What impact will the A-League Men’s COVID derailment have on the season?

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The A-League Men’s season is crawling to a return to relative normality as clubs make their long-awaited return to the pitch.

Perth Glory and Western United played their first games of the year last week, while Macarthur were set to make their return on Australia Day after exactly one month since their loss to Sydney FC before that was postponed.

In mid-2020, a time where worried uncertainty just about edged frustrated weariness as the overriding collective emotion surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, football had drawn to a halt. Until September, when Australian football fans traded in Optus Sport for BeIN Sports and picked a team to back as the Bundesliga brought our game back to us.

In 2022, we’re here again…kind of.

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Admittedly, European football in 2020 slammed its doors shut with conviction where the A-League Men spluttered and farted its way to a desolate existence of last-minute, reactionary postponements. A dead horse desperately flogging itself in-front of fans looking on in softly sympathetic disgust, like an emotionally-aware child watching Peter Hellier fill-in for one of The Wiggles, bombing but trying his best.

Alas, both competitions have had to return from abnormality and a stark lack of football to try and get a season finished.

So, what can we expect from the next few weeks and months of A-League Men’s football in the wake of this messy disturbance?

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A case report conducted by Frontiers in Sports and Active Living on the return of professional football in Germany post-lockdown highlighted the increased likelihood of injuries that result in the missing of minutes on the pitch.

“The injury rate per game following the COVID-19 lockdown was calculated to be 0.84 compared to 0.27 per game prior to the onset of COVID-19. Athletes were 3.12 × more likely to have sustained injuries resulting in removal from play following the COVID-19 lockdown,” it reads.

It’s understandable for bodies to struggle with the copious amounts of physical activity demanded by top-flight football after a period of relative sedentariness. Which is of course where the ALM’s very slow ticking-along rather than complete suspension may actually come in handy.

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Having said that, recalling comments from Macarthur’s Ante Milicic, this phenomenon may have already been suffered by clubs in the early weeks of the season.

“We’ve had almost no pre-season, so some of these boys are playing with hardly any match-fitness. This is happening to a lot of different teams; we’re missing four or five quality players now,” he said.

With a heavily minimised preparation period already endured by the A-League Men clubs, playing groups have already gotten their fitness up and need now only maintain it, meaning this could be an issue of less prominence.

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A similar study that investigated the physical performance of footballers after their return to Polish first tier Ekstraklasa found a distinct decline in a number of high-intensity actions on the pitch.

“Polish Ekstraklasa teams displayed significantly shorter total distances, shorter high-intensity running distances, and fewer high-intensity actions,” it reads.

Of course, this comes after a longer lockdown than even that enforced by the Bundesliga, so whether or not this will feature in Australia is unknowable.

The study continues by identifying the type of training that would prevent this from happening. Predictably, it involves repetitive use of HIRs (high intensity running drills), small-sided games, and other drills that involve match-like scenarios. This would help to maintain the awareness as well as the explosive fitness needed to carry out these actions. An interesting insight into how each club has been maintaining their match fitness may be incoming.

Where the A-League Men has another leg-up on the Ekstraklasa is that they have had more opportunity to train as a team rather than in isolation. Whilst the Australian teams have had to carry out Zoom-based fitness and training sessions during severe COVID case spikes, this was far more common during the Polish and German interruptions. This means that those small-sided games and match scenarios have been easier to perform.

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Only time will tell how comparable the effects of other football timeouts are to this season’s unflattering ALM wobble. The effect it has on the players’ ability to avoid injury and on their sharpness will provide an interesting insight into their training and just how tough a football competition becomes when ravaged by COVID-19.

Feature Image Credit: Jordan Trombetta

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Tom Macrae
Tom Macraehttp://medium.com/@macraetomr23
Communications undergrad at Western Sydney University covering Macarthur FC in the 2021/22 season. Newcastle United. Jack Grealish fangirl.

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