Even before the terrible news that Vidic’s season is over, many of us were already questioning whether the football Gods were conspiring against United with an unusually high rate of injuries this season. Indeed, some have gone further, raising the concern that this is not an isolated phenomenon but the continuation of a trend that has been evident for several years—a fact that would point to a more earthly cause such as human incompetence, rather than the mischievous deeds of some dastardly deity.
Is this season exceptional for injuries, compared to what United typically experience? Is it bad compared to our major competitors? And what about United’s injury record over the longer term – exactly how does that stack up? With those questions in mind, I trundled my mouse over to physioroom.com, captured whatever data was available, pumped it into Microsoft Excel and run the numbers. What I found was generally good news about our longer term record—but it definitely confirms our worst fears about the current season.
Data is available for all current PL clubs back to August 2002. However, I focused on only six clubs: United, Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and City. Partly, this was because of the effort (though now it’s reasonably quick to add another club). More importantly, though, the number of injuries is bound to be affected by how many matches a club plays, and most clubs typically have a significantly lighter schedule than us (since most are not regularly in Europe and do not go far in the various domestic cups). In terms of schedule, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs are probably most comparable to us; and of course, I included City, for obvious reasons.
For each injury, the data includes the player’s name, a brief description of the type of injury, and the date reported. Unfortunately, it does not include the date that the player returned to action. I had been hoping to calculate how many matches each injury cost that player, but it wasn’t possible. Consequently, I wasn’t able to determine whether our injuries are generally more or less severe than those at other clubs.
However, I was able to break the data down into major categories of injury (Ankle, Calf, Hip etc) and I was also able to analyze the data both by calendar year and by season (for the season dates, I counted each season from July 1, since the actual start date moves around, and injuries also occur between seasons).
The Bottom Line
So what of it? How do United fare?
In regards to our current plight, the answer can be summed in one word: bloody shithouse (OK, make that two words). Looking first at the calendar year 2011, already we have reported 65 injuries, making it our third-worst year (since the beginning of 2003), and we still have a handful of matches remaining this year. Our worst year in that period was 2009, when we had 71 injuries, but just one more injury this year will equal our second-worst (66 in 2004). Incidentally, our average for a full calendar year is 56.625, so we are already way above that. Our best year was 2005, with 41.
However, when we break the data down by season, the picture looks dramatically worse.
The data includes nine full seasons (2002-03 to 2010-11) plus this season’s partial data. On average over the nine full seasons, we have reported 57.1 injuries. Our worst season was 2002-03, with 74, and our best was 2005-06, with 46. Last season, we had 60, slightly worse than average.
This season, though, we are already at 40, and the season is not yet at the half-way mark. Although it is difficult to calculate, a rough estimation shows that if we keep going at the current rate, we could end the season with well over 100 injuries. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure. However, when I did the same estimation for the other teams, most actually do appear to be on track for what you would expect based on their history. Only ours and Arsenal’s are wildly out of whack, indicating that we both may be heading for very bad seasons in terms of injury.
I also counted the number of injuries we report each season, between July 1 and December 7. On average, over the previous nine seasons, we reported 27 injuries during that period. This year, as I have already said, it is 40, which is a record for that period. Any way you look at it, this is a horror season.
However, as discussed in the next section, the good news is that United actually seem to be doing OK in the longer term. Our record isn’t the best, but it’s not the worst either – about middle of the pack, in fact. (And our figures look even better when you exclude City, who, as we know, have not generally had a busy schedule until recently.)
And so, to the details.
1. Number of injuries, by calendar year
* The Average, Best and Worse figures exclude 2002 and 2011, which are both incomplete years.
2. Number of injuries, by season
* The Average, Best and Worse figures exclude 2011-12, which is incomplete.
An analysis of the seasonal data raises a couple of interesting points. First of all, while commonsense might suggest that the rate of injuries increases as we get deeper into a season, the data suggests otherwise. In six of the previous nine seasons, 48% or more of injuries had occurred by this date (December 7), even though a typical season is less than 40% done by then.
Secondly, the average number of injuries suffered by this stage of a season is only 27. We are way above that, with 40. In the period 2002-03 to present, we have never had as many injuries by this stage of a season. Last season, the figure was 32. The season before, it was 36—and both those seasons included the long-term injury to Hargreaves (who hardly counts as a seasonal injury).
3. Types of Injuries
This table shows the percentage of injuries that fall into each category (for example, 21.5% of our injuries were ankle/foot injuries). I did not include all types of injuries, and although I did tabulate this data for all six clubs, I am only including the data for United and the Average here. In general we have held up pretty well—we are slightly better than average in some areas, slightly worse in others. The biggest concern would be ankle injuries, which occur at almost 2% higher than the average rate (especially since this is such a large category for football). Our calf injuries are also running at slightly above the average rate, and perhaps it is worth noting that tackling is one of the main causes of lower-leg injuries generally. Perhaps we aren’t getting as much protection from the referees as some ABUs would have us believe!
On the other hand, we have done well in back injuries (despite Rio’s problems) and groin injuries. We have also done well in shoulder injuries (something I was previously concerned about): although the data shows we are about average, Rafael da Silva’s shoulder problems actually contribute a large proportion of those. When you remove them from the equation, our figures are way better than the average.
(By the way, Arsenal suffer twice as many shoulder injuries as anyone else, and more than three times as many as some. If I was an Arsenal supporter or coach, I would be asking questions about that, especially since shoulder injuries are relatively rare for footballers. But since I am not an Arsenal supporter or coach, I don’t give a shit.)
Overall, though, Arsenal have by far the worst record of the six clubs, in total number of injuries, seasonal averages or annual averages. The Gunners’ season average of 67 is worse than the maximum ever recorded by three of the clubs. Their minimum (57) is as high as our average and almost as high as several teams’ maximum. And looking at the type of injuries they suffer doesn’t offer many clues: apart from the anomaly I mentioned about shoulder injuries, the other categories all seem in line (in terms of percentage). It is not as if, for example, they suffer a disproportionate percentage of lower-leg injuries. Quite simply, their players get injured more often, in every way, and have been doing so over a long period of time.
Although the available data (which comes from physioroom.com) has some limitations, it does provide some comfort by showing that in general, our record is about average. However, Liverpool, Chelsea and City have been consistently and significantly better, and that’s a point of interest.
In City’s case, that may partially be explained by their lighter schedule in previous seasons. However, it should be noted that their rates this season, and this calendar year, are both extremely low—only 12 so far this season, and 30 for the calendar year to date. (I am sure you will join me in hoping their luck runs out sooner rather than later.)
But it is undeniable that, so far, this season has been our worst, and if the current rate continues, it will be our worst by a very large margin.