Manchester United announced a scientific partnership yesterday which it is claimed will enable them to predict which players are prone to injury six to 12 months beforehand and solve injury problems which are among the worst in the Premier League.
The deal with Toshiba makes United the first club in world football to make a supplier of medical equipment an official partner and it will make the club's new £13m facility opening at Carrington next month the most advanced such medical facility in the world, according to the Japanese firm, with a standard of medical kit usually reserved only for university teaching hospitals.
Research carried out at the end of last season by the sports-injury website physioroom.com showed that United suffered the worst injury list in the Premier League during the 2011-12 campaign, with the club sustaining 39 significant problems – those lasting for at least two weeks – which amounted to a total 1,681 days lost to injury by Sir Alex Ferguson's squad. Ferguson admitted last month that he had spotted on the training pitch that captain Nemanja Vidic was not 100 per cent, despite returning to action after a knee injury. He broke down again last month and is out until late next month, with the absence of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling also crippling United's defence.
The United manager yesterday recalled how he had a medical staff of eight, with one physio when he joined United in 1986, compared with 40 staff and five physios now. "There was one ultrasound machine. That was it – and we all fought for it," the manager joked. Ferguson pointed to the pace of the game and, significantly, declared that: "football pitches pose problems with injuries." The game's new Desso pitches are lush on top with their three per cent synthetic-grass fibres but require copious watering to allow some "give.''
The new medical centre, with which United plan to emulate the physiological and sports science benefits enjoyed by Milan at their world-renowned Milanello complex, puts them in pursuit of the Holy Grail of being able to predict when players are vulnerable to injury. The former Liverpool director of football Damien Comolli, who parted company with the club in April, is among those to have felt that injury prediction is the new frontier in the use of statistical data, or sabermetrics.
Toshiba believe they can deliver that. They will provide MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) equipment with twice the standard magnetic field measure, allowing Ferguson's medical staff to examine muscle fibres and the most minute ligament tear. Ultrasound equipment will now be available for diagnostic work – a substantial new development in that field – as well as for the traditional therapeutic science. Individual muscle fibres, tenons and fluids – a sign of damage – may all be established through ultrasound images and video, in a field of medical investigation which does not carry the same risk of biological damage that X-rays do.
Toshiba will also bring an unprecendented level of heart analysis to Carrington, with an Aquilion device which can scan the heart in three dimensions in a microsecond. The heart's movement during the comparatively slow current CT scanning process traditionally allow a less precise picture of a player's heart.
The ability to undertake medical examinations of players before buying them will also allow greater secrecy to Ferguson, who has never liked the idea of photographers being able to camp outside the private hospitals United have used in Manchester. But it is the ability to examined muscle tissue so microscopically and predicatively which is the major gain for United – even though this partnership has come too late to save the career of Owen Hargreaves – who cost the club £17m and played just 26 times – or to have resolved sooner the back problems which have plagued Rio Ferdinand.
Ferguson, who is still a moderniser, has long held an almost obsessive interest in the field of medical science. His fascination with orthoptics, for instance, involved putting his players through peripheral vision tests with a Liverpool University scientist in the mid-1990s.
The specialist fitness coach Raymond Verheijen, who has worked with Wales and Manchester City, said yesterday that injury prediction would be a remarkable development in football, though he suggested that United's injury problems lay on the training pitch. But with Manchester City currently developing the £200m Etihad Campus facility which they believe will be the best in the football world when it opens for the 2014-15 season, Ferguson insisted that his club's partnership "will put us above most clubs in the world."