There’s no getting away from it, injuries did serious damage to our prospects in 2015-16.
The manager’s detractors cry ‘excuse’ whenever this is brought up, but that simply isn’t true. Take the best players away from any side for any length of time and the effects are going to be deleterious. That’s as true for the Manchester Citys of the world as it is for the Aston Villas. A huge factor in Leicester’s title win was being able to keep their best XI fit for the majority of the campaign. Stoke started the season without their spine – Begovic and Nzonzi departed, the captain was out indefinitely and Bojan was still recovering from his ACL injury. From there, the knacks, pains, aches, strains and worse only piled up.
The treatment table had visitors from every department, but nowhere was hit worse than the back line. We were only able to put out the same back four in 13 consecutive weeks – less than half the season – and it’s surely not happenstance that this period coincided with our best run of the campaign.
Glen Johnson was a huge miss after a knee injury ended his season in February. Wilson, Muniesa, Cameron and Bardsley all struggled to stay fit for swathes of the fixture list.
Obviously, the loss of Ryan Shawcross was the biggest issue, and the extent to which we rely on his presence has never been laid out so starkly. He is crucial not just for his organisational qualities and the nuts and bolts mechanics of defending that seems to be going out of style elsewhere, but for what he represents. We’re fast approaching a point where Shawcross is not just the on-field leader but some sort of shamanic higher power as well, his very presence exuding a calm and confidence that spreads throughout the team. This was apparent in his first game back, the League Cup win over Chelsea, where our defending immediately improved tenfold…
… and it was even clearer on the final day, when his momentary possession by the spirit of Rooster Russell galvanised players and supporters alike and turned the entire contest on its head. His importance is as heartwarming as it is terrifying, and we have to hope that his late-season iffy spell was down to rust and not the start of a more long-term decline.
Equally, our late season collapse had everything to do with the loss of Jack Butland. Having him between the sticks was another enormous psychological boon to our defenders, and panic set in without him. A good defence thrives on stability, but it’s also nothing without its star turns, and without Jack and Ryan we are in some clear and present danger.
Ahem…further up the pitch, Xherdan Shaqiri was hampered by a lack of a pre-season and, like Victor Moses before him, apparently has cheesestrings for hamstrings. Bojan understandably struggled to get his groove back after such a bad injury, even if a goal on his return perhaps raised expectations to unrealistic levels. Jon Walters was a miss, whatever his critics say, when a knee problem removed him from the equation towards the end of the season. Mame Diouf might not have been physically hurt, but the enormity of the personal tragedy that befell him evidently had a damaging effect, as it would on anyone. If you’re keeping score, that’s our star goalkeeper, our inspirational captain, our creative genius, and last season’s top scorer all unavailable for significant portions of the calendar. By the time the last month rolled around and we lost two more midfielders to long-term injuries, we were awaiting the reveal that Clayton Wood was built on an ancient Mayan burial ground.
All of which brings us nicely to the ‘luck’ debate. Patently, some of the injuries have been purely down to bad luck. You can’t legislate for your goalkeeper breaking his ankle on international duty. A torn ACL could happen to any sportsperson.
However, this is also the second straight season to be ravaged by injuries, and at what point does it become acceptable to start asking questions about that? If we’re in the same boat next season, can that really still be attributed to undistilled misfortune? There are a lot of supporters whose views I have the utmost respect for who resolutely refuse to even entertain as a possibility the idea that we might be making our own ‘luck’ to some degree on this front. They may well be right.
But let’s look at the circumstantial evidence. We’ve had two seasons of muscle injuries to players. We’ve had players with well-known injury problems or who’ve been known for being prone to injuries, who were fine for years and then out for weeks or months under the new regime. Injuries wrecked Robert Huth’s Middlesbrough career. He barely had so much as a cold here for four seasons. Then in Hughes’ first season he was out for a year. Now he’s right as rain again. Ryan Shawcross’ back problems first surfaced in our first Premier League season. He proceeded to miss something like three games in as many seasons. Over the past two seasons they’ve been a constant issue.
Could it be the training methods? Could it be the pitches at Clayton Wood? Is part of the problem that a lot of the players we’re signing have had a catalogue of injuries in recent times (Guidetti, Ireland, Moses, Muniesa, Bardsley, Bojan, Johnson, Afellay, Shaqiri)?
Maybe, like Columbo, I just have a hard time believing in coincidences, but one way or another, our ‘luck’ with injuries has to change soon.