German fitness flair fails to cure Arsenal
From the touchline, Shad Forsythe and Benjamin Kugel had an excellent vantage point to observe the fruits of their work. Mark Verstegen and Darcy Norman, their colleagues from the Exos team, all of them dressed in Germany’s training kit, were seated in the technical area of Rio’s Maracanã stadium, just behind the dugout.
From his position in the press box, Arsène Wenger, a pundit for French television and Arsenal manager, could not see Forsythe, but Germany impressed and a thumping header from Mats Hummels would cripple France in the quarterfinal of the World Cup. The Germans were physically superior. They ran 107.5km; the French just topped 100km.
Wenger must have been impressed enough to see this as the solution to Arsenal’s well-documented injury woes and added Forsythe to his backroom staff this season.
When Wenger arrived at Arsenal 18 years ago (fresh from a coaching spell with Nagoya Grampus in Japan), the Evening Standard inked an infamous headline: ‘Arsène who?’
“I think, in England, you eat too much sugar and meat and not enough vegetables,” Wenger, who with his moon-shaped glasses resembled a stern schoolteacher, told the Evening Standard. “I lived for two years in Japan and it was the best diet I ever had. The whole way of life there is linked to health. Their diet is basically boiled vegetables, fish and rice.”
Wenger put a stop to Steve Bould, now his assistant, ordering a round of 35 pints for his teammates. Chicken and salad with olive oil dressing replaced the traditional pre-match steak with chips. The emphasis shifted to nutritious food and a healthy lifestyle. Wenger revolutionised the fitness preparation at Arsenal. Other English clubs would follow his example.
Recently Wenger admitted that, where fitness is concerned, there is not enough knowledge “to predict 100% scientifically what happens to everybody”.
Last season Arsenal had the most injuries of any Premier League club. On Boxing Day, Aaron Ramsey suffered a thigh injury that severely affected the club’s league aspirations.
Ramsey was just one name on Wenger’s list of key players lost at defining moments. Abou Diaby and Theo Walcott ruptured anterior cruciate ligaments, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sustained a collateral ligament problem, Jack Wilshere struggled with repeated ankle niggles and Lukas Podolski, Kieran Gibbs and Mesut Özil pulled their hamstrings.
Forsythe, who worked for a decade at the forefront of elite performance with Germany, was supposed to put a stop to this but the injury woes have continued at the club this season: Olivier Giroud, Walcott, Mathieu Debuchy, Nacho Monreal, Yaya Sanogo and Serge Gnabry are all sidelined. Mikel Arteta and Ramsey were further casualties in the North London derby against Tottenham last weekend.
Forsythe holds a bachelor of science degree from Washington State University and a master’s degree in biomechanics and athletics administration from the University of Tennessee.
He joined Exos in 2003 and was mentored by Arizona-based Verstegen, a human performance guru. Verstegen founded Exos in 1999 to pioneer the concept of an integrated performance culture. This “performance culture” is built around four pillars: mindset, nutrition, movement and recovery, with the sole aim being to optimise and maximise human performance.
“Our core competency is being a cultural integrator and upgrader. We seek to understand the different cultures inside sports teams and identify and prioritise the right structure for these teams and athletes,” Verstegen said.
The performance culture is akin to lifestyle, but with a holistic approach.
“In 1999, the different disciplines in human performance were divided among your skills coach, your performance coach, your nutritionist and your medical staff,” said Norman. “We started slowly breaking down those walls to have one big room.”
In 2004, Jürgen Klinsmann discovered Verstegen’s work with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Since then, Germany and Exos have worked in tandem, and Germany’s World Cup victory is a case study of Exos’s approach.
At Campo Bahia in Brazil, Verstegen, Norman, Kugel and Forsythe meticulously set up the German training camp. Individualised fitness regimes based on SAP and Adidas data, travel only after 7pm so as not to interfere with mealtimes, adjustment of the training pitch to mirror where Germany would play next and nutrient-packed food were some of the measures to create what Verstegen calls “a community of excellence”.
“Typically, elite athletes are great compensators and so they have been able to endure the trials and tribulations of getting to that high level, but sometimes you have an injury bug that starts a natural weeding process through the performance development pyramid,” Norman said.
A multifactorial approach – an assessment of the players’ workload, movement and performance qualities – prevents injuries.
“Each player is screened for body use and recruitment of movement and asymmetries,” Verstegen said. “[For example], if from the right shoulder to the left leg, there is strength and stability, but not from the left shoulder to the right leg, the players, especially when fatigued, will have a higher potential for injuries. That must be immediately addressed.”
Wenger said that, under Forsythe’s supervision, a lot has changed in Arsenal’s approach to preparation, workload and injury prevention.
But for now, the new performance coach has not yet delivered as “cultural upgrader” to end the injury plague at London Colney.