There has been a lot of talk about injuries lately. From suspicions that Liverpool’s elongated injury list might be the doing of Klopp’s implemented new style of play to Ashley Young’s long-term injury to the regular characters – Sergio Aguero, Luke Shaw this season, or Arsenal in any given year.
For the average footballing fan, injuries are often the go to excuse for the failure of their club to meet their season-long expectations; however, a quick examination of this season’s injuries and corresponding performance would appear to blow such a defence out of the water.
Riding their luck this season, Watford have had the fewest injuries (10), fewest individual players injured (9) and fewest total days missed because of injury (182). Appearing to support the notion that luck with injuries plays a key part in a club’s success, Watford have over-performed so far this season. So, too, have the team who are second-luckiest in 2015/16: Leicester.
However, at this point the correlation begins to become somewhat erratic. West Brom and Swansea appear lucky on paper but underperform in reality. Sunderland and Aston Villa who nobly prop up the league sit mid-table on the injury list. The Manchester clubs have had the most players injured this season (with Manchester City carrying, by far and away, the most individual injuries) yet both clubs are doing relatively well.
Arsenal, the veterans of the injury-blaming community have had some significant injuries through the absence of Carzola and Sanchez, but have only had a paltry 14 players injured compared with Manchester City’s 20 and Manchester United’s 21. Indeed, only six clubs have had fewer injured players than the league leaders this season (Watford, Leicester, Swansea, Norwich, Southampton and Everton).
In spite their calamitous season, only six teams have had fewer missed days this season due to injury than Chelsea (428), and none of these were in last season’s top 6 (Leicester are the only one’s currently in the top 9).
Despite all this, those hard-line supporters of the go-to excuse of injuries would highlight the value the players injured, that the injuries of five Nicklas Bendtners wouldn’t equal a whole season missed by Sergio Aguero.
This, to a large extent, is perfectly true. Arsenal, for example, have 4 significant absentees from their main squad: Wilshere and Welbeck have been missing all season, whilst Sanchez and Carzola have been absent since November 29th (whilst Sanchez and Welbeck should be back soon, their other two teammates will most likely be out of action for over a month each). If Arsenal don’t win the Premier League, might people turn back to these crucial absentees and ask those ever-important ‘what if’ questions.
What people often omit when performing the post-mortems on their side’s seasons (as will, naturally, happen in four months’ time), is the ill-fortune experienced by their rivals as well as their own team. As much as Arsenal might be missing Sanchez et al., Manchester City’s own losses of Aguero and Kompany this season have been crucial. Captain Vincent Kompany’s absence has been particularly missed, with the 8 games before the Boxing Day dismantling of Sunderland (Kompany’s only appearance – for a handful of minutes – since before this run) yielding a dire 11 points.
Fans could argue that, if all other teams remained the same, but one of their key players wasn’t injured, then it could have made the difference to their season; it would, in truth, be just the same as a big January transfer window signing. However, this clearly doesn’t justify any label of gross misfortune.
In addition, whilst clubs with large squads are far more likely to top the injury charts, purely statistically (hence Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham form four of the six ‘unluckiest’ teams this season), it is equally true that in any team, regardless of squad size, the key players are often likely to pick up an injury or so between them over the course of the season. If any player were to play week in and week out, then if their body shows the strain, it can hardly be placed down to bad luck on every occasion.
All the top sides have missed key men this season: Manchester City and Arsenal have been covered; Liverpool miss Sturridge, Skrtel, Lovren and Coutinho; Manchester United’s trio of Jone, Schweinsteiger and Young are out; Tottenham currently have to leave Bentaleb and Mason out of the squad. The list goes on.
What is clear to see is that the age-old footballing cliché of injuries making all the difference is only ever true in isolation. Injuries are part and parcel of the game, and the sides that win the league are often those with strength in depth, not purely avoiding any missed game time by pure chance.
The injured players themselves, of course, are woefully unlucky, especially those who face long term injuries through no fault of their own, such as Luke Shaw’s season ending leg break in the Champions League (which may also cost him a place at the European Championships this summer).
Yet for a team to blame their season on injuries is to ignore the plight of the rivals around them, or to dodge the issue of the weakness their they have in terms of squad depth. Fortune, of course, ebbs and flows and there may occasionally be a team that survives a season relatively unscathed and consequently reap their rewards (Leicester have done remarkably well for themselves this campaign), but injuries are par for the course, and the flimsiest of footballing excuses.