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A Brief History of Soccer Injuries

My personal history with injuries

My worst football injury was a leg break that occurred when I was about 10. I’ll never forget it. Inspired by the goalkeeping heroics of Irish shot stopper Packie Bonner in World Cup Italia’ 90, I had already set my life's ambition - I wanted to be the man between the sticks - screaming at defenders, and marshaling the troops.

My budding career got off to a good start. In games at the local green, I would pull off miraculous save after miraculous save. I was Gordan Banks in the making.

Wanting to push forward I tried out for a local 11-a-side team - Cambridge Boys in Ringsend Park, Dublin. Cambridge Boys were a tough bunch. The players had a hard edge. But once I showed up, I immediately displaced the current regular in nets. He was not too happy being demoted to the sidelines. He would chew gum and look at me with dagger eyes which made me a tad nervy I’ll admit.

All was going well, until the fateful day arrived. It was sunny if I recall. The grass was green, the manager was shouting on the sidelines. I should point out that in Ireland, we played our u11 games on full adult 11-a-side pitches - with full size goals. Absurd really. But it might help you paint a picture - a bunch of diminutive kids chasing a ball around a giant field.

A ball was played through to an on-rushing striker. It was a classic one-on-one scenario. I knew instinctively what I needed to do. Come out. Make myself big. Narrow the angles. After that it was just a blur. All I remember next was screaming in agony. I wouldn’t be surprised if my screams are still echoing somewhere today.

My Dad came to pick me up, and brought me to a local hospital. I had broken my leg so severely I had to spend days in the hospital. If I recall, I even needed an operation to realign the bones in my leg which were verging off in different directions. To this day, my right shin can be a bit sensitive (or it could just be in my head).

After recovering from that ordeal I returned to the number one position undaunted. But no sooner was I back on the pitch when an older kid with a Roberto Carlos style thunderbolt managed to fracture my brittle wrist bone. I saved the shot, but damage was done.

I have luckily managed to avoid any significant injury since then. I suppose I should count my blessings. It’s been a good run.

I should be more sympathetic to others with injuries. But playing in a 5-a-side league with some of my best friends when I was 22 or so, I became hugely frustrated with my injury-prone teammates. These players were not going down after heavy collisions either. They were blighted by knee issues, joint issues… you name it. The would run, and next thing you know, they’d be on the ground.

I was the self appointed manager of the team, and took the job responsibility with that of the Champions League elite. So to see my players on the deck hobbling off with regularity began to drive me nuts. These players were useful. We needed them. But I began to wonder why they were going down so easily. When it becomes so repetitive, you begin to think that perhaps, just maybe the players are a bit ‘soft’ (this coming from the biggest scaredy cat in town, let me assure you).

Injuries in the world of football

Often real managers wonder about their injury prone players too. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp shared his feelings about the constantly injured striker Daniel Sturridge. When Klopp took over Liverpool in 2015, Klopp said the striker must learn "what is serious pain and what is only pain."

As a fan, nothing is as upsetting as when an important player of a team you support falls injured at a crucial time - such as in the lead up time to a World Cup. That time unfortunately always coincides with the most intense time in the football season.

England, in particular, have had its share of bad luck over the years. I recall both David Beckham and Wayne Rooney being stuck down by the dreaded metatarsal in the weeks preceding a World Cup. The metatarsal injury, it would seem, was fashionable in the nineties. Some blamed lightweight boot design for the reason so many metas were causing strain.

Becks and Rooney. were both were struck down in the prime of their careers, and when England expected more than ever. Both injuries came with inadequate time to heal for the World Cup. The updates on Becks and Rooneys metatarsal status was as prevalent in the UK then as Donald Trump is on CNN today, such was the desperation of the Three Lions.

With national pressure requireing both stars suit up for their respective World Cups, suffice to say both players returned in time for the competitions. But, certainly in Rooneys case, nowhere near the level expected.

Imagine the frustrations for players that wait their entire lives to perform on the global stage, only to succumb to a performance-reducing injury. Think Ronaldo in the 1998 World Cup Final. Ronaldo suffered a mysterious seizere the day of the Final, leaving fans bewildered at what was going on with El Fenomeno..

Speaking of phenoms, I always feel Messi is carrying knocks by the time each World Cup rolls around. He is constantly accused of under performing for Argentina on the biggest stage. But surely, after a 60 game season for Barcelona, the toll has been taken on him. For Argentina on the big stage he often looks like he has a ball and chain attached to his foot.

Avoiding Injuries

But how does one avoid injuries and mishaps? Well, ironically one would say that to best avoid disaster is to be fully committed. If you second guess yourself and look to pull out of a challenge you stand a risk of getting caught. It’s like crossing a road and changing your mind half way. The tiniest pause to check yourself might be the split second needed for disaster to strike. It’s also a bit similar to changing your mind in a run up to take a penalty. That rarely works out well. One must have conviction in their movements and conviction in their tackles or you risk coming off second best, and perhaps minus a leg. It’s all down to confidence.

But even with the best will you can find yourself in trouble. I’ll wrap this up by showcasing arguably the most famous collision in World Cup history -

The best formation for 5 a-side (5v5) soccer

On my way to NYC Footy’s Friday night games in Chinatown last week I pondered to myself what would be a good question to ask players during my weekly coverage of Footy happenings.

