By Liam Twomey
At the end of a year which has seen the debate over whether to introduce a winter break to the Premier League intensify, the festive fixture list looks as crowded as ever.
This season, every club in the top flight has to navigate at least six matches from December 1 to January 1. Chelsea, as a result of Club World Cup and Capital One Cup commitments, must negotiate nine games in a month, combined with a round trip of approximately 12,000 miles to Japan.
Elsewhere in Europe, the situation is rather different. On December 22, as Premier League clubs embark on a gruelling run of four matches in 11 days, their rivals in Italy’s Serie A or Spain’s Liga will be playing their last competitive football for a fortnight. In Germany, Bundesliga players will already be six days into a scheduled break which lasts over a month.
There are plenty who want the English game to follow suit – most notably to avoid the chronic fatigue which appears to have crippled the national side at recent international tournaments, and has led Uefa president Michel Platini and many others on the continent to sneeringly dismiss England as “lions in autumn but lambs in spring”.
The ability to recover in between matches is one of the most important determining factors in performance. We’re in the Christmas period now and fixtures are congested, meaning teams who don’t have the luxury of big squads or player rotation are heavily reliant on the players’ ability to recover. If a player is not given the chance to recover from a match before he starts the next one, there is a lot of evidence to suggest fatigue will occur over the course of a season rather than just within a game.
For starters, the issue appears to be one of the few Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini can agree on. Roy Hodgson, who arguably stands to benefit most from any change, made his own feelings clear in September. "It would be lovely to think that one day we could all get together and say 'England is important',” he told reporters.
But would a winter break really ease the problem of fatigue in the Premier League? Dr Mark Russell, Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science and Programme Leader for MSc Strength and Conditioning at Northumbria University and a former sports scientist with Swansea City, warns any benefits are far from certain.
“It’s difficult to say,” he tells Goal.com. “There are positives and negatives to it. If there is a break, players are not experiencing this congested period, but also things such as match fitness may start to suffer in mid-season, which might mean teams have to do another pre-season program after it. Until it happens, it’s very difficult to say what the effects might be.
“The other problem is if they have the same number of games to play in two shorter time periods either side of the break, we could end up with even more congestion.”
Goal.com international football writer Peter Staunton is far more positive about the concept, though he believes that as long as the Premier League is primarily driven by financial concerns, it will never happen.
“I would definitely be in favour of it, from the point of view of the players and of the managers,” he insists. “But commercial interests are the main issue here. The Premier League knows festive football is worth big money. People have a few days off to go to the football or watch it on TV, so it’s a big cash cow for them.
“Because of that they won’t submit to a winter break, and I suspect players will be forced to endure the rigours of festive football for many years to come.”
The Premier League publically insists it is not opposed to the idea, but argues there are simply too many matches in the English football calendar to make it feasible. “We have tried, but unless somebody is prepared to give something up, it is pretty hard,” chief executive Richard Scudamore told the Telegraph in October.
France is the only other major league in Europe which has a secondary cup competition, with both the Coupe de la Ligue and the Coupe de France. Perhaps you could have the League Cup as just that – a cup for Football League clubs only, from the Championship down. You also have the possibility of taking two teams out of the Premier League and having a 34-game fixture list, as they do in Germany, in order to get some breathing space. Having said that, 20 teams has a good symmetry to it, more games means more money for the competing clubs, and taking two clubs out would just be condemning them to a cycle of poverty in the Football League, so again, for commercial reasons, I don’t see them doing that.
Rather than reducing the number of teams in the top flight or scrapping the Capital One Cup, Scudamore believes abolishing FA Cup replays is the only way to make the system work. “If the FA decide they have different priorities, where the England team is more important than something else they own, then that might be for them to look at,” he added.
With so many competing authorities and interests in the English game, it appears unlikely any agreement will be reached in the coming weeks and months. Until a solution is found, however, footballers must continue to cope with a schedule many believe has become too demanding and hinders the aspirations of the national side.
“You could argue it locks players into a cycle of over-use,” Staunton adds. “The top players are playing 60 to 70 matches per season. Just to have those weeks off in the summer isn’t enough, because invariably they’re playing international tournaments and pre-season fixtures all over the world. It’s becoming a bit like the tennis calendar – too congested and not enough of a break, and the natural consequence is burnout.
“Almost the entire English squad is drawn from the Premier League and, by and large, when you look at the last few international tournaments, it’s not the Premier League players who are standing out.”
Dr Russell, however, suggests fatigue amassed during an arduous club campaign should not necessarily prevent top footballers producing their best at a World Cup or European Championships.
“The fact that players are playing in tournaments in the summer can actually provide an additional stimulus,” he argues. “Because it’s a high profile event, it can help drive players on to take their performance to the next level. Also, before these tournaments are training camps which are very intense and geared towards getting them into a position where they are ready to go.”
Should they qualify, Hodgson's England will compete for the World Cup in Brazil in 18 months’ time. If no agreement on a winter break materialises by then, his players finding a second wind might be the best the Three Lions boss can hope for.
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