Having been given the chance to build a central plank of the Arsenal Academy, it’s no wonder Des Ryan looks back fondly on his achievements 30 months down the line.
The strength and conditioning programme the Galway native implemented has been done with a team largely drawn from Ireland — with former rugby internationals, GAA coaches, and the recently crowned UK Strength and Conditioning Association Youth Coach of the Year among their ranks.
The programme itself was further inspired by the IRFU’s model, which was developed throughout the previous decade.
Liam Hennessy (current academic director of Setanta College) built Irish Rugby’s fitness structure from scratch and Ryan, having observed that process from his front-row roles with Connacht and, later, within the IRFU itself, desired that same freedom of a blank canvas.
Thus the Arsenal Academy’s structure bloomed from the same acorn as Irish Rugby.
However, key difference between the two academy systems lies in the age-profile Arsenal can begin development.
Ryan has access to talented soccer players seven years before they could enter the elite rugby system, making soccer a rare “long-term player development sport”.
Perhaps the difference between rugby and soccer structures is best summarised in a tweet by injured Munster hooker Duncan Casey last month: “All my major injuries are due to stubbornly refusing to train my back from 15-19.
"Youngsters, don’t abuse your body like me — train your back.”
Such a scenario could never occur at the North London club, where everything, absolutely everything that affects their 200 academy players is monitored and managed.
“In rugby, you’ve access to players under-16 up at the elite level but in football you have access to players from under-nine all the way up,” says Ryan, the Academy’s Head of Sports Medicine and Athletic Development.
“You’ve meaningful contact with players right the way up to under-21, so it’s one of the few sports you could call a long-term player development sport.
“With young players, they’re always a little bit more susceptible to injuries than the adult player.
"They go through a growth spurt around 12, 13, or 14, and it’s important we manage them through it.
"So we monitor everything: their rate of growth, the amount of training they do, the content they do and we make sure they’re not over-trained or under-trained.
“Those strength and conditioning coaches are able to look after them, give them an individual programme, measure how much they do in a week, see how they’re feeling, have they had a row with their parents, know what their ups and downs are, help them through every phase of the training, knowing every detail of what they’ve done, and all that, combined with the corrective work of the physiotherapists along with the conditioners.
“All this helps to reduce injuries and develop them to be more robust, stronger players.”
As former Academy director Liam Brady noted, the key success factor is to “focus on the individual, not the team”.
Therefore, the individualised nature of the training is essential to correcting any functional weaknesses individual players have.
The players advance to the next level in the gym when they are ready, rather than when age dictates.
When that approach to conditioning succeeds, it keeps players off the treatment table and that extra field-time can be dedicated to further enhancing soccer skills.
In his time with Arsenal, Ryan’s programme has helped reduce the number of injuries among academy players, including muscular injuries, and the time lost to injuries by more than half since their 2012 levels.
“That half amount of days they were out are automatically turned into developing their skills, their training, they’re becoming a better player,” lists Ryan, “so there’s an added benefit once you do prevent those injuries that they can accelerate their development as a player.
Our role, at the end of the day, is to enhance the players’ physical ability and, as much as we can, prevent injuries.
You can’t prevent all injuries but if we can reduce as much as possible, that’s the aim of the project.”
Strength and conditioning work is of increasing importance in the modern Premier League landscape, with games that feature 85% more sprints and 35% longer sprint distance than seven years previously.
Ryan is fulsome in his praise for the support he has received from the upper-echelons of the club, enabling him to implement his model and granting him the facilities to do so.
They also provide pathways for their young players to progress, with Spanish right-back Hector Bellerin the latest protégé and inspiration to the current Academy crop.
Ryan’s team helped Bellerin develop greater stability and symmetry in his running style to increase his speed and they were even able to keep a watchful eye on his development when he was diverted on loan to Watford.
“It’s to our great advantage the manager, Arsene Wenger, has a healthy approach to giving young players a chance,” commends Ryan.
“Even before this three-year-old project, Arsenal always were at the top of the tables of young players coming through their own academy, the top of the tables of young players throughout Europe who came from the Arsenal Academy and we’re at the top of the table of the indigenous-produced players in the Premier League for current squads.
“That’s mainly down to the manager not being afraid to give a 17-year-old an opportunity to prove himself.
"Then it’s up to the young player to prove himself after that and the young players are regularly training with the first-team.
“That’s something people don’t hear about or see — basically every training day there may be one, two, three, five academy players brought over to the first-team for them to have a chance to be seen, and that helps with the transition from reserves, under-21 and under-18 to first-team.”
Chuba Akpom, Dan Crowley, Isaac Hayden, Matt Macey, Ryan Huddart, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Gedion Zelalem are among the names Ryan lists as being first-team hopefuls that are knocking on the door.
Behind them are Ryan’s team, including the likes of former Limerick GAA coach Cairbre Ó Caireallain and Paudie Roche, the aforementioned UKSCA Youth Coach of the Year and former Munster and Ireland fitness coach.
They were helped by the work of two recent Irish rugby internationals, one of whom remains at the club.
“At the very start, we had Jerry Flannery and Johnny O’Connor, two ex-Irish internationals. Johnny is still with us as a full-time strength and conditioner and Jerry is working with Munster.
“They gave great emphasis to the project and the players really warmed to them. They’re great personalities, they manage through positivity, they encourage young players and they give them confidence.
“The young players looked up to both of them like big brothers.
"That experience they had as elite sportsmen, when they were dropped at times, when they won, when they lost, was valuable for the young players when they were being a mentor to them as they came through.”
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