Written by – Jordan Campbell
Mark Warburton may only be three games into his Rangers tenure but already the supporters have picked up on a number of discernible improvements he has made to the team, with the level fitness being shown by the players one of the most notable.
Rangers seem to be gaining momentum during games and finishing stronger than their opponents which is backed up by the stats as they managed to amass 4 shots on target in the final ten minutes against Hibs, 7 against Peterhead and a quite staggering ten against St Mirren. Had it not been for the heroics produced by each of their goalkeepers the margin of victory would have widened considerably and this is consistent with Brentford’s performances last season as it has been well documented that they bagged a lot of late goals on the way to the play-offs.
Last season teams were able to match Rangers fitness wise and, while I don’t believe that was the main crux of the team’s problems, it meant that Rangers couldn’t rely on their superior fitness levels to win them games, they had to outplay their opponents. It became apparent early on in the season that this was going to be a struggle but it appears to be a whole different ball game this time around in both terms of fitness and quality.
The premise of this article was initially a lot different to what I am writing now. When it became public knowledge that Warburton had the players in doing three sessions a day until 4 pm, most of the Rangers support inevitably expressed their delight as the feeling amongst the support was that Auchenhowie had come to resemble more of a holiday camp than a place of work – Robbie Neilson also employed triple-sessions throughout the whole of last season at Hearts who were by far and away the fittest team in the league so it would seem fitting to emulate the team who ran away with league wouldn’t it?
But having read an interview The Offside Rule (TOR) conducted with world-renowned fitness coach Raymond Verheijen a few weeks before I was sceptical as to whether that hugely positive reaction was indeed the appropriate response.
The Dutch fitness guru has publicly criticised managers who overwork their players in pre-season and doesn’t hold back in expressing his opinions – most of the time they tend to be highly divisive due to the fact that he doesn’t subscribe to the more traditional methods employed by sports scientists.
Verheijen said: “Unfortunately what you see is a lot of coaches over-training players with double or triple sessions daily and as a result players develop fatigue during sessions but it is impossible to recover between sessions because the next session starts while you’re still trying to recover.
If you keep doing this from day to day, week to week in pre-season, you accumulate fatigue and as a result the nervous system becomes slower and injuries become more likely because they’re still having to make such explosive movements in football training. So the one thing we should avoid in pre-season is accumulation of fatigue and by doing that you will reduce the injury risk significantly and when you reduce injuries you train and play with your strongest XI as often as possible and as a result you have maximum development of communication and teamwork.”
In just the last month he has had public squabbles with West Brom’s fitness department and Bolton manager, Neil Lennon, but a more relevant case to Rangers was his public scrutinisation of Hibs’ training camp in La Manga this summer. He branded Alan Stubbs “a typical example of an uneducated coach, over-training and injuring his players” in response to an interview Stubbs did with The Edinburgh Evening News in which he boasted that his players would be “working at their maximum heart rate” during gruelling triple sessions every day in the soaring heat. He deemed their approach to pre-season training as outdated – a criticism he extends to most British coaches.
But Warburton isn’t the typical British football manager though as his unique route into management and his more continental brand of football proves so I found it hard to believe that he would be following a similarly incorrect path especially as Rangers had – and still have up this very day – a clean bill of health compared to Hibs who lost Carmichael, Keatings, Boyle, Forster, Malonga, Handling and El Alagui to injuries at different points in pre-season.
However Warburton has still managed to maintain the stereotypical values associated with old-school British managers of bygone eras such as honesty, respect and above all good old hard graft, and while this is a positive in many ways it did have me worrying that his attitude to work-rate had made him ignorant of the latest training techniques being used by other clubs.
But what Verheijen is even more firm in his beliefs about is the content of training sessions rather than the quantity so I wanted to reserve my judgement until I had more information about what sort of work the players were doing. Verheijen believes the key to gaining match fitness is making training more specific to football as opposed to sustained running at a low pace which he explained in his interview with TOR.
