The Importance Of Squad Balance At Manchester United

Tony Strudwick takes us through the importance of squad balance at Manchester United


In 2013 the BBC reported that Manchester United had 659 million fans around the world, including 8% of China’s population. When they clashed with Real Madrid in a Champions League knockout match, the Spanish side’s previous manager, Jose Mourinho, called it ‘the match the world wants to see’.

The acquisition of such a fan base has been predominately down to the club’s success over the last twenty years. This set a dangerously high benchmark, which they are currently finding it difficult to reach. Manchester United’s recent dip in form saw their revenue drop by £9.8 million this year, due to their final league standing in the 2013/2014 season not being high enough to get them entry into the UEFA Champions League.

Success on the pitch is something which Manchester United needs if it’s to continue to enjoy its status as one of the world’s biggest sports brands. Due to this, they are looking at new innovative ways to interact with their athletes so that they can better analyse how they are developing as individuals and how they fit in with the rest of the squad. With player development and coaching styles becoming evermore dependant on data and analytics, we heard from Tony Strudwick, Head of Athletic Development at Manchester United.

Throughout Tony’s presentation he emphasised the importance of having a set of six to seven key players who are available for around 50 matches per season. When Manchester United won their historic treble in the 1998/1999 season, seven players featured more than 45 times, which gave them a solid foundation to win the titles they did that season.

With Manchester United achieving the treble over a decade ago, it is correct to question whether this is applicable for today’s title challengers, especially with squad sizes generally larger than they were 10 years ago. However, Tony’s theory that a successful side needs a spine of players that participates regularly was borne out last year as well. Last season’s champions, Manchester City, had a group of players that played almost every week, with four players participating in over 50 matches throughout the season and a number playing over 40.

In terms of individual progression, Tom states, ‘players need to remain injury free and be reliable if they want to be considered elite athletes’ and that, ‘if you want to become a high performance player you must be capable of playing 50 games a season’.

Tony informs us that, ‘Cristiano Ronaldo averaged over 50 matches per season when he was at Manchester United’ calling it a ‘remarkable achievement’. Other players such as Lionel Messi have also averaged over 50 matches per season in the last six years, demonstrating that the best players demand to, and can play all the time.

With Tony’s ideas in mind, it may explain why a player like Sergio Agüero is not held in the same light as the players previously mentioned. Despite his ability, injury has consistently blighted his progression and he has yet to play 50 games in one season for Manchester City.

Managers plying their trade in the Premier League must have a firm understanding of analytics as it’s the best way to track the progression of their players.

Young players need to be treated differently to players in their prime, but as Tony says, ‘you shouldn’t put limitations on athletes, even when they’re young, they can play 25-30 games per season’. However, burnout can occur quicker in younger players and if they are overused, ‘it can cause soft tissue injuries from overtraining’.

In this instance, factors such a young player’s weight or position should be considered as possible indicators of burnout. Players such as Wayne Rooney for example, who are not athletic by nature, need to have their training schedules managed more stringently so that their performance can be optimised going forward.

Tony states, ‘The mantra that we have is that we respect the athlete, we do no harm but we do something’. Data is giving Tony and his team at Manchester United the opportunity to develop programmes that help them get the right squad balance.

If Manchester United want to get back on top and please their millions of fans around the world, they’ll need to optimise their squad and get the right mix between experience and youth. Tony will hope that this is something which is made easier by data and analytics.


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Sports Performance & Tech, Issue 12