Tal Brown: As Playing Time Increases, So Must Awareness of Workload Management

The move to more added time throws a metaphorical wrench into the wheels for players, coaches, and performance staff. As the baseline of what players need to physically do in games rises, existing workload models are destabilised and the calibration of workload parameters need to be revisited.

It’s a new Premier League season – and this one might be the most demanding in history when looking at projected exposure to game minutes. 

Why? Well, FIFA have been keen to extend their World Cup injury time experiment into club football and we’re already seeing the impacts.

The average time that the ball was in play in the Premier League during the 2022/23 season was 54 minutes. In those matches, the average added time in both halves combined to 8.5 minutes. The first two weekends of the new EPL season saw an average of 12.5 additional minutes across the 19 matches – a four minute increase.

At first this may not seem like a meaningful increase, but taken across the season, it represents a 7.4% increase in actual playing time, equivalent to almost 3 more games!

This increase becomes even more pronounced in the lower levels of professional football where average time for “ball in play” is less. In English Football’s League 2, where AFC Wrexham now ply their trade, the average game last season had 48 minutes of ball in play. The first weekend of this season saw the average climb to 56 minutes. A 17% increase equivalent to almost 8 more games!

How did this happen?

The World Cup last December was unprecedented in terms of the number of additional minutes allowed by referees in both halves of the game. The reason, FIFA have surmised, is an attempt to cut back on time-wasting and add on extra time for goal celebrations, substitutions, and extended VAR decisions. For example, EPL referee chief Howard Webb said that previously, 30 seconds were added on when a goal was scored when, in fact, the average time until restart was closer to 65 seconds.

FIFA lobbied IFAB, the governing body who decides the global rules of the game, and referees have been instructed to be militant with the amount of additional time added. This is what we witnessed in action at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia, and on the opening weekends of the Premier League season.

How will players and team stakeholders react?

There has been much discussion around how this added time will put more added strain on players. 

Manchester United defender Raphael Varane has been most vocal, making an impassioned plea via his Twitter account that players had not been consulted on these changes and that greater consideration was needed in regard to the intensity of the calendar that the modern footballer faces. 

“There are too many games, the schedule is overcrowded, and it’s at a dangerous level for players’ physical and mental well-being,” explained the former Real Madrid star. 

Ultimately, this new reality for clubs gives sporting directors only two viable options:

  1. Increase the size of their squads (at significant cost), or, 
  2. Look after the players that they’ve got in a more sophisticated manner – emphasising a nuanced balance between player workload and health / longevity. 

The move to more added time throws a metaphorical wrench into the wheels for players, coaches, and performance staff. As the baseline of what players need to physically do in games across the season rises, existing workload models are destabilised. As a result, the calibration of workload parameters in games, training, gym, and rest all need to be revisited on a daily or near real-time basis.

We believe this is where AI and player health workflow tools can help.

A sophisticated AI engine can help staff to calculate the adjustments needed per player, while taking into account player health and risk of injury. 

Zone7, for example, is already working with professional leagues and teams to help them to be better informed by the performance data that they are collecting.

To approach this massive undertaking, the Zone7 platform covers several ‘building blocks’:

  • Day to day risk forecasting, tuned per player and their position and context in the team
  • Accelerated investigation framework to quickly understand the “why” behind high risk scenarios
  • Load management (or Risk Management) tools to evaluate the usability and projected impact of adjustments made to workload, recovery and other ‘controllable variables’.  

Also, recent updates to the platform now allow users to have access to the new Risk Forecasting Simulator. This tool enables club staff to easily interpret risk factors and to make more informed decisions around injury risk and workload management.

If player availability has been a strong predictor of team performance in the past, it will only be further emphasised this season.

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