Who do you think this man is? A great manager? A brilliant player?
No. Actually, he’s a guy who practices alternative medicine. He currently runs a clinic in Como, Italy. He certainly isn’t a football man. He is well-known in football in another way. Jean-Pierre Meersseman, the Belgian chiropractor, is the Anatoliy Zelentsov of the 21st Century.
His story begins with a dreadful injury suffered by a fantastic Argentine named Fernando Redondo. Redondo had just moved to A.C. Milan from Real Madrid for €30 million. The versatile regista, nicknamed El Principe, didn’t really want to be transferred and neither did the Real fans want him to go. Nevertheless, he moved. A few minutes into one of his first training sessions with Milan, Redondo suffered a brutal injury to his right knee.
“He was in perfect condition,” Meersseman recalls, “and then he was walking on the treadmill and he tore a muscle. I’d never heard of anyone doing that. He never really came back.”
Redondo didn’t kick a football for more than two years after the injury. His guilt led him to suspend his £2.74 million a year salary. He even offered to give back the house and car given to him by the Milan board. The Milan directors turned that down, though.
Milan didn’t want to lose another player (and millions of Euros) to injuries and decided to rope in Jean-Pierre Meersseman to found the Milan Lab – a research center that used cutting-edge technology to predict and manage players’ injuries. The Lab’s first guinea pig was the Dutchman Clarence Seedorf, who joined the club around that time.
“When Seedorf came to see me he had continuous groin pain which had been bugging him for a year and a half,” Meersseman said. “He couldn’t practise properly and was on a downward spiral. I remember the first day he was at Milan I had his wisdom teeth pulled out. The pain in his groin went away immediately and that helped rebuild his career.”
A lot of Meerseman healings were, like Seedorf’s, unorthodox.
“It’s not accepted in evidence-based medicine but I don’t give a damn about that,” Meersseman said, “And I’ve seen it [his treatments] work.”
Another sign of him being against conventional medicinal beliefs was that he is a heavy smoker.
Meersseman is in some respects similar to Anatoliy Zelentsov, a bioenergist who made sure Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kiev players could stay fit and cut fatigue by conducting tests and set up the foundation for the pressing game that they played. But Milan Lab would have been of no use if it weren’t for the Valeriy Lobanovskyi of Milan, Carlo Ancelotti.
Ancelotti, the calm, unobtrusive yet brilliant Italian manager took over at the time when the Lab was set up. The Rossoneri was in a bad spell after two great eras with Arrigo Sacchi in the 80s and Fabio Capello in the 90s. His first year, the 2001-02 season was good, as Milan finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League. He reached the semis in both the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia.
But the following season was better. They finished 3rd in the Serie A and won the Champions League, beating Juventus on penalties, achieving European glory for the first time since 1994. Milan won the Coppa Italia, too, beating Roma over two legs.
The 2004-05 season, arguably, is the best Milan has done in Italy till now. They clinched the Scudetto1 for the first time since 1999, finishing 11 points clear of second-placed Roma. They won 25 games out of 34. People believe that was the greatest Serie A in Milan’s history. Ancelotti and Meersseman had bested the legendary managers Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello. They also won the UEFA Super Cup. Andriy Shevchenko picked up the European Footballer of the Year award.
The next season, however, was heartbreaking. As the American comedian Jerry Seinfeld said in his sitcom Seinfeld, “Who wants to be the greatest loser?” 3rd or 4th place is better, in a way, than coming 2nd. Unfortunately, Milan finished 2nd to Juventus in the Serie A in the 2005-06 season. They reached the final of the Champions League final, against Liverpool. Their captain Paolo Maldini scored on the first minute, before Hernan Crespo added two more to make it 3-0. However, they were on the receiving end of the great Miracle of Istanbul. Milan threw away their 3-goal advantage and lost 2-3 on penalties.
The following season saw Milan being put one place down after the Calciopoli2 scandal. The 2006-07 season saw Andriy Shevchenko move to Chelsea for €40 million. The Milan outfit reached the final. Who was their opponent? Liverpool! The Miracle of Istanbul was avenged. Milan beat Liverpool 2-1.
In 2009, Carlo Ancelotti moved to Chelsea. He went on to achieve further success there and at other rich clubs Paris Saint Germain and Real Madrid. He is now at Bayern Munich.
Milan started declining after the departure of Ancelotti. The club also lost a lot of money. It was good under Massimiliano Allegri, when they had Alexandre Pato, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, but they weren’t as good as the Ancelotti years.
But what influence did the Milan Lab have over the club’s success?
Age is Just a Number
The Lab should be credited for a lot of Milan’s successes during the 2000s. Its players became less susceptible to injury. The number of non-contact injuries decreased. Milan was able to play their best players all the time. The number of practice days lost decreased.
