Performance director Dr Ryland Morgans explains how he overhauled Crystal Palace’s training regime mid-season to help inspire a surge to Premier League survival…
From Liverpool’s title tilt in 2014 to Wales’ Euro 2016 semi-final heroics, highly regarded fitness expert Dr Ryland Morgans has been at the heart of some memorable team performances in recent years.
However, helping Sam Allardyce keep Crystal Palace in the Premier League may have been one of his toughest assignments yet.
With just four wins to their name, the Eagles were stuck in the relegation zone when new boss Allardyce made Morgans his Performance Director at the end of January.
Fast forward four months and Palace had been propelled to safety and a 14th-place finish. They won eight out of their final 16 games, including victories over some of the Premier League’s top teams, while Andros Townsend publicly praised Morgans’ impact.
But how did Palace pull it off? Sky Sports spoke to Morgans to find out…
Sam Allardyce became Crystal Palace manager just before Christmas and brought you in as Performance Director a month later. What did that role entail?
Ryland Morgans: Any change of manager generally follows a period of poor results, so overall – physically and mentally – the players were not in a great place. That reflected in their performances and where they were in the Premier League table.
Sam wanted me to go in as performance director, overseeing all aspects of performance which contributed positively and negatively towards winning a Premier League game. So that initially covered creating a new training methodology for the team – how do we train and when do we do it.
The remit also involved looking at monitoring player training and match load, recovery, nutrition and supplements, injury prevention, rehabilitation, strength and power, and linking the coaching, medical, fitness, psychology and analysis departments together.
Andros Townsend says you oversaw an improvement in his fitness and form in the second half of the season, so what changes did you make?
RM: The first thing I changed was our training methodology. So how and when we train during a working week. What do we do on day one, day two? What’s the contrast between those sessions? What are players’ individual physical and tactical demands come the game?
Ultimately, can we get the players fitter and more robust to deal with those physical match demands? That starts with what you do and how you do it in training.
That was the biggest part of my first four weeks, getting the players to adapt to new things, new physical demands in training and ensure that come match day they are fit and fresh and able to deal with whatever the game throws at them.
Then I looked at the strength and power work, the prehab sessions, recovery, injury prevention, and nutrition so everything was aligned with the football training methodology. The first thing to change was the football training methodology then everything filtered down from that.
We all know the foundations to fitness in football are set in pre-season, so what were the challenges of joining a club in January?
RM: When you go in during a season, the difficulty is the players have been doing certain things on certain days for the last four or five months. So going in and trying to change those things and improve performance and reduce the risk of injury and try to win football matches at the same time puts the work on a knife edge.
You’re trying to improve their capacity to be fitter, more powerful, quicker and more robust during matches, while still dealing with matches and having to win those matches to stay in the Premier League.
Too much change too soon can also have a negative effect on performance. So it was changing things little and often. However, I probably made bigger steps in terms of transition and change at Palace, because we didn’t have 12 months to put that in place. We had four months to implement it, get better at it and win games to survive. It felt like we were up against time, which we were.
Allardyce is known for his interest in sports science and applying it to football. What influence did he have on your work?
RM: Ultimately a large part of that new training methodology comes from the manager. When I joined, I sat down with him and we discussed his preferred playing style and system. We then looked at which players we had in the building that can deal with those demands and playing in those positions. And from there we looked at how we can improve their capacity to do that physical work under the guidance of the tactical framework.
Sam was very open and very receptive to new sports science concepts. He was always of the opinion – ‘if it can make us better, can we have it?’ And ‘if we can get it, let’s get it in, if we can’t, why can’t we?’ He was always very supportive of doing that but, like at any club, a lot of the time it can come down to finance and priorities.
We were able to bring in certain things like a cryotherapy chamber, while he also agreed to change the time of day we trained before certain games. That was down to a variety of reasons but those small tweaks can add up and make a difference.
I’d have to run those ideas by Sam and explain the benefits to performance but most of the time he’d agree and say ‘let’s do it’. In most situations, it’s still the manager who makes the final decisions. But he was excellent to work with because he was very open and receptive to not only new and contemporary ideas but to change.
Sometimes a change is difficult to adapt to but his opinion was ‘if you’re telling me it’s going to make us better, then let’s do it’.
What was the players’ response to your new training structure?
RM: A key part of bringing in the changes is how the players adapt to something new. Some players will do that more comfortably than others.
My task was to make sure they could all adapt to that way of training and physically improve and play without risk of injury. That meant getting as much data as possible on each player and then increasing or modifying their training workload during the week to make sure they’re getting fitter without increasing their risk of injury and maximising their physical capacity come match day.
Your training work obviously extended beyond the pitches to the gym, too?
RM: The foundations of the injury prevention work is based on the exercises they do in the gym. We aligned that to how they trained on the grass – which is where the biggest injury prevention strategy is achieved.
So when they work certain muscles in certain ways in football training, everything they do in the gym before and after is linked to that. The gym work was all about getting players stronger, more powerful and reducing their risk of injury.
And how about nutrition? It’s a regular topic of conversation in football, but what was your approach?
RM: There would be a standardised approach for the whole team, in terms of meals and supplements. There are also some simple blood tests we did on players to determine what individual supplements they needed.
Some players will need to increase their vitamin D, for example, while some players might lose a lot of electrolytes during training and matches. Some players might need to manage their body weight, while some players may need to increase their lean muscle mass.
As much as there would be a generic approach to the principles of nutrition and supplementation, there would then be an individual, tailored programme for whatever needs each player had.
You mentioned data – but how important is analytics in the work you do?
RM: A large part of my day I will be looking at data. Whether that’s match data from the game we’ve just played or opposition data for the game we’re about to play.
I’d always be looking at daily individual training data to ensure we could improve players physically. That involved metres covered in certain zones of running speeds and the density of the training practices. Making sure each individual player had the required physical stimulus during training on specific days was vital and once they’ve done enough of this work, it was about how quickly can we recover them in order to take that improved fitness into Premier League games.
On a day-to-day basis, it was looking at every individual within the squad and seeing what they needed. Have they done too much or too little? Can we push them a little more to improve them physically for the game at the weekend or would that put them at a greater risk of injury? Are they starting on the weekend and if they are can they last 95 minutes undertaking that tactical role? Are the non-starting players physically ready to play if needed? Have they done enough work, that if they play their risk of injury doesn’t increase?
There are ways of looking at players and their individual thresholds and their range of what makes them fit, fresh and available. Andros was a prime example where we did that. But it also comes down to the application of the players and Andros, as an example, was excellent with it.
Is this detailed, in-depth approach something all Premier League clubs do?
RM: I can’t comment on other clubs but most Premier League clubs have a performance structure and every manager and the performance department will have a certain way of training and doing what they see as best with their set of players, based on their beliefs and their way of playing.
The work we were doing at Palace was an adapted version of various training methods that are out there. Knowing those different methods, I tailored and tweaked those methods to suit the Palace players and their individual and collective needs.
Obviously your work is very science-based. Were there ever any clashes with coaches, in terms of how much they wanted to train the players and how much you thought they should do?
RM: There was always clear communication and never any conflict. We would have detailed meetings before and after training, and those meetings would iron out any of those potential problems.
The overall job of everyone at Palace was to try to improve players physically and tactically, so those meetings would revolve around both of those aspects. That ensured that by the time we put a session together, delivered it and walked away we had covered what we needed to tactically from the coaches and had improved the players physically.
It’s very well wanting to spend more hours on the training pitch, but if the players aren’t available because they’re injured or not physically able to do it, then that won’t work. I worked very closely with assistant manager Sammy Lee on this and it proved to be a successful approach at Palace.
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