LaLiga clubs uncover secrets to optimising player performance
Is it possible to mould the physically perfect footballer? We are talking about the kind of athlete that’s able to get up and down the pitch for 90 minutes for 60 matches a season, whilst, needless to say, never missing a game through injury. The more you run, the fitter you are.
This was the mantra of the rather rudimentary fitness regimes back in the day when Real Madrid’s La Quinta del Buitre and FC Barcelona star Diego Maradona battled it out for LaLiga glory. There really wasn’t anything to it. Those days aren’t all that long ago, but in terms of fitness training it’s as if we’re harking back to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, with the game having advanced light years since then. Today your average training ground could easily be mistaken for a science lab, brimming with state-of-the-art technology the product of proven research and painstaking experimentation.
It’s all about optimising player performance and leaving absolutely no stone unturned. GPS technology, big data, neuropriming, nutrition, vibration systems, isoinertial technology, sleep studies, hydrotherapy, zero-gravity equipment and psychology are just a handful of the fields that are now very much part and parcel of the modern game. These concepts and systems are central to the working life of your modern-day fitness coach, who is tasked with educating themselves to become an expert in a whole range of different disciplines related to a player’s general well-being.
“The job title of ‘fitness coach’ is just one of the many hats we wear,” says Granada CF fitness coach, Victor Lafuente. “At the end of the day, we’re responsible for optimising player performance. People seem to think that our job is just to make the players run further, jump higher and keep going for longer. But there’s far more to it than that: sleep, ergogenic aids, the various interpersonal relationships with the player, etc. Our role isn’t limited to just planning strength exercises.”
In the modern game, it’s absolutely essential that fitness coaches adapt their methods to the team’s desired style of play. In fact, the two things are inseparable. “First and foremost, you’ve got to know what type of football you want to play. Are you looking to apply a high press or counter attack quickly when you regain possession? Every drill we plan is focused on that and targets that particular aspect of fitness,” explains Sergi Perez, the man charged with ensuring that the CA Osasuna squad are in peak physical condition.
“Now all of this seems so obvious, but it's not just happened overnight,” reflects Dani Pastor, fitness coach at RCD Mallorca, who has now been in the business for 20 years. “When I started out, the holy grail was La preparación física del fútbol basada en el atletismo (“Fitness training for football based on athletics”) by Carlos Alvarez del Villar. That tells you all you need to know. What managers used to want was someone who’d just send the players out to run. That was all there was to it. It’s now mainly about working on the training pitch with a ball at your feet.
“A fitness coach working in football in the modern age has to consider the possibilities offered by technology, laying on individual training drills, adapting to a footballing blueprint, spending more time on the training pitch than in the gym, injury prevention and the overall influence of a range of medical and biological disciplines. All of this calls for more human resources within the club’s departments and a seamless coordination between them. Fitness training is no longer just a case of running for the sake of running and seeing how fast we can get heartbeats pumping.
In terms of the future, things show no signs of slowing down. Javier Miñano, whose three decades of experience make him one of the most skilled fitness coaches in the Spanish game, is now back in LaLiga with Valencia CF and is in no doubt that “the future is all about technology and, more specifically, the use of big data. We have to look to something more scientific in terms of investigation in order to simplify the data. The key to the future is also all about individual training and tailoring the workloads to individual players to a greater extent. Or, in other words, and as the slogan that inspires the Granada coaching staff puts it. We have to be experts in 21 players.”
To return to our question, is it actually possible to mould the physically perfect footballer in the short to medium term? LaLiga clubs certainly think so and they’re definitely going the right way about it. The presence of world-renowned fitness coaches, including the guru Paco Seirul·lo (head of the Methodology Department at FC Barcelona) and Real Madrid’s Gregory Dupont, who was part of the backroom staff in France’s 2018 World Cup-winning set-up, adds real value to the Spanish top flight. Meanwhile, the following seasoned campaigners do a convincing job of deceiving onlookers into thinking that they’re fresh out of their clubs academies: Joaquin Sanchez (Real Betis, 38), Diego Lopez (RCD Espanyol, 38), Aritz Aduriz
(Athletic Club, 38), Jorge Molina (Getafe CF, 37), Salva Sevilla (RCD Mallorca, 35), amongst others. A number of LaLiga clubs have welcomed us in to offer us an insight into their efforts to mould that perfect footballer, as they reveal the secrets behind the fitness training of some of the greatest footballers on the planet.
