Raphinha and Rodrigo catch up, youngster aces test and Stuart Dallas welcomes the dread - inside Leeds United's first day of pre-season testing

The 2021/22 Premier League season is six weeks away but Leeds United started laying the foundations on Thursday.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 1st July 2021, 5:03 pm
STARTING AGAIN - Raphinha missed last year's pre-season with Leeds United but will get the full Marcelo Bielsa experience in 2021. Pic: LUFC
STARTING AGAIN - Raphinha missed last year's pre-season with Leeds United but will get the full Marcelo Bielsa experience in 2021. Pic: LUFC

Twenty-four of Marcelo Bielsa’s squad and a host of Thorp Arch medical staff descended on Leeds Beckett University’s £45m Carnegie School of Sport for the first day of pre-season testing.

Players were screened and assessed at a range of stations as head of medicine and performance Rob Price and his team worked with university staff to ensure their footballers are all fit and healthy and to uncover base lines from which to maintain and recover fitness over the season.

Everywhere you looked there were Premier League footballers and the younger element, Mark Jackson’s Under-23s players who harbour top-flight dreams, in scenarios outside their comfort zone.

In one room, Raphinha puffed into a mask and tubes while, in another, Jamie Shackleton jabbed out a hand to trigger a sensor and, upstairs, Charlie Cresswell, strapped into a machine, strained with all his might to raise and lower his leg.

Both Shackleton and Cresswell are familiar faces for Dr Stacey Emmonds, a reader in sports performance at Leeds Beckett and former staff member at Thorp Arch.

“I was with the academy for six years,” she said.

“The really young players were Charlie Cresswell and Jamie Shackleton, I’ve seen both of those boys come in this morning.

“I wasn’t sure even if they’d remember me because they were so young but they did. It was really nice to see them progressing.”

Emmonds found the Leeds players in high spirits as the footballing calendar begins again in earnest, albeit without those who were or still are involved in Euro 2020 like Kalvin Phillips and Diego Llorente.

“The boys seem really excited to be back,” she said.

“Obviously as they always are with pre-season they’re excited to see each other and the staff and start back again.

“Players have been really enthusiastic today and they’ve all got straight stuck into everything.

“They are world-class facilities that we have now and that’s probably something that we weren’t able to offer previously.

“It allows the club to come down to utilise the state of the art facilities and the top-of-the-range testing to hopefully get the best profiling at the start of pre-season that they can.”

Having been ushered through the elite athlete entrance that would be used later in the day by triathlete Jonny Brownlee as he prepares for the Tokyo Olympics, players were swabbed for Covid-19 and had blood tests as part of the general health screening. Asthma screening followed, with cardiac testing to take place on Friday.

Following individual schedules to avoid prolonged periods of waiting around, the Whites players underwent body composition tests, some of which had to be done ‘fasted’ before breakfast.

Their visual processing was assessed in front of a series of lights that flashed in their central and peripheral vision, allowing sports science staff to collate data on how well players pick up information on the edges of their field of vision.

That information, across the squad, could then be used to highlight potential trends or issues, for example whether experience or age plays a part in determining the ability to spot players to pass to or incoming threats, while fixating on the ball. That ability can also be improved.

In one exercise, visibly delighted midfielder Jamie Shackleton hit the threshold for processing a sequence of increasingly brief flashes, earning a smattering of applause and praise from staff. In another, trickier test, he had to identify whether it was a truck or car that had appeared in his central vision and which of the coloured lights had flashed in his peripheral at the same time.

Body composition tests, DEXA scans for bone density, measurements of lean muscle mass relative to body fat and muscle screening ascertained, literally, what the players are made of to seek out anomalies.

From strength assessment – the aforementioned torturous ordeal Cresswell was put through – to movement analysis and gait examinations – Max Dean ran on a treadmill so his form could be captured – staff of the club and the university left no stone unturned to paint a picture of each individual’s fitness and equip Leeds with the knowledge they will need when attempting to return players to action following injuries.

Upstairs, on a 60m indoor running track, Morten Spencer went through a series of jump assessments and changes of direction on force plates embedded in the floor, surrounded by cameras, sensors and lights.

The afternoon was set aside for a running exercise on the outdoor track, led by fitness coach Benoit Delaval.

In between assessments players gathered in the canteen, where Raphinha and Rodrigo chatted with Ian Poveda, while Sam Greenwood, new boy Amari Miller and Illan Meslier were among those catching up or becoming newly acquainted across the table tennis table.

Senior players like Stuart Dallas, Luke Ayling and Patrick Bamford mixed and mingled with the youngsters and staff members over lunch.

“Everybody dreads pre-season to a certain extent but I think it’s good because you’ve been away for a while, it’s good to get back in amongst the lads,” Dallas told The YEP.

“Pre-season is hard, there’s no getting away from it but this is what gives you the extra advantage when the season arrives. I’ve had it before when I’ve not had a pre-season and gone into a season and really struggled, whether it be with injuries or fitness. It’s important we get a good one under our belt.

“We’ve come here to these facilities to give us the best preparation for the season ahead and we’ll all be ready come the start of the season.”

The club’s Euro 2020 contingent are yet to return but they and any new signings, like Junior Firpo whose move from Barcelona is progressing, will go through the same testing process before throwing themselves into life at Thorp Arch, their data added to the information gathered on Thursday.

“Preferably, I’m sure Bielsa would like the data by 6pm tonight and some of it will be there ready,” said Peter Mackreth, dean of Carnegie School of Sport.

“We have a number of systems in place so that those things can be provided very quickly. But it depends on the test, some are extremely complex, like in the biomechanics department with gait analysis, measuring forces, that takes some time to provide the appropriate report.

“There will be a steady trickle of that data through to the team at Leeds United over the next three or four days.”

“It’s brilliant to be able to use our facilities to support the Premier League players and help the staff to be prepared,” added Dr Emmonds.

“This is the the kind of day that we do this for.”

The real work, the triple sessions and Bielsa’s famously intense 11-v-11 training-ground clashes await, but before the head coach gets his hands on the squad he will have at his fingertips a wealth of information to help his players hit the ground running and keep running through their second Premier League season.