Too many games?
With the news that England’s friendly international against Holland was cancelled, I’m sure the odd Premier League manager will have breathed a sigh of relief with its proximity to the opening day of the top-flight calendar. However, needless to say, no-one would have wanted the tie to be postponed under these circumstances driven by the actions of mindless idiots.
The friendly received little support from managers and Capello also raised concern regarding the timing of it in relation to player’s fitness; but it is a designated match window in the FIFA calendar and it was thought that England would benefit from the game-time in preparation for next month’s qualifiers against Bulgaria and Wales.
The discussion that interests me though is that of player’s fitness levels and words such as ‘burnout’ and ‘tiredness’ which are far too often thrown around by managers, pundits and commentators on reflection of another failed tournament performance either by club or country. This is particularly of interest this season as we have the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine next summer which England should qualify for from their position in the group.
The discussion around adopting a model that is popular across Europe in appointing a winter break into the Premier League calendar has been around for some time and has a number of advocates in players and managers. Although the idea has merited plenty of debate, it has never been acted upon much to the detriment of the England national team according to previous England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. Club managers and players have also called for the inclusion of a short break mid-season claiming they play far too many games and Fabio Capello recently blamed fatigue on England’s disappointing draw against Switzerland.
There is obviously a great deal of support for England to seriously consider following European counterparts in providing players with this short-break, but one argument against is the tradition in this country of playing games throughout the festive period. The Football Supporters’ Federation have a poll which 68% of respondents (at the time of writing) have answered that they didn’t support a winter-break which shows, although not overwhelmingly, that there is a clear majority feeling amongst English fans that we are not yet prepared to give up attending games on Boxing Day in the snow wearing the knitted jumper we received the day before and slurping on our Bovril (or is that an Eighties image too far?).
Personally I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I think the notion of fatigue is a poor excuse for continual underperformance by the national side in competition finals. There is a growing sense that training methods in England are outdated and advancement in this area would probably benefit English players in terms of developing longer-term fitness levels with the example that Spain and Barcelona’s Xavi having played 62 more times than Wayne Rooney in the last five years and covered more ground at the last World Cup in South Africa, to no detriment to his performance levels. This possibly indicates that further investigation needs to be conducted into the relationship of the amount of games footballers are expected to play in and the affects this has on their ability to perform; after all, we are comparing arguably England’s most talented forward with one of the World’s best midfield players.
If the Premier League adopted a two-week mid-season break, where would it fit, and surely this would infer that either the season would need to be extended slightly, or start a little earlier to accommodate the gap in the footballing calendar? I’m not totally adverse to this theory and would have no problem in the FA trialing this for a period of time; I think it could possibly be quite a refreshing alternative for SKY to place a little more emphasis on the Football League for a couple of weeks rather than the incessant playing of Manchester Utd and Chelsea matches. I would like us to trial it to just put the theory to rest once and for all; if in that period of time we have not seen considerable improvement to the national team’s performance then I would expect the league to revert back and to cancel the foreign phenomenon of the mid-season break.
I would support this trial however on the proviso that other alternatives are discussed and reflected on.
Firstly; we hear about fatigue, burnout and too many games, yet we are seeing a much greater number of clubs seek out pastures new to play pre-season tournaments in Asia and the United States. Long flights to play a series of high profile friendlies to adoring foreign crowds in the name of commercialisation and consumerism, it’s interesting to see that there is never any comment here that these are ‘unnecessary friendlies’ that impact negatively on players.
Secondly; and again, this all relates to the growing football world economy; why isn’t there an attempt to reduce the number of games in European competition? Fulham have already played six games in order to qualify for Europa League qualification; if they want to get to the final they have an additional 16 games to endure. Equally, Manchester Utd went through 13 matches last season before being outclassed by Barcelona at Wembley, and although the advent of the Champions League era has brought about excessive amounts of money into the game, it has added to the playing ‘burden’ of modern-day footballers. By comparison, in 1985, Liverpool played eight games on their way to their ill-fated Heysel final against Juventus.
My issue here is that the blame on tiredness is one that could quite easily be resolved. The introduction of penalties and the reduction in FA Cup replays was introduced in the Nineties and League Cup ties were limited to one leg in recent years as the top clubs complained about excessive demands on players. It is an easy argument that there are too many games that players are involved in, but there are other possible alternatives that I don’t think have been given enough consideration as yet such as the significant improvement to training methods, the reduction in European games and the decrease in needless foreign pre-season tournaments.
If a mid-season break is endorsed by the FA, (and to be honest I think it is only a matter of time), then this should be done on a 4-year trial basis which will allow the impact to be measured on the national team for both qualification to the finals of the European Championships and World Cup. My gut feeling is that this would not result in any significant improvement to our fortunes and will prove that burnout and tiredness is not the reason why England aren’t that successful… and if it is, those that matter (i.e. those who look after the money), have chosen the easy option and the one that has minimum impact on the bigger clubs’ bank balances.