Instead of being critical about Rafa Benitez and the individualised training programmes the media should really be commenting about the way Real Madrid are approaching the injury situation this season. The good news that Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, and Fabio Coentrao had all returned to training at various stages this week was offset by suggestions that they weren't really fit; and what Rafa had failed to mention was that although they'd all returned to training, it was with individual routines as opposed to taking part in the same work-outs as everyone else.
If we rewind a few months there was a lot of criticism leveled at Carlo Ancelotti's policy of playing people as much as possible, even to the point where players were obviously carrying injuries. The knee injury which troubled Cristiano for most of last season was noticeable by the tail end of the season and was reflected in the way he moved. Gareth Bale also had a few injury problems in the hip and groin region, and again you could tell that at times he was missing just that little bit of sharpness that makes all the difference between coming back from injury fully-fit and still carrying a niggle.
It's very easy to sit back and say that it's not before time; and that Ronaldo et al should all have been fit sooner. The danger, as everyone knows, is always that if you try to come back from injury too early then the chances are that the same thing is only going to happen again; and the same injuries always take longer to recover the second time around.
I don't think anyone should be blaming Rafa for being overly careful at this stage. Although it seems like an absolute age since the players reported back on the 10th of July, we're only really just getting into the second month of the pre-season period. With the games now becoming more evenly spaced out, and the Galatasaray match the last ‘proper' friendly before the league season starts, the management would have been hammered in the press if they had decided to take chances with the returning quartet and any of them had sustained a re-injury as a result.
The reality of the situation is that any player returning from injury has to make sure that the return to full training is gradual. If that means joining in 75% of what the rest of the group does and then going off and doing your own specific work instead of shooting practice or whatever then so be it; particularly at this stage where everyone is laying their own fitness foundations for the season to come. The depth of their participation in ‘full training' will depend on what format the session will take and whether it's a suitable workout for anyone returning from injury.
Injured players are always treated differently at any football club no matter what the level of the club is. Because keeping up their general body fitness during their time out of the team is so important, the injured players will often work harder physically as a result; and on a daily basis. While fully-fit members of the team will often be given a day off, there are no such luxuries for those who are on the injured list.
It's been reported this week that Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo trained on their day off; but that's not really any surprise. Cristiano came in to work at his back exercises as part of a gradually-increasing fitness regime, while Sergio was pictured using an anti-gravity treadmill to allow him to work harder at his rehab without taking the full impact of his body weight while running. The latter takes the strain off the lower limbs so if any injury has been sustained to the thighs, knees, ankles, calf muscles etc, this enables players to work aerobically harder without the added risk of impact-related aggravation of an injury.
Anti-gravity equipment is used frequently in rehab but is not technically ‘anti-gravity' as such. The AG treadmills work by effectively by using air pressure to suspend the user in such a way that a percentage of the body weight is taken by the machine, thus leaving the impact felt through the joints a lot less than maximal. Sergio Ramos was pictured using the machine and really appeared to be get a lot out of the session. Although he's realistically working in a partial weight-bearing capacity, it's a lot less severe on the lower limbs than high-impact running while coming back from injury.
The next stage for him will have been to get back into working towards full high-impact running. Although it's fine using the technological advances in rehab, football is played on normal pitches with varying surfaces and this is ultimately where the later stages of rehab needs to be focused. The individual rehab and training planning will have taken into consideration the days off for those who are fully fit and actively involved in match play. Recovery from injury is a graded process that doesn't stop just because the rest of the team are having a break. The injured players will have been just as keen to push themselves to reach their full fitness levels irrespective of who else is around the club at that time.
The fitness coaches will have been rightly working on planning individual sessions based on the current fitness status of all the players and all the while monitoring their progress. In particular, the fitness levels of the injured players will be highly scrutinised in an effort to ensure that any fitness loss is minimal. The due who still haven't returned to full training, Pepe and Karim Benzema, will be slightly further behind Ronaldo, Ramos, Coentrao and Varane; and will therefore be likely to be working harder than the rest of the squad in days to come.
By this stage in the pre-season period, basic fitness levels will have been achieved and in the case of the fully fit players, will merely need a bit of fine tuning before next weekend. With the injured players, though, and those whose fitness levels may be slightly below the levels that would be expected of them at this point in the pre-season period, the emphasis placed on individual planning and programming should yield the benefits.
So although there's a been a lot of talk about different players following different routines and everyone apparently having varying fitness levels, this will all be monitored and allowed for as part of the overall plan. It's good that the Madrid backroom team are on the ball in that respect; although as always, the effectiveness of the planning will only be evident once the league season gets under way. It's probably only then that we'll be able to relate fitness levels and treatment responses to actual game time.