One secret weapon in Liverpool’s title defence could be rooted in an ability we don’t always consider when comparing them to title rivals Manchester City: durability.
Liverpool’s team arguably revolves around four irreplaceable pieces: their attacking trident of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, and stalwart defensive leader, Virgil van Dijk.
Each features a relatively super injury record during their time with Liverpool with Van Dijk having not missed a game since he was transferred to Liverpool during the winter of 2017/18 while recovering from a thigh issue, Salah missing only two games total, Mane an average of fewer than five games per season over his six seasons at the club, and Firmino roughly two games per season over his six years at Anfield.
These injury records are made even more impressive by the fact that each of these players has participated in a large volume of games in recent years — both domestic and international with a steady increase in game intensity as Liverpool became increasingly competitive in the Premier League and Champions League. Increased game intensity and competition level have been linked to an increase in injuries.
A key question that comes to mind is: What makes these players so durable and is there some observable trait that hints at better durability than other players?
First and foremost, the players’ durability is a testament to Liverpool’s training staff at Melwood as research clearly shows that appropriate strength and conditioning is a critical factor in reducing and possibly preventing injuries, particularly soft tissue injuries such as muscle and ligament problems. Further, when the players’ have picked up injuries, the medical staff has either dealt with them quickly or, in multiple cases to my recollection — particularly with Mane in recent years — been proactive in pulling him out of games where he felt any sort of discomfort or muscular niggle. To that point, I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Mane suffered his first major muscular injury while away on international duty for Senegal.
The question of an observable trait hinting at durability is a much tougher one because there are so many variables at play. Training staff can observe a player’s movement mechanics — increasingly using force plate and motion capture technology for data points — to look for potentially risky movement patterns but there’s still considerable grey area as to what are “good” or “bad” movements.
One key variable contributing to durability ties back into the strength, conditioning, and fitness levels I mentioned above: How committed and disciplined is that player to their mental and physical fitness? For example, seemingly evergreen players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are renowned for their ferocious appetite for fitness and staying in peak physical form.
Of course, this sort of mental factor isn’t easy to decipher for clubs and they will also look at injury history record to get a more accurate picture of the player’s durability and how likely they may or may not be to feature in 30+ appearances.
However, examining the injury history record and potentially deeming a player as “injury-prone” goes beyond simply counting the number of injuries or games missed, rather the key piece is looking at the type of injuries and how they happened. For example, non-contact injuries may speak to some underlying deficit in the player whereas with contact injuries, you put enough force through something at the right angle and it’s going to break.
Further, soft tissue injuries in key areas (hamstrings and adductors in particular) are considered higher risk due to their higher reinjury rates and players can fall into a vicious cycle of injury-reinjury. A Liverpool example that comes to mind clearly is former striker Daniel Sturridge, who dealt with a plethora of muscular and tendon strains. Another prime, current example is Barcelona winger Ousmane Dembele, who has had four major hamstring injuries since joining the club.
I’m just scratching the surface here when it comes to medical assessment and injury prevention/treatment because there are so many variables and, frankly, grey areas when it comes to this sphere. However, what we know for a clear fact is that a player’s durability and health underlies performance because if you can’t consistently train or get onto the pitch, then no amount of talent is going to overcome that. That’s particularly the case right now as teams and players dredge through condensed schedules without much rest and, in the case of the Premier League, no five sub rule to help alleviate some of those stresses (an oversight I wrote about in detail here), and the European Championships and Copa America looming during the summer of 2021.
Durability may end up influencing domestic league titles, cup competitions and international tournaments unlike any previous period before. Therefore, as the Premier League progresses, Liverpool’s secret weapon to repeating as league champions and reclaiming the Champions League mantle may lie in their durability.
After all, the best ability is availability.
Dr Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a physiotherapist, movement and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA-based wellness and athletic development/performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more) by going here.