Is the Bundesliga suffering through an injury crisis?
I'm rapidly closing in on my 400th column for ESPN FC (formerly ESPN Soccernet), which tells you I've been pushing the pen for quite a while now. Many things have changed during those more than 12 years; the very first column, for instance, name-checked players such as Thomas Linke and Carsten Ramelow while quoting Paul Gascoigne.
Or what about No. 50? It wondered if the lack of quality players forced a certain formation on the Germany coach, whose name was Rudi Voller. Oh, and it included the line: "You can't say enough nice things about that kid." The kid in question was 20 years old. His name? Philipp Lahm.
As I said, things change. But there has been one constant element. Each May or June, I look at the goals-per-game ratios in the big European leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain).
Needless to say, there have been fluctuations. Sometimes Italy finished second, as in 2004. Sometimes Italy finished fourth, as in 2010. Of course the figures varied, too. Sometimes Spain produced as many as 2.9 goals per game (2009), sometimes as little as 2.46 (2006). One thing, though, has never changed: the Bundesliga offers the most goals per 90 minutes of football -- year in, year out. In fact, when I went back in time to find out when that streak had started, I was stunned to learn it began as early as 1990.
This consistency is truly baffling. It's almost as if there's a collective football subconscious at work out there, across borders and leagues, to make sure that the game ebbs and flows but that the Bundesliga rides the crest of the goal-scoring wave.
I was reminded of this phenomenon when I compiled this season's numbers.
Last season, the Bundesliga had produced an astonishing 3.16 goals per game, the league's highest figure in more than a quarter of a century. It was inevitable that the number of goals would go down this season -- and it did. In fact, it went down so drastically that I was beginning to wonder if maybe the streak would finally come to an end.
In 2014-15, I calculated that the Bundesliga racked up only 2.75 goals per match. Surely this (by German standards distinctly subpar) ratio was beatable? Last season, for instance, the Premier League had 2.77 goals per game and the season before that it was 2.80; a simple repeat of either showing would have finally broken the German dominance.
But no. It's business as usual. Here's the most recent ranking:
1. Germany's Bundesliga: 2.75 goals per game
2. Italy's Serie A: 2.69
3. Spain's Primera División: 2.66
4. England's Premier League: 2.56
5. France's Ligue 1: 2.49
So the Bundesliga is still on top, even though the total number of goals has gone down. What may have gone up though is the number of injuries, at least at the bigger clubs, and this is a subject that will surely become more hotly debated during the coming months.
At the moment, though, there's not enough data readily available (at least to you and me) to discuss this as easily as the number of goals scored, so let's first recap what has happened so far.
In 2001, UEFA started a research programme now known as the UEFA Elite Club Injury Study. In the words of the game's governing body, it was done "with the aim of reducing the number and severity of injuries in football, and consequently increasing the safety of players."
The project is led by Professor Jan Ekstrand from Sweden, vice chairman of UEFA's Medical Committee. When Ekstrand gave a presentation during the German FA's Science Congress in 2013, he said that over the span of those 12 years, UEFA's database of injuries to top-level players had grown to 16,000 injuries, and over 1.2 million training sessions and games had been analysed.
Ekstrand explained that 75 clubs from 18 countries submitted data every month about injuries and lengths of layoffs. "We send back information twice a year, at half-season and at the end of the season," he said. "The postseason report has 50 pages with all statistical data they need at the clubs and information not only about their own clubs but about other clubs."
In an interview with the German FA's website, Ekstrand explained that details such as the names of specific players or teams were "top secret." Asked if he was in a position to identify coaches who were particularly good at preventing injuries, he replied: "Our data shows that very clearly, but it's definitely a confidential list."
Another question revolved around whether or not players were coming back from injuries too soon. Ekstrand replied: "Not in the Bundesliga. The layoffs are closely monitored there and the medical staff is well-equipped in terms of personnel."
That seemed to indicate everything was fine in the German game; indeed, we've always prided ourselves on the qualities of our physios, from Erich Deuser (who worked with the national team between 1951 and 1982) to Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, who began to take care of Bayern Munich's players in 1977 and also became the national team's physio in 1995.
