Last summer Arsenal finished the £30m renovation of their London Colney training base. The site includes a revamped ‘Player Performance Centre’, which is something of a hi-tech lair dedicated to the physical and mental welfare of the players. Here be scientists, doctors, physios, masseurs, psychologists, space age gymnastic equipment and the beating heart of Darren Burgess’ operation.
The Australian took over as Arsenal’s Head of High Performance last summer and after a period of review, he has begun to mould the operation into his own image. The tour begins in the players’ changing room situated just before the entrance to the Player Performance Centre. As you would expect, the space is clinically white and as spotless as a surgeon’s scalpel.
Players are still required to remove their shoes and leave them outside of the changing quarters, only sliders can be worn to preserve the spotless mise-en-scene. (We are given dispensation to spare ourselves the indignity of wearing plastic covers on our shoes). The changing quarters are, to coin a phrase, Feng Shui as f*ck, with few physical obstacles to easy movement. The corners of the room are rounded off to encourage integration.
Annexed onto the changing quarters is a medical facility featuring the usual array of massage tables, tapes and ointments. We are ushered into the cryotherapy room and I briefly fear a Futurama style scenario unfolding. They operate a little like a sauna might in an alternate universe. Players spend a few minutes in temperatures of -60, before progressing into the chamber next door, where the thermometer plummets to -180. This was presumably handy to prepare for the Ostersunds away tie in February. Cryotherapy is considered a key facet of muscle recovery.
We are then taken through what used to be the primary gym at Colney, which still has some machines and gadgets kicking around. Occasionally, warm up and warm down sessions are led here. But the new gym is infinitely more spacious and 22nd Century. As we walk through to the new gymnasium, the walls are embossed with inspirational quotes. The academy players are housed in a slightly different area of the PPC.
As such, the walls that separate the academy section and the first team sector feature inspirational quotes, such as “What am I going to do today?” with a series of more suggestive sentences underneath (“to help the team”, “to improve myself” etc). Once the academy boys make their first team debut, the number above their changing quarters is painted gold, the prestige is intended to create competition and motivation between the players.
The walls are pristine white and the ceilings are glass to promote natural light and create an airy feel. Colney is surrounded by greenery, giving the illusion of a countryside escape. There are few external distractions here. We walk through to the new gym, which looks like the sort of facility Ivan Drago would have used if Rocky IV had been made in 2035.
The phrase EVERYTHING MATTERS is suspended at the top of the wall of this high ceiling room. The floors have different levels of absorption to aid players recovering from muscle and ligament injuries. Effectively, they graduate from the hydrotherapy pool and in the gym they eventually move their way through the different gradients of flooring. So part of the floor is super spongy, causing you to tread a little like you are bounding through space.
There is a 40m running track through the epicentre of the gym and the machinery is, as you would expect, like something from Professor Frink’s laboratory. Players can just punch their name into the various weight machines and find their daily programme of reps and sets beamed back to them on an ipad. There is a 3D scanning facility which is able to detect a player’s fat levels.
The 3D scanning facility is also able to pinpoint where the player’s genetic and physical strengths and weaknesses are. Arsenal also have pioneering virtual reality playback technology. Like most Premier League clubs, Arsenal use an aerial camera tracker for matches. So players can slip on a headset and be beamed right back into a real life game situation, through use of virtual reality, they can analyse the whole panorama of the pitch when they took a particular action.
Even more ingeniously, young players can slip on a headset and assume the virtual reality form of Mesut Özil or Pierre Emerick Aubameyang to observe their panorama when they took a particularly decisive action. Elite sports clubs are spending millions in pursuit of marginal gains like this. We walk upstairs to the presentation room, where Darren Burgess leads a presentation. En route, Sean O’Connor, Facilities Manager, takes us past the academy classrooms, which are fitted out with a suite of iMacs.
Academy players are led through their coaching badges now as part of their education, so they have a clear and immediate alternative route should playing careers not come to fruition. We sit in the presentation room, where the names of every single player to represent Arsenal’s first team are etched into the walls (there are 853 of them at the time of the visit). Burgess explains a slight restructure of the Player Performance Team over the summer.
Gary O’Driscoll leads the medical side and the team has been bolstered by Candy Crush data scientist Mikhail Zhilkin, who is expanding the club’s statistical analysis on the medical and performance side. The range and sophistication of data available to players is mind boggling to the point that it is impossible to fully relay here without making this article novel length.
At one point, we are shown a scattergraph based on the hamstring lengths of the current first team squad. Players can have sleep monitored if they choose, bespoke programmes are created for players based on their physical statistics. These programmes differ according to a player’s specific movements. For instance, some players rely on long distance sprinting, whereas others are likely to move in different directions constantly over much shorter spaces. Burgess reports that sprints have increased by 65% in the Premier League over the last 4 seasons.
StatDNA conduct analyses of other clubs too, with a database containing a profile on every player so Arsenal can measure themselves and scout opponents physically. So, for instance, if an opposing player tends to drop notably after the 65th minute, that information is all fed into Unai Emery, whose coaches often attend the daily Performance and Research Team briefing. Analysis of injury data is deliberately compiled by consultants to maintain independence.
Physical statistics are also married with psychology. The players’ psychological and emotional well-being is regularly charted and this can feed into individual programmes where necessary. Burgess explains that he is a big advocate of flotation tanks, though these aren’t mandatory – it is down to player choice.
Burgess also talks a little bit about messaging and how that feeds the perception of injury management in particular. Arsenal choose to report on every injury and give prognoses as accurately as possible in public. They realise this approach is not without risk if return is delayed. Other clubs sometimes look to exaggerate recovery periods so an early return is seen as a ‘good news story.’
Arsenal, Burgess explains, will persist with a policy of openness and accuracy, which he understands potentially makes them vulnerable to public perception. In the spirit of openness, the Performance and Research Team has opened a Twitter account @ArsenalSEMS. Burgess also talked about striking the balance between pushing the players hard and not breaking them- aches and pains are the price of high tuning.
At one point, he tells us that the occasional injury is a natural symptom of hard work. He cites last season’s Carabao Cup Final, where both Manchester City and Arsenal racked up their highest running stats of the season. City suffered two hamstring injuries during the game whereas Arsenal reported a clean bill of health. But ultimately, City took the trophy with some ease. Handling player performance and its associated data is essentially an exercise in risk management.
A dizzying amount of data is made available to players and the coaching staff, right down to which sorts of exercises cause their heart rates the most stress- which can be key data in injury prevention. The current generation of players are accustomed to data having spent their youths playing football themed video games, like FIFA, Pro Evo and Football Manager. Many aspects of training are gamified to encourage competition. Players that post leading stats in the gym have their feats written up on the gymnasium walls.
The level of detail is, frankly, intimidating. Generally, the perception of how an elite sports team operates in terms of performance and medicine is quite narrow and attending an evening like this is to watch the atom being split and a volcano of graphs, gadgets and a detailed organogram spewing out.
The Player Performance Centre is a little bit like a hive with hundreds of ants beavering away to ensure that Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s hamstrings don’t explode as he bears down on goal.
As marginal gains become increasingly more important in football, let’s hope this work behind the scenes provides Unai Emery and his players with the extra edge they’ll need during what promises to be a challenging season ahead.