GRANADA CF: Local muscle vibration gives Andalusians best injury record in Spanish football
Victor Lafuente was appointed as the fitness coach at Granada in the 2018/19 season as a member of Diego Martinez's coaching staff and proved instrumental in the club's promotion from LaLiga SmartBank last time round. Granada has the third lowest salary limit in LaLiga and are still in a restructuring process initiated by the arrival of Chinese owner Jian Lizhang in 2016.
They’re doing things the right way, though, even spending time as LaLiga Santander leaders following promotion from the second tier this summer and only having spent 6 seasons in the top flight in the last 44. Well, amongst other feats, the Andalusian outfit promoted cause they registered the best injury record in the professional ranks of the Spanish game last term, picking up just five muscular injuries throughout the whole campaign (and just a single hamstring injury). This record is partly down to the revolutionary local muscle vibration treatment, which was introduced into the club's fitness regime by Lafuente, a pioneer and visionary fitness expert within the European game.
“It all started back in 2016," recalls Lafuente. "I was looking for a muscle activation training course and came across Neuromecánica LAB, who looked at things from a neurological approach. My dad had Alzheimer’s and that was what initially prompted me to look at how the brain works. Another reason behind it was my interest in finding out why many players suffer injury relapses. And I discovered that injuries not only affect the body on a musculoskeletal level but that they also impact on neurological mechanisms. Whilst you might recover physically from an injury, there are still neurological changes which can end up causing a recurrence of that injury.
“We tend to think it’s a case of just improving your strength, but really everything goes through a primary process where the brain dictates and organises things,” tells Lafuente. ”Anykind of neurodegenerative illness ultimately means that, even when your muscles can behealthy, if your brain doesn’t coordinate the signals received that it has to send to the muscles, then the muscles aren’t activated as the context demands. An injury causes a neurological change because there’s an interruption to the process that carries the signal to the sensor and motor cortex and on to the muscle. This whole circuit is affected.
“Local muscle vibration, which is achieved using various different devices, works a particular muscle, helping to reorganise and reconnect the neurological circuits. It’s not enough for the muscle to be healthy; the brain also has to be aware that it’s healthy. The team’s injury record from last season speaks volumes of the therapy’s effectiveness. Indeed, the system is beginning to take root across Spanish and European football, both to assist injury recovery and activation prior to training sessions and matches. At Granada, where everything is done with meticulous detail, the technique is used on a daily basis.
Grounded on a similar theory, another neuro priming tool being employed at Granada involves visualisation, which is very much on-trend due to the recent rise of virtual reality. The club turned to the technique when treating long-term injury victim, Quini. It involves getting the player to imagine himself back out on the pitch and in tip-top condition. The technique is producing good results, with the club recognising the role it’s playing in the defender’s recovery.
One vital ingredient in all of this is the collaboration between departments. One of the major programmes rolled out at Granada, again relating to neurological processes, is how the club studies players' sleep. Led by Manuel Arroyo, a member of the medical department and an expert in what’s called ‘Sleep-Fit’, the guidelines offered to all squad members to improve the quality of their sleep sparked dressing room competitions to see who got the best night’s sleep, even despite these guidelines including factors like the temperature, the light in the room and the use of mobiles before sleeping." It’s all in the name of optimising player performance.
CA OSASUNA: New Big Data Department turns the Rojillos into second-half specialists
Talking of GPS technology, an excellent example of the importance the system has gained within LaLiga is to be found at top flight newboys Osasuna. An interesting statistic from the first half of the LaLiga campaign tells us that if the half-time scores remained the same at the final whistle, the Navarran outfit would find themselves languishing in the drop zone.
However, they’d be amongst the top six if only second-half scorelines were counted. Los Rojillos are a historic club in Spain, founded a century ago and one of only four clubs (along with Real Madrid, FC.Barcelona and Athletic Club) owned by its members as opposed to being Sports Public Limited Companies. They have traditionally had a reputation as being a side that never gives in and, thanks to their current fitness levels, they’re now able to demonstrate that virtue for the full 90 minutes. One man who has been instrumental in this, along with manager Jagoba Arrasate, is fitness coach Sergi Perez, who has been with the Pamplona-based side since 2018.
