren't able to carry on working throughout the lockdown period.
The players are obviously generally more fatigued than during a normal season routine, which means we have to employ personalised recovery strategies to ensure the boys are available as much as possible during this period."
It would be fair to say that Glimt are the one Eliteserien side to look completely unhindered this season with regards to their fitness levels. In the first 6 games of the season rotation has been minimal and there have only been one or two minor fitness worries for the club to contend with. In comparison to other Norwegian clubs, they simply look like they have never been away.
The club are currently soaring high at the top of the Eliteserien table and many pundits are suggesting that this is due in part to the fitness levels of the squad compared to the rest of the league. It is a hard point to argue against having watched their relentless playing style in action over the last few weeks.
"We have been very lucky here at Glimt and have been able to select almost the same team every week. 9 out of the 10 outfield players have been able to start every game so far but every day we have a discussion with the coaches, who take on board all advice given to them. We are able to reduce and modify what we are doing in training to give the lads the best chance of being involved each game.
Each player has been spoken to before & after games and with their input we have created personalized recovery plans. I personally think it's really important to include the boys in the decision making as they know how their bodies react to the load and from that, we are able to offer guidance to support them.
Of course, the coaches always want the players on the pitch so there is always a pressure there (to get players' fit) but we are lucky to have coaches with a good understanding of the injury process which makes discussions a lot easier. We have been fortunate enough to be in positions during matches where we are able to take players off towards the end of games to give them a break."
In comparison to the likes of Rosenborg & Glimt, other Eliteserien sides have not been so 'lucky' with player fitness levels in recent weeks. In particular, clubs such as Stromsgodset, Haugesund & Sandefjord have had to cope with constant injury and fitness worries of late. Substituting key players early on in matches has unfortunately not been a luxury afforded to teams lower down in the Eliteserien table with poorer form and less available players to pick from.
It is key to note that at some stage, all of these clubs have placed playing staff on furlough during lockdown. Jordi Gonzalez is the Physical Coach for Sandefjord and spoke to us about how his players have been affected by injuries and fitness issues at this early stage of the season.
"As many experts predicted, the injury rate has increased during these first weeks of the season. I do not know exactly the number of injuries other clubs are experiencing in correlation to whether or not they had to lay players off during lockdown, but in our case at Sandefjord we have already detected an increase in muscular injuries in a short space of time.
During the 2019 season we had a total of 8 muscle injuries recorded, which is a good indicator of a low injury rate in professional football. This season, in a period of just 3 weeks, we have already experienced 5 muscular injuries which obviously tells us something different is happening.
We are experiencing injuries where the mechanism of the injury is not related to explosive accelerations or full sprint actions, which are usually the triggers for muscle damage. It is true that the lay-off period broke down the pace we were gathering coming from a long pre-season and having to restart the daily routines in training has been a blow for the mind and body of the player.
Adjusting to this is challenging and we are having to distribute the training load differently than before. We are a team formed by players from 16 to 36 years old, it is clear that each player needs a different recovery process. Also, with a significant difference in the number of minutes played in matches, it makes it challenging for us to provide the right dose of training for those who played less as a decrease of fitness level can easily happen if we are too conservative.
At the end of the day, all the teams have been in more or less similar conditions to us and there is no excuse for not finding alternative solutions now. It has been new for us and we are learning from it."
It is clear from speaking to Jordi that in his experience already this season, the way in which teams are dealing with their various injury outbreaks could ultimately decide how the season will end for many clubs. Eliteserien teams in general are not blessed with the wealth of finances that other European clubs may have and so replacing injured or unfit players with like for like replacements is unlikely to be achievable for many.
For example, this season we have already seen a number of players playing in unfamiliar positions or young players drafted into the first team quicker than they usually would have been in order to contend with the consistent injury & fitness problems teams are experiencing. Martin Ellingsen, usually a more attacking kind of midfielder, has been filling in at CB for Molde of late whilst players such as Sander Moen Foss at Sandefjord or Sondre Fosnæss Hanssen at Stromsgodset have featured heavily in the league already despite previously seeing little to no first team experience.
Having listened to the experiences of three different current Eliteserien physical trainers, I wanted to gauge the opinion of someone with a more 'neutral' view on the current COVID-19 crisis and it's effect on injury & fitness levels in the league so far this season.
Torstein Dalen-Lorentsen has previously worked as a fitness coach for the NFF, as well as being head of performance at Stromsgodset for 3 years between 2017 and 2019. He is now a PhD Candidate at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, working on Training Load, Periodization & Injuries.
Torstein is also currently working on a retrospective study looking into how health problems and physical performance have been affected by this condensed Eliteserien season, due to COVID-19.
"The main effect of this disruption is the length of time players were without footballing activity as well as the overall length of pre-season this year. Clubs and players were ready to go in March and then all of a sudden they were not able to compete at all. More importantly, they were suspended from organized footballing activity which has led to an acute drop in performance and readiness to play.
Players that are not accustomed to playing this amount of games, (6 in 3 weeks) such as most Eliteserien players, will accumulate fatigue and potentially their performance levels will decrease whilst their injury risk increases. The weekly training load is in fact usually lower when teams are playing 2 matches per week compared one, as few of the training sessions will elicit any considerable training load at all, even though the matches themselves carry a higher intensity and injury risk.
Examples from the Bundesliga since their season resumed are interesting. At first, injuries were 5 times higher in match-play compared to the last round pre-lockdown, but eventually decreased every round and by round 7 the injury levels were once again normal. In terms of physical performance, the first three rounds of play post-lockdown were noticeably down in high speed running, but already at round four the stats were actually higher than they were pre-lockdown. Whether or not this will be the same in the Eliteserien, is currently unknown."
It is still yet to be seen whether the long term effects of this intense period will be a net positive or negative for Eliteserien clubs. There are certainly examples from elsewhere to suggest that players could come out of this schedule fitter and physically superior than they were pre-lockdown, but on the other hand, with many players struggling with overload or muscular injuries they could see their season significantly effected due to being constantly on the road to recovery from injury.
Clearly, all clubs are dealing with this new scenario as best as they can and with 7 days since the last round of Eliteserien fixtures (Sunday, 5th July) it will be interesting to see the effect a whole week of training and recovery will have on some of the more injury-hit teams.