Lionel Messi’s ‘guardian angel’ Juanjo Brau in hot demand at Barcelona
Once undermined by niggling injuries, Lionel Messi is now recognised for his superb physical condition and ability to withstand hectic competitive schedules and heavy treatment from opposition defenders.
The diminutive Argentine, who arrived in Spain with a growth hormone deficiency, is now able to not only compete with the biggest and best defenders in Europe but also withstand their close attention with regularity and a physical toughness.
The man credited with Messi’s turnaround is Juanjo Brau, a physiotherapist and fitness Coach at Barcelona. Iniesta and Carles Puyol have also praised the abilities of Brau in helping them overcome physical problems, and amid a flurry of early-season injuries, Iniesta and the club again find themselves relying on his uniquely successful methods.
Until Pep Guardiola’s arrival in 2008, Messi’s somewhat staccato career was characterised by periods of exceptional form followed by spells on the physio’s bench. All that separated him from reaching his potential was a body he could rely on to showcase his undoubted talent.
One of the first and perhaps most important decisions Guardiola made was to ensure his players followed the warm-up and cool-down protocols employed by Brau. The idea was to transform fitness at the club following Frank Rijkaard’s era, so as to build an energetic squad where key players were able to feature throughout the season.
For his most important asset, the newly-appointed Coach asked Brau to accompany the Argentinean on trips abroad with the national team. New Jersey, San Jose, Rosario, Calcutta and Dhaka are amongst the places the physician has travelled to implement Messi’s individualised work plan. After returning from an ankle sprain inside a week to score against Atlante in the FIFA Club World Cup in December 2010, Messi dedicated the goal to Brau. As the graph shows, their partnership since 2007-08 has yielded impressive results.
So much so that Brau has been coined as Messi’s ‘guardian angel’ by the Spanish Press. It is not only the 24-year-old who has benefited: Iniesta has made similar strides forward in recent seasons. Most notably in following Brau’s progamme he was able to recover from a two-centimetre tear in his quadriceps within 17 days to be fit for the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United. Such an injury can rule players out for anything like eight weeks upwards. While often players will return from a prolonged lay-off well off the pace, Iniesta proved integral to the winners’ dominance.
More recently, Carles Puyol credits his comeback from a complicated knee injury to Brau’s rehabilitation programme. Despite a brief return to action in April for the Champions League semi-final and La Liga matches against Real Madrid, the centre-back has been sidelined since 22 January with tendonitis in his quadriceps. The problem required surgery on June 1 to repair the cartilage in his left knee and one month later Puyol revealed:
Today is a great day, I'm again running without any problem... Thank you, Juanjo Brau."
Brau is likely to have his work cut out maintaining the fitness of the battle-hardened centre-half in the seasons ahead.
In the meantime however there are a range of problems for Barcelona’s medical team to address. Gerard Pique is struggling with a torn calf while Ibrahim Affelay, Alexis Sanchez and Iniesta are all out with hamstring injuries. The commonality of injury suggests there is room for improvement in the club’s approach to preventing problems from arising.
What has not aided their task has been the less-than-ideal preparations over the course of the summer. Guardiola admitted his frustrations over the need to prioritise financial gainsover footballing needs.
With a hectic schedule to come and a spate of injuries to rehabilitate, Guardiola and his medical team will be considering how Brau’s success in fine-tuning Messi can be replicated to help other less fortunate members of the Barcelona team.
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