Van Gaal frustrated as Manchester United injury woes continue
If Manchester United played a game today, 10 first-team players would be unable to play due to injuries.
The latest setback came Sunday when Daley Blind limped off during the Netherlands' win against Latvia. United's Twitter feed mentioned a possible thigh injury, but the tone of Netherlands manager Guus Hiddink was more ominous after the game: "I think it's a medial ligament that is twisted. It might be a rupture."
The international break has seen United fans again shake their heads upon hearing bad news. The team have had 39 different injuries since Louis van Gaal took charge, but it could have been even worse. Imagine the outcry if he had been successful in signing Thomas Vermaelen, who has yet to play for Barcelona because of injury?
Yes, it could be worse. Sources in Spain don't think the dislocated finger suffered by David De Gea last week will keep him out of United's game at Arsenal on Saturday. United have had Victor Valdes training with them as he returns from a cruciate ligament injury, but he would need to be over that before signing any contract.
Fans know, of course, that players will pick up injuries, but what happens when too many players are not fit to play at the same time? And when the situation barely improves month after month? That's how it has been at United so far this season.
Injury creates uncertainty and conjecture, too. Radamel Falcao tweeted a denial last week after speculation about the severity of his injury, in part because there has been limited information about why one of the best-paid players in the world hasn't been playing. Everyone in Manchester knew he wasn't going to play against Chelsea recently, but no official reason was given.
Falcao's recuperation is continuing with intensive training as he plays catch-up with his fitness after returning from a major injury. He's picked up secondary knocks, but the club are not concerned about his knee.
At Barcelona, a press statement is issued by a doctor almost immediately to explain the injury sustained by a player (there can be two or three per day). At United and other English clubs, communication is much slower and more guarded, which prompts conjecture. For example, one player couldn't understand why the club didn't announce his injury earlier in the season, meaning two days of friends calling and messaging to ask what was wrong.
It's a throwback to the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, when the manager would use misinformation and subterfuge to his advantage. He had a point. What advantage would United have gained from telling the world that Rafael was injured three days before the derby? Better for their opponent, Manchester City, to discover 90 minutes before the game.
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But why are so many United players getting hurt? After all, it was only 18 months ago that United announced a deal for medical equipment with Toshiba at their training centre, stating that players will have regular heart screenings, while other machines will detect soft tissue injuries before they have become apparent.
"Sometimes maybe the supporters don't see what is going on," said Ferguson at the time. "But we'll see the benefits and the players will appreciate it. This is fantastic progress."
United's medical team were part of the process that saw the expensive scanners arrive, but injuries persist. No machines can be a panacea against injuries, but frustrated fans don't know where to apportion blame as injuries increase.
How to train footballers remains subjective. Some coaches advocate a long warm-down, for instance; others prefer a short one. It's not an exact science and opinions vary -- even within the United staff. Changes are inevitable when a club has four managers in little over a year, and that allows for more opinions and theories about how things should or shouldn't be done.
There are outside views, too. Injured players still prefer to see their own trusted specialists, which can infuriate the club. To a player, it is his body and nobody else's.
Van Gaal has his own staff and his own theories. He, too, has made changes and has brought in his own assistants, including his fellow countryman Jos van Dijk, who works on fitness.
Two of United's full-time staff -- Tony Strudwick, United's head of athletic development after his role shifted at the start of the season, and masseur Rod Thornley -- have been at the club for eight and 14 years, respectively. They have also been working with the England team.
England's game against Scotland on Tuesday will be Thornley's 161st and final for England before he concentrates on his United role. Sources say that Van Gaal wants both, who are popular with players, to dedicate their time exclusively.
The two are cogs in a larger wheel that takes in specialised doctors, sports scientists, opticians, dieticians, and weight and power specialists. Strudwick recently gave some insight into his job when speaking in Dublin: "We are moving into a different environment where coaches are more tuned into data, and [Sir Alex] Ferguson did embrace that near the back end of his career.
"On a daily basis we are dealing with 550 million [pounds] worth of assets. We have to make the right decisions for players. You are using data and technology to help facilitate those decisions. This will be the coaching model of the future."
The work of this staff goes largely unnoticed by fans until there's something wrong with the players they work with. The full treatment tables at Old Trafford have led to questions being asked -- even van Gaal appears bemused.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.