When Gary Lewin left Arsenal director Ken Friar described him as “quite simply… one of the best physiotherapists in world football” and he was right. Lewin, who began his career with Arsenal as a goalkeeper, became a physio for the Gunners in the early eighties and worked under George Graham, Bruce Rioch and Arsene Wenger. His unquestionable talents however led him from working for both Arsenal and the FA to securing a full-time post with the England team. For many it is too simplistic to say that Arsenal’s injury problems post-Lewin have been down to his departure and for others the Arsenal medical staff is now riddled with incompetence, but what does the evidence suggest?
Misdiagnosis is one of the major problems for footballers suffering from repeated injuries and the Arsenal medical staff have been caught out on numerous occasions in recent years. Most recently we have Jack Wilshere who was supposed to be out for a few days after injuring himself in pre-season, this turned into five months shortly after. The problem here lies not only in the poor judgement of the injury but also in the revelation that this is an old injury to Wilshere that had gone unnoticed and been allowed to degenerate. The same can be said for Vermaelen last season: originally out for a week, that week turned into the majority of the season as he suffered continuous recurrences of his injury before finally having surgery to sort the problem out. Kieran Gibbs was also recently let down. His stomach problems were supposedly over when a hernia was discovered and the Arsenal medical team admitted that this had been the likely cause of the problem all along. His return date is currently unknown.
Diaby in particular sums up our last few years of medical history. The Frenchman’s ankles seem to be made of glass, or perhaps something more brittle. Diaby’s injuries can at least be partly blamed on the initial ankle injury that he suffered at the hands of Sunderland’s Smith in 2006. However, since then Diaby has been fit for approximately half of his time with the club. Whether Diaby’s fitness has been mismanaged or simply unfortunate it would be easier to overlook the situation if the same things had not happened with Rosicky, van Persie, Fabregas, Gibbs, Vermaelen, Wilshere, Walcott and others. All of those players have for whatever reason spent considerable, and repeated, times on the sidelines sometimes taking years to regain full fitness. At first I was one of the people to say that we were just unlucky. That our players were simply on the wrong end of freak tackles like Taylor’s on Eduardo, Smith’s on Diaby or Chiellini’s on van Persie. However you have to take into account how players recover from these injuries. And also with the exception of broken bones, which really are freak injuries, the medical staff should know when a player is reaching their limits physically and should not be playing.
This season we have already had the second highest number of injuries in the league. We haven’t yet reached December and already Jenkinson, Gibbs, Miyaichi, Sagna, Vermaelen and Wilshere have all been injured; most of them still are. I managed to dig up some figures for the number of injuries sustained amongst Premier League clubs since the beginning of 2003 and over those nine years it doesn’t look good for Arsenal.
When comparing Arsenal to other clubs I have looked at Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. The reason for this is that these teams are the most similar to Arsenal, not only in the budget for their medical staff, but also because these four teams have consistently been in the Champions League and therefore have played roughly the same amount, and types, of games that Arsenal have.
So, over this period Liverpool have suffered on average 42 injuries per calendar year, Chelsea have averaged 45, Man Utd 57 and Arsenal 65. Now there are obviously some flaws with this data in that it only specifies the number of injuries and not the length of the injuries. However, it gives a good idea of the problems faced at each club and we know for a fact that Arsenal have also had a considerable amount of long-term injuries over this period. Moreover, part of the medical staff’s responsibilities is to help prevent injuries as well as treat them and these figures are quite damning on this issue.
So this tells us that Arsenal do appear to have a general problem with injuries in comparison to other clubs. But what do these figures tell us about Arsenal’s problems since Gary Lewin left the club? Well in the years previous to Gary Lewin’s departure Arsenal averaged 62.5 injuries per season and after it we have averaged 75. That is a considerable jump, especially considering that during that time advances in medicine have been made to the point that we should be better equipped to deal with injuries.
When this debate comes up amongst Arsenal fans the other arguments include the fact that people foul us more and also our small squad means that players have to play more games. To an extent both of these are true. Playing possession football does invite more fouls on to your team – the more time you have the ball the more likely you are to get fouled. However, against the vast majority of opposition teams all of the top clubs play a form of possession football and it doesn’t seem to affect them nearly as badly as it does Arsenal. In terms of the small squad I think there might be a case to argue there but that doesn’t explain why the figures jumped so sharply the year after Gary Lewin left for England.
Ultimately it seems quite hard to argue that Gary Lewin’s departure was, as so many people have said, the root of all our problems when we were clearly struggling before. However what these figures do suggest is that his departure certainly hasn’t helped. Arsenal’s recently built medical centre will hopefully go some way to alleviating the problem but one thing is for certain: it is an issue that has taken too long to be addressed.
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