When Pep Guardiola took over Bayern in the summer of 2013, he expressed some surprise at the fact that Muller-Wohlfahrt was not present at the club at all times but instead treated the players in his downtown offices. According to Sport-Bild magazine, Muller-Wohlfahrt countered the Catalan's criticism in August 2013 by "giving Guardiola statistics. A medical UEFA study showed Bayern to be the number one in Europe. It says Bayern's players had the fewest injuries, the shortest layoffs on account of muscle injuries and the fewest treatment periods."
(The magazine didn't say whether this study was the UEFA Elite Club Injury Study.)
Guardiola's first two seasons as Bayern coach were blighted by injury problems. In mid-April, when Bayern travelled to Porto for the Champions League quarterfinal, the team was missing five regulars: Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry, David Alaba, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Medhi Benatia. In addition, Philipp Lahm and Thiago had to start the game and go the distance even though both had just come back from injury layoffs that lasted 116 and 371 days, respectively.
After that Porto game, Muller-Wohlfahrt stepped down because as his press release said, he felt the "medical department was made primarily responsible for the defeat for inexplicable reasons." Six days later, centre-back Holger Badstuber, who had already been out for four months between September and January, suffered a thigh injury that ended his season.
It was all very confusing and, frankly, mysterious. Because it's not as if Bayern were an isolated case.
You could argue that Borussia Dortmund's entire season was derailed by an uncanny string of injuries during the first half of the season. Ilkay Gundogan, for instance, found himself in a situation not unlike Thiago's. In October, Gundogan made his comeback after a 434-day (!) layoff. Ideally, he would have been eased back into the team, with an occasional outing now and then. However, coach Jurgen Klopp was missing so many players that Gundogan had to play eight games in a row during November and December, starting all but one of them.
In brief, we kept hearing about studies and statistics (without actually seeing them) that supposedly said the Bundesliga didn't have an injury problem, while at the same time many fans, especially those of the bigger clubs, subjectively felt the opposite was true.
At Schalke, to cite another example, the situation was so bad at the beginning of the season that Focus magazine spoke of "an injury epidemic." The magazine said that director of football Horst Heldt was so annoyed that the club would now lecture the players' wives about nutrition in a desperate attempt to cut down on muscle injuries.
Then, in late April, Dortmund's director of football Michael Zorc gave Kicker magazine a long interview. It was mainly about the club's situation after Jurgen Klopp's decision to step down. Toward the end of the interview, Zorc was asked about Dortmund's injury woes.
He replied: "A long-term study done by UEFA shows that all German clubs which are active in Europe suffer from significantly more injuries than our European rivals. Bayern, Schalke and we are at about the same level with a layoff rate of 20 percent, while Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid or Chelsea are somewhere between five and 10 percent."
Zorc struggled to come up with an explanation. When the reporter suggested the very large squads that are common abroad could play a role because they allow coaches to follow a rotation policy, Zorc pointed out that "Chelsea almost always play the same people." They just don't get injured, it seems.
Two weeks after this interview, the editor of Kicker magazine, Rainer Holzschuh, addressed the subject in his weekly column.
"In Munich [and at other Bundesliga clubs] they should investigate why injury problems have been rampant for some time now -- in hardly believable dimensions," he wrote. "According to a UEFA study, Bundesliga players are injured more often and especially for a longer period of time than top players in foreign leagues."
There it was again, that UEFA study. Has something fundamentally changed in the two years since Muller-Wohlfahrt allegedly had the stats on his side and Ekstrand lauded the Bundesliga for closely monitoring the players' layoffs? Or is it perhaps this reluctance to send a player back onto the pitch before he's completely fit again that explains why more players are sidelined for a longer time in Germany?
Who knows, maybe we are just talking about a statistical fluke over two seasons. (Yes, Chelsea have hardly had any injuries. But another English club, Arsenal, suffered from quite a few.) It's also understandable why Ekstrand prefers to keep the details of the study secret. After all, UEFA have to consider questions like data privacy, personal rights and medical confidentiality.
On the other hand, professional footballers are transparent athletes anyway. Websites like Transfermarkt already allow you to check any player's injury history, including how long he was sidelined and how many games he missed. So maybe it's time to make some of the data more easily available to the general public, if only to stop speculation and allow experts from other fields to chip in ideas.
Until this happens, the injury debate will stay with us, all through the summer break and beyond.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.