MilanLab - The impossible project that changed football performance
As a pioneer in football performance research, MilanLab changed the game for injury prediction and prevention.
MAKING HISTORY: AC Milan's 1989 squad was at the heart of MilanLab.
In the pro game, results count. Competition is fierce and even a slight lack of preparation can cost you. With injury risk high, even in the most elite players, keeping in good health is vital.
Unfortunately, the wellbeing of players was never a priority in the past. Skill, technique and strategy were at the forefront without even a mention of the complex systems of a footballer's mind and body.
MilanLab changed everything in the world of sports performance, injury prediction and prevention.
An individual who recognised this was Vincenzo Pincolini. A talented ex-athlete and personal trainer; he pioneered the idea that footballers should train like athletes. After all, they play like athletes.
Pincolini joined AC Milan's thriving team alongside manager, Arrigo Sacchi, in 1987. With a new team full of successes such as Van Basten and Ruud Gullit, they were destined for victory.
ROAD TO SUCCESS: Ruud Gullit celebrates Milan's victory in the 1989 European Cup.
Despite the triumphs in the 80s, the late 90s saw the team decline in the league.
Fitness coach Daniele Tognaccini's arrival at Milan in 1999 brought a new vision. He agreed with Pincolini's notions and wanted to carry them forward. So, when former player Carlo Ancelotti was appointed as manager in 2001, Milan had another opportunity to lead.
Jean-Pierre Meersseman, the club's chiropractor, was critical to the team's long term development. He experienced Fernando Redondo's fall from grace. A healthy player severely injuring his knee walking on a treadmill; a huge loss to the club. Treatment wasn't successful, and as a new signing, Milan didn't even get a taster of his talent.
TRANSFER: Redondo joined AC Milan in 2000 for £11m.
It was a nightmare for Ancelotti, current CEO, Adriano Galliano, and Milan Owner, Silvio Berlusconi. The club had spent a lofty amount on his transfer. In their minds, the money was down the drain.
Berlusconi was determined; this couldn't happen again to his business. He questioned Meersseman and requested a quick fix. Berlusconi was ready to take a leap of faith, taking out of his own pocket to try everything possible.
Came the world-leading project, MilanLab.
THE BOSS: Berlusconi was the owner of AC Milan during the fall of Fernando Redondo.
MilanLab was a high-tech research-based clinic located in the Milanello Sports Centre. Founded in 2002, it ensured players prepared like athletes. The main focus: injury prediction and prevention.
RESEARCH BASE: MilanLab was located in the Milanello Sports Centre.
The project was a risk, some may say, "the impossible". Meersseman wanted to use computer science to examine each player and their environment in depth. Something that had never been done to this extent before. Players were to be mapped with one-off and daily tests, their current well-being examined. Nobody could predict the outcome.
Meersseman defined the research with one simple principle. Three key factors determined the pinnacle of player health: physical, mental and social well-being. A balance of the three meant optimum performance. If any factors were weakened, wellbeing could be compromised.
What made MilanLab so special was its recognition of footballers as "integrated systems". Meersseman knew multiple factors influenced performance, and that every component interacts.
Some tests looked at body-movement and cognitive-motor skills. Two key elements in making better footballers. Chiropractors and physiotherapists within the clinic also examined the musculoskeletal system, to train the body to recover from injury without medication or surgery.
Detailed data on the body meant that injuries could be prevented. Analysing a player's movement patterns could predict whether they were likely to incur trauma. This was revolutionary.
Biochemistry of players was also assessed. Chemical changes occurring in the body during exercise related to the severity of injuries.
TRIALS: Biochemistry of players was tested in a lab for the project.
One of MilanLab's biggest areas of research was by psychologists and neuroscientists. Using techniques such as relaxing imagery, recovery rate and stress relief were measured. Good mental wellbeing deemed extremely important for player performance.
Even the weather and playing surface were considered. Absolutely nothing was missed.
A vital breakthrough for MilanLab was the idea that every player's needs were unique. Depending on the test results, each footballer had different goals to reach that optimum performance. Whether they needed better advice from nutritionists or more specific exercises led by strength and conditioning coaches, every player had something they could improve.
The outcome couldn't have been better. Widespread in-depth analyses meant the team's performance levels and career length's rocketed. Percentages of injuries reduced because they could be predicted; rehabilitation results also improved. An example being Manuel Locatelli, who gained 20% mobility after an injury from using MilanLab's exercises.
Players such as Paolo Maldini continued their careers on until their 40s. Starting under Sacchi's 1987 squad, he was one of the only players that transversed the whole cycle from before MilanLab began.
LONGEVITY: Maldini's long-standing career was the product of MilanLab.
Unfortunately, the only fall for MilanLab was that long-standing careers led to a bottleneck of talent. When the successors retired, AC Milan's stream of wins came to a halt.
But there's no doubt that MilanLab acted as a catapult for performance research today. Its place in football remains as the project that turned the impossible, into the possible. It may have needed the right circumstances, a wealthy & business-motivated owner, and leading experts who were willing to help, but it all fell into place.
MilanLab was an impossibility. It should never have happened. It couldn't have happened. It was a complete anomaly where logic broke down.
REWARD: Jean Pierre Meersseman was rewarded for his achievements as the founder of MilanLab in the 2012 Sports Awards.
Understanding that physical, mental and social aspects all interlink is crucial to football performance. It's not just about eating a good pre-match meal, it's also about reducing stress and maintaining concentration. Improvements in these areas don't just prevent injury but can help you progress and develop.
What MilanLab has shown to enhance performance, our experts will be covering in exclusive football4football video interviews. In fact, Meersseman's project underlines why we are football4football.