I confess that I consider myself as a bit of a diminutive Pep - that is a tactical genius. A wannabe anyway. 

So the question that came to mind was simply - what is the best 5 a-side formation?

The response I got from most was the 1-2-1 formation. Not taking into account the goalkeeper, the 1-2-1 might otherwise be known as the diamond. The thinking with the diamond is that there is a defensive player, an attacking player, and then two players on the sides that can move up and down. These two wing players should, if they do their jobs correctly, get up to support the attacking player, and then they should get back to support the covering defender.

Without giving it much thought, this formation should work well. That is, unless the opposing team use all 4 outfield players to put the pressure on when they get the ball. If they do that well, especially on a quick counter attack, you can quickly find yourself easily outnumbered, especially should your attacking player be lazy getting back. And let’s face it, we have all been guilty of that at times. 

See, five a-side tactics/ formations only work well if all players know and carry out their responsibilities well. But since many of us just come along for a kick about, things can become unwieldy pretty fast. 

Things are thrown off even faster when substitutions are coming on and off with good regularity. In one of my games last week, my team literally got caught out as we were trying to work out positions in defense as a substitution was coming on. The question of when is a good time for a substitution might be a subject for a future article 🤔. 

Other five a-side formations might include the 2-2. That is two defensive players, and two midfield/ attacking players. Again, if people adopt their responsibilities well, this is solid enough. It feels like it should be more solid than the diamond if the team plays together as a strong unit. But playing as a unit appears to rare enough in 5-a-side.

With the diamond formation there is a bit of an obsession with wing play. Which is rather impractical when you consider how small the fields are. Wing play even in the professional game has been a dying art for some years. The main idea of wing play - in the sexy sense - is that some player with great skill and speed goes by a player on the side before ultimately whipping a ball into the box for the striker to nod in. But if you go by a player on the wing on a 5 side field, your more than likely hitting the by line. Also, I rarely see crosses of any type in 5 a-side except at corner kicks. All a defensive player has to do in 5 a side to protect against wing play is stand back a bit from the attacking player. The attacking player will be forced then to come inside and shoot or pass inside. This can still be effective, but again, it makes the focus on wingers a bit futile. 

Then there’s the ultra defensive formation, The 3-1. In practice, it should be good at preventing you conceding. But in the end I think it plays out the same at the diamond. Eventually you have to try go forward, sacrificing the wing backs in defense.

There are so many permutations that play into your success in 5-a-side. Quality of player with game understanding being the most key. An intelligent player should know the players around them, know when to cover back, and know when to step forward. Football intelligence is pretty rare actually. Some players may have the skills, some players may be great goal scorers, but that doesn’t mean they have any football intelligence. 

At the Footy Fest this past June, I played alongside an incredibly skillful and powerful player. He blew my mind with what he was capable of. But he shared little in terms of responsibility towards his team. He was your traditional glory hunter. The type of player that infuriates managers in the professional game (5-a-side managers are more forgiving…because there are none). Anyway, they are often considered to be a luxury. A famous example of the glory hunter was David Ginola. Ginola was spectacular going forward but not much use to the team at large. Some say that Cristiano Ronaldo in his heyday was this type of player. Though he got away with it because of how extraordinary his skill was in attack. 

Anyway, I went off on a little tangent there. Let’s get back to some Pep like thinking. 

What everyone is discounting here is the goalkeeper. In 5 a-side the goalkeeper should be considered almost like an outfield player. Think about the Bayern/German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. When Germany had the ball he would come far out of his box , sometimes as far as the halfway line. The whole defensive line of Germany would push far up and and press the opposing team back into their last third.. The opposition team would be so hemmed in by 10 oppressive Bavarians. They would be suffocated. Often the best an opposing team  could do was clear the ball long, in which case Neuer was often there to sweep it up with no one there to pressure him. Neuer was the classic sweeper keeper. 

In 5-a-side what you really want then is the whole outfield team attacking together as a unit, and once you lose the ball, the whole team needs to get back and pressure the opposing team to get the ball back. Barcelona under Pep were masters at this. They attacked together, but when they lost the ball, everyone bust a gut to get the ball back as fast as they could. No one abandoned that responsibility, including Messi. Opposing teams never had time to breathe against Barca. 

Peps Barca were marveled for their ability to attack, but in truth, it’s how hard they worked to get the ball back once they lost it that was their main strength. 

This plan is the most courageous in 5-a-side. But any other formation usually takes two players out of the game itself, and sometimes 3 - the goalkeeper, the holding defender, and the sit up top striker. This only allows 2 players to be flexible. The question is, why take 2 or 3 players out of the game? 

After interviewing players and pondering further, I’ve concluded that the most effective strategy is when everyone moves up together, and everyone moves back together. That includes the keeper sweeper. You must avoid getting spread out, avoid getting stretched. Short quick passes are the order of the day to unlock the opposing team.

It goes without saying that any of these formations only work if players know their responsibilities, especially when the team loses the ball.

Do you play 5-a-side? What say you?