Inside Leicester City's cutting-edge plan to avoid injury amid this season's fixture blizzard

In the Premier League, Leicester City has long been at the forefront of injury prevention. When the humble Foxes beat 5000-1 odds to win the EPL title back in 2016 over wealthy and more decorated rivals such as Arsenal, Tottenham and the two Manchester behemoths, they did it using just 18 players all season. On average, then-manager Claudio Ranieri had 96 percent of his first-team squad available for each match, the highest in England’s top flight.

“Players are the ones who win the medals,” Paul Balsom, head of performance innovation for Leicester City, said in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “But whatever we did that year, the lack of injuries played a key role.”

Staying healthy is crucial for any successful sports team. And avoiding injuries — particularly the soft tissue variety caused by overuse — has never been more important than it will be during the condensed and jam-packed 2020-21 campaign, which began almost a month later than usual after last season extended into July because of the coronavirus pandemic.

So it’s no surprise that Leicester is one of just two Prem sides (along with Aston Villa) utilizing new technology that measures not how much a player runs during a training session or match, but how much stress specific movements are putting on their bodies, data that can be used to make sure a player isn’t making himself susceptible to an unnecessary spell on the sidelines.

Paul Balsom (center) is the head of performance innovation for Leicester City. (Photo by Patrick Smith - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Paul Balsom (center) is the head of performance innovation for Leicester City. (Photo by Patrick Smith - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Tracking players on the field is nothing new. Teams have been utilizing heart-rate monitors since the early 1990s. GPS tracking systems that measured how much distance players covered during games arrived a decade later. By the 2010s, most professional clubs had their athletes wearing devices under their uniforms in practices and matches that relayed information back to sports scientists on the sidelines in real time.

That info had its limitations, though. “There are a lot of dynamic movements during a football game that happen at a low speed, but at a high metabolic cost and high mechanical load,” Balsom said. “It was these movements that we wanted to get some sort of measure on.”

Balsom, who also serves as the performance manager for Sweden’s men’s national team, had been trying to figure out how to do that for more than 30 years, ever since he was a graduate student at Springfield College in Massachusetts. So a few years ago, he approached Catapult Sports, an industry leader in the tracking devices worn by athletes with more than 3,000 sports organizations worldwide, including a majority of NBA and NFL teams.

“Essentially, it was a performance-related question that our wearable devices and others in the market weren’t specifically answering,” said Karl Hogan, Catapult’s senior VP of partnerships and communications.

In the Premier League, every team employs an army of sports scientists. They know that poor load management plays a key role in soft tissue injuries. They also know it’s not just the volume and frequency of the load, but the type.

Eventually, Balsom and Catapult identified six specific maneuvers players make in a typical match: standing-like movements, walking-like movements, steady jogging/running, high-speed running, mid-intensity turns and changes of direction, and high-intensity turns and changes of direction.

Categorizing those movements gave players a better idea of when they might be putting too much stress on particular muscles or muscle groups. It allowed managers to design training sessions with injury prevention in mind.

“The goal is to more specifically manage the load to keep players on the pitch,” Balsom said. “Football will never be a science. Some players want to train a little bit more or less. But I think we can start building a framework to say what’s too much or not enough, and give them some sort of freedom within that framework.”

Even without Catapult’s “Movement Profile,” which officially became available to professional clubs on Sept. 9, Leicester’s training staff was careful to err on the side of caution when it came to managing the workload of its most important players.

For example, Foxes striker Jamie Vardy was rested for a pair of games last season during the Premier League’s busy “festive period” around the holidays. Vardy, who has missed just five matches because of injury since 2015 (out of 192), went on to win the Golden Boot award given to the league’s top scorer.

Before Catapult’s Movement Profile went live earlier this month, Leicester and Villa were among six European soccer clubs trying to quantify athletes’ explosiveness by using a beta version of it. The others were Scottish titans Celtic and Rangers and Norwegian sides Rosenborg and Stromsgodset. Australia’s Melbourne Victory and the Swedish FA have been experimenting with the technology, too.

Players, particularly young and digitally native ones, don’t just relish the additional feedback. They’ve come to expect it.

“We have to be more accountable to the younger generation for their performances,” Balsom said. “We’re doing our best to empower the players I work with, and if I can start that conversation with a piece of objective data, it makes their understanding that much easier.

“Because at the end of the day, football at the top level is not about running the farthest or the fastest. It’s about running the smartest.”

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