Before Covid-19 brought the Premier League to a halt, the average training session saw players come within two metres of each other 450 times.
As Project Restart moves into phase two, clubs must prepare for a return to competitive action while continuing to minimise unnecessary close contact.
The challenge is to sufficiently alter standard training practices to significantly reduce close contact while maintaining the level of intensity required to prepare for competitive action.
In finding this balance, data provided by Newry-based company STATsports have been essential.
The company delivers GPS tracking and analysis to 11 top-flight clubs including Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, and have spent recent weeks identifying the risk level associated with each individual training drill.
Last week STATsports presented the Premier League with a white paper detailing how frequently, and in what settings, players would come into close contact with each other during pre-coronavirus training sessions.
“We essentially drew an imaginary two metre circle around each player, some would describe it as like every player having a big subbuteo circle beneath their feet,” explains co-founder Sean O’Connor.
“From that we could identify the players’ positions throughout the whole session, and we could see when other players would come within two metres of them.
“We call them incursions, so if I come within two metres of you, that’s one incursion.
“We were able to see that the average duration of an incursion was just over three seconds, that was very surprising in a positive way, I think people were expecting that to be higher.
‘Average duration of two metre incursions last just over three seconds’
“That would have included players having water breaks, standing chatting to each other, doing specific tactical drills that are slow and static.
“If we identify drills that remove some of those elements, we expect that the incursion rate, frequency and duration will come down.”
The analysis has been well received by the Premier League, for whom the information can be used to provide clubs with practical guidance as to what sort of drills are more or less advisable at present.
“The key thing is that we are able to identify drills which will be able to give them the physiological exertion that they need from a performance and tactical point of view, but limit the incursions,” O’Connor says.
“It has been accepted as a huge positive by the Premier League teams and by players, this is taking actual data and we can present it in a way that we can understand the extent of risks, if there are any.”
With the league set to resume behind closed doors on 17 June, some clubs will require a greater departure from their normal training structures than others.
“From our research we have identified one of the clubs, say ‘club A’, whose warm-up routine has on average less than five incursions and then there’s ‘club B’ who would have 25 incursions in theirs,” O’Connor continues.
“There are fundamental differences in what they’re doing, so one will have to make changes and one maybe not so much.”