Whatever the Premier League is doing about head injuries, it’s not working – The Warm-Up



About fifteen minutes after Leeds’ loss to Manchester United, Robin Koch hit his head against unleashed form Scott McTominay, bleeding heavily and receiving a large bandage on the head in the style of Terry Butcher. Fifteen minutes later he felt dizzy, sat down and was substituted. He will now miss Leeds’ game against Liverpool tomorrow.

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‘Staff acted impeccably’ – Bielsa defends medical staff after Koch played with concussion


According to Leeds, Koch had passed all on-field tests required by Premier League protocols as part of a concussion check. This brings us to an obvious conclusion: protocols are reels. Or, as the players’ union puts it: “Leeds United’s Robin Koch injury demonstrates yet again that current concussion protocols in football do not prioritize player safety.” This is a fanciful speech for the “reels”.

The PFA goes on to reiterate its call for temporary replacements when it comes to head injuries: for players who hit their heads to be allowed off the pitch until a delayed effect becomes clear, or not, and for a replacement to cover them in the meantime. Like rugby or American football: those sports where head-to-head kicks are even more important to the experience.

Sounds sensible. (Politics, not rugby. Rugby doesn’t make sense.) It also goes against the way football views substitutions, which is perhaps why it hasn’t happened yet. The current model – when you’re out, you’re out – works great for tactical changes and for injuries that are immediately apparent. Can’t run? You come. But the permanent nature of change actively discourages what we might call exploratory change: pulling someone out because they might be hurt in a way no one has yet noticed.

This disincentive is reinforced by the way football teams are put together. Coverage is often thin. Most of the time, there is a clear drop in quality between the first eleven and the bench. And Leeds were already improvising in the absence of Kalvin Phillips. To be clear, we are not accusing Leeds in particular of having done anything wrong: we are sure that they followed the protocols as they are written and we are sure that no other club would have acted differently. But the structure and competitive logic of the sport actively works against the “when in doubt, leave them out” principle. Take the idea of ​​removing an important player with an hour to play, just to be on the safe side, and try to get him into the Premier League. It’s not okay.

Or try to insert it into the way we think about bravery, commitment and other things we like to see in our footballers. Football, like all sports, is deeply saturated with the idea that the brave thing to do is to play despite the pain: that in principle the cause is worth suffering. Pulled your hamstrings? Grit one’s teeth. Your broken leg? Run it. This deeply unhealthy irrationality is built into the process of becoming an elite athlete and it is beyond any change of rules to undo it. But it becomes particularly problematic when, as with Koch, there can be ten straight minutes between “this guy is fine, pass me the big band-aid” and “hang on, his brain is coming loose”.

Temporary substitutions will not resolve or stop concussions. But they could smooth out the contradictions between the competitive logics of the game, the competitive illogicals of sports performance, and the strange nature of injuries that don’t show up immediately. Contradictions which, at the moment, fall with all their weight on the players. And if it’s a bit like rugby, then maybe it’s something uncomfortable that we all have to get used to. It’s not like there’s a direct connection between temp replacements and wearing brown shoes with blue jeans, is there? Law? Please say there is none. Please.

A different type of headache

The problem with modern football is that there are a lot of them. Expenses. That doubles for really good teams, who have to play an awful lot of games just to get through all the competitions they’ve been to and qualified for. Too many games? Almost certainly.

This has all sorts of ripple effects – bloated squads, stockpiled players, rotation as a premise – and one of the most interesting is how issues have to be worked out as matches are played. There’s hardly any time to try to fix things away from the glare of TV cameras and the muttering and jeering of the crowd.

As has been widely documented and widely mocked over the past day, Romelu Lukaku was barely involved as Chelsea beat Crystal Palace on Saturday. He touched the ball seven times, which is the lowest involvement of any player in a top game since records began. Admittedly, the records only started in 2003, which makes it a little less spectacular. And hey, in the good old days, players sometimes got lost in the fog. They would actually disappear! Disappeared in mist and lamplight. You know, that probably doesn’t help.

Thomas Tuchel suggested, rather gently, that now was “not the time to laugh at him and make jokes about him”, a sentiment that was immediately snuffed out by the joke-based ecology of football. But the austerity of the stat – seven! — raises interesting questions. Is Lukaku hiding? Does Chelsea play around him? Seven? Is it a lack of tactics or confidence, a problem of the system or the individual? Or, if both, then to what extent each? Seven?!

Chelsea play again tonight. Chelsea are still playing. Game, recovery, game, recovery. Whatever the answer to those questions, those involved – Tuchel, Lukaku, his teammates – are going to have to work them out on the pitch, on TV, where we can see them doing it. And that, the Warm-Up guesses, is a pretty terrible set of circumstances to fix anything, let alone a tangled issue of trust and team building. Sort it out. But also keep winning. Stick Lukaku on the bench, where he will be miserable, stick him in front and hope things click. Once again, we discover that the way in which football is organized unnecessarily complicates the lives of the people who support it.


Obviously, the process of hiring a new manager is very serious, and there were all sorts of good, solid footballing reasons for Tottenham to approach and eventually sign Antonio Conte. But if Spurs’ strategy had consisted entirely of a whiteboard with “AWESOME CONTENT” on it in big, wobbly capitals, it would have been fine.


Happy 49th birthday – we’re old, we’re all so old, the bells ring, your back hurts – to Juninho, the mischievous little genius who loved Middlesbrough so much he joined them three times. Here are all the goals he has scored for the club, crammed into 11 joyful minutes.

And then, if you fancy more Juninho stuff, here’s a charming Q&A with the man himself, in which he explains why he moved to Boro in the first place; and here’s Football365’s John Nicholson explaining why Middlesbrough – the club, the fanbase, the city – loves him back, forever and ever, IDST. Let’s organize an impromptu Juninho Day, why not. Here he talks to Goal about Brazil’s 2002 World Cup campaign.


Today’s recommended reading comes from The Guardian’s Sid Lowe and is about Athletic Bilbao, past and present: the great team of the late 1950s who beat Real Madrid at the Bernabéu to win the Copa del Generalísimo, and the modern incarnation who beat Real Sociedad 4-0 last weekend. The Warm-Up have long maintained that Spanish football is around 10% more interesting when Athletic is good, so it’s all very nice.

It was only a half-truth: the paraphernalia is part of the story, maybe even the whole story. Football without sentiment is worthless and there may be no match anywhere with the depth of identity this derby has, the culture, the appeal of history and the connection to its community of two sides. There’s no meeting more local, and there’s certainly nowhere you’d see blue and white shirts strewn around red and white booths, even on a night when no tickets were officially sold.


The Chaaaaammpppiiiooons! Chelsea take on Lille and Villareal host Juventus. We also have matches in the Championship – Boro v West Brom probably the pick there – and placement matches in the Pinatar Cup, where Wales take on the Republic of Ireland.

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