He said: “…all you have to do is analyse the facts. When coaches let players do one-tempo running you are destroying your fast muscle fibres, you’re making them slower, so your first objective problem is that when players do one-tempo running, you make them less explosive. Secondly, if players have to do uphill running like the West Brom players have had to do then they are running at a very slow tempo and as a result you are training your players to sprint with a low frequency, making the nervous system send signals to your muscles slower because of the slower stride frequency during uphill running.
The third objective is that football is an interval sport, you make an action, you are out of breath, before the next action you need to catch your breath. You make your action, then you recover, you make your action and you recover. So football fitness means quicker recovery between actions which uphill running doesn’t allow, you’re not training your body for those things if you’re doing uphill running
Another mistake is that when you want to go to a higher level of play in football, the one characteristic of a higher level is that there is less space and less time, and as a result the players have to make their actions quicker. As a result football is an intensity sport, a speed of action sport and not an endurance sport. With intensity sport you don’t train the quantity, you train quality.
So the fourth mistake UK coaches especially make is that players accumulate fatigue in these double and triple sessions and haven’t recovered by the next day when you’re doing it all again, so what you’re doing is conditioning your players to play slow football. This is an argument for better coach education because the coach education in England and Scotland is very, very poor and as a result you have football coaches who don’t understand fitness because they don’t get the proper education and then they recruit fitness coaches or sport scientists who don’t understand football. These two people obviously have to work together and as a result you get all of these ridiculous non-football exercises.”
The last sentence may be very telling when you consider that one of Warburton’s first changes was to dispense of Head of Sports Science, Jim Henry. It maybe goes to show the clear differences in philosophy when it comes to fitness. As this clip taken during the pre-season of the 2013-14 season shows, straight, one-paced, continuous running was the order of the day under Henry. The latter highlights the clear difference under Warburton as everything is dynamic and designed with the ball in mind where the players need to focus on maintaining their touch when they’re tiring.
Still without confirmation that Warburton was on the same wavelength as Verheijen, the Petrofac Cup game against Hibs was the perfect chance to see which team looked prepared for the rigours of the season ahead.
Darren McGregor’s impressive interview at half-time with BBC ALBA provided me with the reassurance as he gave his insight into what the training has been like under Warburton.
He said: “A lot of pre-seasons – the boys will tell you – it can be aimless running like 4 x4 minute runs and 1km runs. Players will tell you that they sort of shut off a quarter of the way through and go into survival mode. Whereas the gaffer is all about keeping us on our toes keeping everything short, sharp, dynamic. Everything has been with the ball, it’s all been small-sided games and possession so I definitely think that’s transferred onto the park…”
‘Short, sharp, dynamic.’ Three words which have evaded Rangers over the past three years but not on this occasion. Rangers blew Hibs out the water in the last half an hour as the Edinburgh side simply couldn’t last the pace with the men in royal blue. With it being only the first game of the season I was astonished at how fresh they looked right up until the final whistle.
What is it they say about waiting for a bus?…
Dean Shiels was the next member of the squad to give the inside view of what the training has consisted of and re-emphasised McGregor’s words that everything under Warburton was geared around the ball.
He said: “It has been the most enjoyable pre-season I’ve had. It’s been really, really enjoyable. I think of years gone by when you used to get run ragged round a pitch and didn’t see a ball for a week. But this pre-season everything we’ve done has been with the ball, technical stuff, and tactical stuff. Even though the running has been tough at times, it’s always been with the ball. The lads have enjoyed it. They prefer it that way.”
It was probably foolish of me to even ponder for a second that Warburton wasn’t up to speed with the latest ideas and consensuses when it comes to fitness as he is exhaustive in his planning and has shown that he is forward-thinking when it comes to every aspect of football management. Under Warburton, Rangers are no longer in danger of falling behind the pack anymore, especially if it is a test of the players’ fitness.