For many clubs, it will be a relief when this 2020/21 season is finally over.
Empty stadiums, strict covid protocols and a calendar more condensed than ever has taken its mental and physical toll on teams across the world.
England’s lower tiers suffered more than most. A 46-game regular campaign, before a cup tie is played, is intense enough when commencing at the beginning of August. But kicking off a month later has taken the grueling schedule to a whole new level.
Hull City were in that situation. In a hastily thrown together end to 2019/20, they finished bottom of the Championship table and faced relegation to League One. Their final match, a 3-0 loss at Cardiff City, took place on July 22. Just six weeks later, on September 5, they were facing Sunderland in a Carabao Cup tie; 44 days to provide their squad with a recuperation period before pre-season training and a return to the fray.
It’s been extremely tough, and the brutal nature of competition in such a tight timeframe has taken no prisoners. Hull needed an edge, and knew that keeping as many of their first-team players as fit as possible could be decisive in ensuring a quick return to the Championship. The League One season in 2018/19, for example, commenced on August 4 and ran until May 4. A team playing 46 league matches including a minimum of one in each of the League Trophy, the League Cup and the FA Cup faced 49 matches in 275 days. That’s a fixture every 5.61 days.
But the 2020/21 season commenced on September 5 and ran until May 9; a 245-day window. What’s more, Hull City competed well in the three cups, playing a total of 11 additional matches, taking their season total to 57 games. That represents a match, on average, every 4.29 days - a significant difference. It’s easy to see how squads have been stretched to the limit with minimal training time and incessant fixture preparation.
And so Hull City consulted with Zone7 to assist them in coping with a season like no other before.
Zone7 uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning to provide injury risk forecasting to clubs. They analyse the abundance of data they have collected to uncover patterns invisible to the human eye, and make proactive recommendations. The goal is to improve player availability, detect burnout risk and mitigate injury risk. These injury risk assessments exist alongside an organisation’s existing sports science team as an enhanced data analysis tool.
The intention is in keeping players as fit as possible, for as long as possible - but this doesn’t simply mean withdrawing a player from training if their risk profile is deemed to be of concern. It depends on the situation, and on the athlete, and it’s often the case that the intensity of a training regime may be increased in order to reduce the propensity of injury.
Zone7 has an extensive list of clients across multiple sports, and have completed full case studies in football with the likes of Getafe who, in recent seasons, have competed in Europe and with teams on much higher budgets, and Rangers, who just last month halted Celtic’s bid for 10 consecutive Scottish league titles.
In Hull City’s case, 2019/20 had already been difficult in terms of injuries before lockdown hit in March. They began working with Zone7 in what is known as a ‘validation period’, where a retrospective analysis of injury propensity until that point is presented to the club as part of a case study. Essentially, this calibration allows Zone7 to show what they would have predicted had the technology been in place.
In May, before football returned, Hull’s team were suitably impressed with the product and brought Zone7 on board for the remainder of the 19/20 season - now compressed into just over a month as football re-emerged post-lockdown.
Hull played nine times in 33 days, but even with that small sample, they were encouraged by the results.
Andrew Balderston, Head of Medical Services and Performance, said of Zone7’s implementation: “We started using Zone7 in the first lockdown period to retrospectively look at our injuries of that season, as we had picked up a significant number of soft tissue injuries.
“Our match injury incidence dropped significantly during the end of the Championship season where we played a compressed nine games in just over a month.”
Indeed the injury incidence, calculated per 1000 hours of activity, dropped from 35.31 in the 19/20 season building up to lockdown, to 20.51 in that condensed end to the campaign.
Balderston adds that those encouraging results, coupled with the pitifully short pre-season period afforded to clubs and players, ensured that Zone7 would be retained as a partner for 20/21.
He continued: “On the back of a very short pre-season period for this season, due to the late finish of last season, using AI has helped us significantly and prompted plenty of internal discussion between medical, conditioning and technical staff.”
It’s futile to compare performance data across the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons in terms of games won or points earned, simply because of the different competitions, and while we must be careful of direct injury data analysis for the same reasons, it tells its own story.
The number of soft tissue injuries incurred, which in football is generally categorised as hamstring, adductor, calf and quadriceps, stood at 31 in 2019/20, and dropped to just 16 in 20/21, a 48% drop year-on-year.
Calf injuries in particular, which had proven to be the biggest concern in 19/20 with 13 different recorded incidents, fell to only five, while hamstring injuries fell from 12 to six. Only quadricep injuries saw an increase, and even then it was only from one, to two.
Overall, the injury incidence per 1000 hours dropped from the 35.31 figure recorded in the 19/20 season to only 16.09 in 20/21.
The net result? Returning to the Championship at the first time of asking from a notoriously difficult league to navigate for even the most established sides that drop down into it. They recorded 89 points to finish as champions, winning 58% of their league matches, the highest in the division.
And the season was as intense as predicted. Balderston adds: “[2020/21 was] a very compressed season; 24 games (42%) have been played within three days [of the last match] and 19 games (33%) have been played within four days.
“This has meant that for 75% of the season, our players have been having to perform under some form of acute or cumulative fatigue, making these incidence figures even more impressive.”
Balderston also credits club owner, Ehab Allam, in playing a pivotal role in embracing data and encouraging the use of innovative technology to achieve results. And he is keen to stress - as indeed would Zone7 - that this collaboration has been a key contributor, but not the only factor determining Hull’s excellent results. But having Zone7 as an additional element has offered a different perspective that has been crucial.
He concludes: “It’s important to mention that Zone7 has not been solely responsible for this reduction in injury rates.
“Recruitment has contributed, reducing the playing age of the squad, altered nutritional and supplementation strategies, and innovative ways of working within the club have contributed, but essentially the staffing has remained constant so there has been no change in coaching style, microcycle or training week. [But] from our perspective, to be able to call upon the data science expertise of Zone7, in collaboration with the Statsports team, has been invaluable this season and has given us some insights that we previously haven’t been able to access.”
Hull City have returned to a positive trajectory; this is, after all, a club that has an FA Cup final and a European run in its recent past, as well as competing in the Premier League as recently as 2017. Their use of technology such as Zone7 and applying it proficiently could play a part in them making a return to that level.