One Fan's Quest to Spread the Truth on Soccer Injuries
Sick of the spin and vague press releases, Fabian Siegel's website provides the answers soccer fans are looking for on injuries.
Fabian Siegel doesn't remember exactly when the idea to study injuries came to him, but it was sometime in early February, 2014, which means Siegel's favorite team, Eintracht Frankfurt, had just played Bayern Munich. The Bayern match featured a potential trigger for Siegel's idea, the injury of Frankfurt's keeper, Kevin Trapp.
It wasn't an enjoyable evening for Trapp. The Bavarians absolutely shelled the Frankfurt goal, putting four goals past him before he suffered an apparent knee injury. He left the match in the 76th minute. The Eintracht Frankfurt fan forum came to life almost immediately with speculation about what went wrong. Was it a sprained knee or something worse, like an ACL tear?
When team doctors announced their initial diagnosis—a serious knee contusion with no ligament damage—fans were relieved. It wasn't bad. But they were still in the dark and somewhat frustrated about another question: how long would Trapp be injured? How many games would Trapp, one of Germany's top, young goalkeepers, and a key player for Frankfurt, miss? Club-issued predictions were often wildly inaccurate.
As it turned out, Trapp missed just one game, but over the course of Siegel's life as an Eintracht fan, this frustrating scenario had played out countless times: "Here's an injury, and you can't say how long he will miss," says Siegel, a 26-year-old who works by day as a TV Reporter in Baden-Baden, Germany. "Then you look on the Internet, 'How long will a player miss? How long will he take to recover from this injury?' You know? It all started when I thought there was another way to predict injury times."
So in February 2014, Siegel began an arduous task. After every match day, he combs through the press releases from every Bundesliga club and takes down information about injuries, such as injury type and how it was sustained (practice or match), and compiles this data into a database. Combined with information about player recovery, Siegel has, over time, developed charts that help fans better predict how long their team's players might be out, given different injuries. He's gone on to produce visualizations based on player position and type of injury, along with the crown jewel of his statistical undertaking: his injury table.
The injury table ranks teams much like the points table used throughout the soccer world, only rather than use points earned in competition, the injury table ranks teams based on the cumulative length of time a team has lost players to injury. On the points table, Bayern has been in first place since the very beginning of this season, but on the injury table Bayern was well into last place by the season's halfway point. Schalke and Dortmund weren't far behind. (In addition to the 2013-14 injury table, Siegel is in the process of building datasets for as far back as 2009; his final table for this season should come out later this month.)
In a little more than a year, Siegel's website Fussballverletzungen has become an important resource for die-hard Bundesliga fans looking to better understand injuries. In general, Siegel has found that hamstring injuries and knee injuries are a particular problem for Bundesliga players—a finding that is not out of line with other studies of injuries in elite soccer. But the undertaking has also given Siegel some unexpected insights. He's found that teams have different approaches to how they spin individual injuries and how they might use a rash of injuries to excuse bad play.
"The medical staff of Borussia Dortmund, they're always a little too optimistic when saying how long a player will miss," explains Siegel. "We had this broken leg of Sokratis [Papastathopoulos], the defender. They first said he would miss two games, two weeks, and everyone said, 'This cannot be possible. He has broken his leg!' In the end, it was two months!"
It's unclear what a team like Dortmund would gain from putting such an unrealistic spin on something like player injuries, but Siegel thinks that, for the most part, fans are often good at sniffing through the bullshit when looking at individual payers. They're far less adept at understanding how multiple injuries affect results.
Fans and teams alike often lean on injuries as a means to explain poor form, and what Siegel has found out is that it's often a bad excuse, because what might seem like an injury crisis is nothing of the sort. "[Last season,] we had Nurnberg relegated to the Second Bundesliga and everybody said it was in part because of injury problems," says Siegel. But this was a conclusion Siegel couldn't account for in his data. Nurnberg's injury crisis wasn't a crisis at all. Compared to other teams, Nurnberg didn't experience anything out of the ordinary. (Siegel has experimented with weighting player injures based on how important a player is to a team, but it's difficult to include such a subjective metric.)
Bayern Munich's recent Champions League defeat to Barcelona is another example of injuries seeming to affect results, one that data seems to support. It's impossible to say whether Bayern could have beaten Barcelona if Robben and Ribery were around (I doubt the result would have been much different), but the injuries cast Bayern Munich in a sympathetic light.
It's hard to feel too much sympathy for Bayern, though. The team was made to answer some difficult questions when its long-serving team doctor, Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, resigned recently, along with his staff, in apparent protest to having been blamed for Bayern's defeat to Porto. Pep Guardiola, the Bayern coach, was seen clapping at the medical staff in apparent irony after an injury in a previous game. One wonders if maybe Bayern should have called Siegel before letting Muller-Wohlfahrt leave.
"I looked at the performance in the Bundesliga with muscle fiber tears—the injury with the most cases," explains Siegel. "You could say that Wohlfahrt was one of the best four or five when it came to recovery time, so he had a pretty good medical staff."