The remarkable thing about the Lab was that it focused on the prevention of injuries rather than treatment alone. Why are infants vaccinated? Are they given a polio immunization after they get polio? No, they get it to prevent polio. The same thing applies to player fitness. That’s something not a lot of other clubs get about injuries. But how can you inoculate your team against injuries? You can’t inject a weakened form of a, let’s say, torn ACL into a person. So here’s when analytics and data collection comes into play.
They gathered information about each and every Milan player. Each player was tested every 15 days. The Lab was meticulous in its information assembling. “You could do an analysis of a simple jump, put it into the system and predict with a 70 per cent accuracy whether the player is going to get hurt or not,” Meersseman said.
“We’ve done over one million tests at Milan. And our mathematicians and engineers have developed a formula which has a high success rate of predicting and managing injuries.” Meersseman states.
Computers and programming played a huge role in the workings of the Milan Lab. They worked with Microsoft. Many algorithms were created to predict injury. Each piece of data was carefully compared and cross-referenced. “I supervised it but it was the work of mathematicians and engineers really,” Meersseman says. Even the most minor of injuries was logged into their database. By 2013, writes Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, the Lab had performed 1.2 million physical tests on Milan’s players.
When they did get injured, Meersseman treated them well. Like Seedorf’s treatment, not through conventional methods but through alternate medicine and chiropractic, Meersseman’s trade. Kinesiology and psychology came in handy, too.
One reason why Milan was so successful with the Lab was because Meersseman was given power to buy and sell players. “The last signature when a player signs for Milan is [Adriano] Galliani’s. The one before is mine.”
But Meersseman will always be remembered for one thing – he made his players become ageless. When should a player retire? “I think around forty.” Meersseman said, “It used to be thirty-four at most.” See for yourself. Milan defenders Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini retired at the ripe old age of 41! Remember what I said about forwards declining early? Throw that out of the window! Their lethal striker Pippo Inzaghi retired when he was 39.
When the Rossoneri lifted the Champions League trophy in 2007, one of the reasons they won was because they were too old and wise to repeat their mistakes. Paolo Maldini became the oldest captain to win the Champions League. Nearly everyone in the starting 11 was in their 30’s.
The Lab’s work also let Andrea Pirlo, who left for Juventus in 2011, perform very well in his mid-thirties. Milan bought a lot of players at a profit in their 30’s, because the values of players dip when they reach that age. They also performed well for the club. Examples are the Brazilians Cafu and Ronaldo. A famous example is David Beckham. “David is one of the most interesting men I have ever met,” Meersseman said. On joining the club on loan, he was told he could play till he was 38. Beckham took his advice.
Meersseman also represents the Moneyball revolution in football. His success has told us about another application of analytics in football – injury prevention. As the Belgian preaches, “You can drive a car without a dashboard, without any information, and that’s what’s happening in football. There are excellent drivers, excellent cars, but if you have your dashboard, it makes it just a little easier.” This analogy between driving with a dashboard and analytics in football is a great one. There is no harm in playing and managing without the help of data, but statistics can make each aspect in the game less of a leap in the dark. Milan certainly could do without the Lab, because they had great players and a good manager, but they did even better with it. “The decision is often based on what the data is telling us.” Meersseman said.
With all of the Lab’s advancement, Fernando Redondo’s injury was inevitable if you look at the records of his medical. “When we put the results of Redondo then into our system now, he comes out as a tremendously high risk.” Meersseman said.
But all good things come to an end. Ancelotti leaving was the first step in the decline of Milan. Milan, during the Allegri years, began suffering losses despite their good performances. The activities of the Milan Lab were expensive. “They stopped the Milan Lab project three years ago,” Meersseman said in 2013. “It’s still being applied in the athletics sector but not in the medical sector. And we’ve had more injuries in the past two years than in the eight years before that put together.” The reason is explained by him. “When things are going very well sometimes you believe you can start to cut things.” They also had to offload many good players, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexandre Pato. Now, the Lab exists only in name. Meersseman stopped working for Milan in 2010.
I feel for the Milan fans. They could watch the great side of Arrigo Sacchi, with the Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. Then, they saw the pragmatic yet great team of Fabio Capello. They were followed by Carlo Ancelotti and his age-defying team. Now they can only see their stars Alexandre Pato, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Stephan El Shaarawy getting injured and then sold.
Notes and References
1 The Scudetto is a little shield presented to the winners of the Serie A.
2The Calciopoli scandal, or the 2006 Italian Football Scandal, was an incident where Italian police intercepted phone calls between referees and certain managers of big clubs, where the clubs fixed many games. Juventus (who were crowned champions that year), Lazio and Fiorentina were relegated to the Serie B as a result. 1st (originally Juventus) and 2nd (originally Milan, who also played a part) positions were empty in the 2006-07 season, when the match-fixing scandal took place.
All Meersseman quotes are from Sean Ingle’s interview with the Belgian or from Simon Kuper’s.
Jean-Pierre Meersseman: By Leaders in Performance, Flickr.com
Paolo Maldin: By Yelena Rybakova for Soccer.ru – cropped from Soccer.ru photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10206700