Sergi, whose brother, Jesus, served as the fitness coach under Mauricio Pochettino at Champions League runners-up Tottenham, has a passion for fitness that instantly shines through. Indeed, he reveals that the brothers often exchange ideas and discuss how they can implement new approaches within their respective methodologies. One of Sergi’s biggest interests within his role was the processing of all the performance data collected by the GPS vests worn by the players, the decisive factor being able to filter and interpret the data being gathered. Upon checking in at El Sadar, one of Perez’s first suggestions was that a Big Data Department be created. This proposal was approved and the department is currently headed up by Sergi’s colleague, Juantxo Martin.
“In our training sessions we use GPS technology to monitor metrics like the distance covered by the players, high-intensity efforts, maximum speed, impact, accelerations, decelerations, etc. It can also be used to monitor things live, which is useful when it comes to players carrying knocks. We compare this data with that collected during matches, which we monitor using GPS and Mediacoach, the video-analysis platform that LaLiga offers its 42 professional clubs,” reveals Pérez. “Mediacoach also allows us to see how our opponents are doing. This means that, at the start of the week, we’re able to give the coach a report containing data on the opposition to predict certain features of the game: how high up the field the opposition defend, data about their attacking play and width, the areas of the pitch in which they make the most recoveries, how many shooting chances they have per game, etc.”
The use of Big Data is so established within the modern game, and at Osasuna in particular, that the information provided by Mediacoach is also used by Los Rojillos in player recruitment.
“If we’re looking for a particular type of player, we can pull up all of their information within five minutes, as long as they’ve been playing in LaLiga. For example, we looked at Chimy Avila’s data before signing him" noted Perez. Indeed, Chimy Avila has been one of the standout performers in the first half of the LaLiga campaign and his case represents yet another example of how Big Data is changing the face of the beautiful game.
VALENCIA CF: Javier Miñano remains at forefront after 30 years, two Champions League crowns, World Cup winners’ medal
The introduction of Big Data in the world of football and its progress hold no secrets for the Valencia CF coaching staff. Albert Celades took up the reins at Mestalla at the beginning of the current campaign in what is his first taste of management in his own right at an elite club, following his previous spells at Real Madrid and with the Spain youth teams.
The team’s impressive statistics speak for themselves and are the result of the combined efforts of a coaching staff that’s proved itself capable of getting the very best out of a squad that clinched Copa del Rey glory in 2019. One of the members of Celades’ backroom staff is Javier Miñano, a prominent fitness coach within Spanish football, Vicente del Bosque’s right-hand man for many years and a tactician who’s also worked under Rafa Benitez and Toni Grande, amongst others.
Miñano has been operating at the very top of the game for three decades (at Atletico de Madrid, Real Madrid and with the Spanish national team) and boasts an enviable trophy haul that features two Champions League crowns and a World Cup winners’ medal, secured in 2010 in South Africa. We’re clearly talking about a master in his field who’s currently plying his trade at Valencia, who are at the forefront of the game when it comes to fitness training and, in particular, Big Data.
“During my career, I’ve carried out a scientific study, a doctoral thesis, and then with the emergence of the GPS technology, I found myself faced with such an overwhelming amount of data. You collect lots of information and it’s difficult to interpret and the only possible approach was a scientific one, says Miñano, who has first-hand experience of the break-neck speed at which fitness training has developed since he began back in 1989.
“Perhaps the biggest revolution I’ve witnessed in all these years was when I was at Real Madrid, with the release of a program called AMESCO through which we started to receive information about the effort put in by all of the players during matches. That was nearly 20 years ago now, but we only had the option to follow one player at a time. Based on that information, we indirectly tried to assess the demands of the competition in general terms," he recalls. The modern-day GPS devices are able to accurately measure a player’s performance, both in games and training scenarios.
“This allows us to identify the actual demands and give the players what they need,” he adds.
“Another of the most significant changes I’ve witnessed is the increase in the number of games. Playing twice a week greatly alters the training programme compared to having one match per week. The whole training schedule is targeted at ensuring that the player is in the best possible shape on those two matchdays,” explains Miñano. As the number of games and physical demands placed on players have increased over the years, there has been a parallel rise in awareness about the importance of fitness training, through the influence of science and technology.
“The player has a far more acute sporting culture in every sense and takes better care of themselves. This applies not just to the conditioning training but also to their personal care regimes, including rest, weight and their diet, etc.,” says Miñano, an influencer who’s made the invisible aspects of training essential for all those involved in LaLiga, which is at the forefront of developments when it comes to optimising player performance and, as a result, the standard of the Spanish game.