As the row over the scheduling of Premier League fixtures over Christmas grows, health experts are warning that players are being put at increased risk of injury by a desire to pack more and more games into the festive period.
The 2016 schedule, which saw some teams play three matches in as little as 117 hours, has been described as “making no sense” by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and as intrinsically unfair by the likes of Arsene Wenger, Claude Puel and Sam Allardyce, whose teams were given far less recovery time than many of their rivals.
Those sentiments are almost certainly to be repeated in 2017 after a draft schedule for next Christmas was tweeted by BBC pundit Gary Lineker, who claimed that matches are being planned for December 16, 20, 23, 26 and 30, plus January 1, describing the plan as “utterly bonkers”.
The Premier League say the 2017-18 season must finish as early as possible to allow England a full month to prepare for the World Cup in Russia, which begins on July 14, and it seems packing extra games into the holiday period is one way of achieving that goal.
An agreement with the Football Association for the FA Cup final in May to be played on a stand-alone date complicates the issue but there is a growing feeling amongst even the traditionalists in football that players are being asked to play too many games in too short a period — especially when many other leagues across the continent are taking a winter break.
Southampton manager Puel, for instance, said it was simply “impossible” for his exhausted players to compete properly as they played and lost three games in a little under five days in what was the tightest schedule for any Premier League side.
By contrast, leaders Chelsea played their three games over a 223-hour period, gaining almost four extra days of recovery time.
Brighton-based physio Tom Goom, who hosts the website www.running-physio.com (which has attracted more than a million hits and brought him 23,000 followers on Twitter) specialises in training and recovery for athletes — and believes the debate needs to be aired.
“We are talking about a huge difference in preparation time and there’s no doubt it (the scheduling) would have a big impact on the physical performance,” he said.
“It’s not a level playing field and you can understand why managers are upset.
“Playing games so close together doesn’t give the body a chance to repair and that has an effect not just on how far a player can run — and on how fast they sprint — but also on their ability to complete skills-based tasks.
“Just as importantly it leaves them far more prone to injury. There has been a lot of research on this topic recently, particularly by applied sports scientist Dr Tim Gabbett who has shown that increasing an athlete’s workload by more than 10% a week can dramatically increase the chances of injury. For a player used to playing two games a week to suddenly play three in five days has a big impact.”
Goom believes it is time for the FA and the Premier League to take a much closer look at how the season is structured and put some rules in place for the future.
“I’d like to see them bring in a minimum time gap between fixtures,” he said. “For players to have to play twice in less than 48 hours is a problem. Tendons cannot repair themselves in that space of time — they take 36 hours — and you’d expect to see injuries and certainly a reduction in performance as a result.
“Those athletes would be playing with what we call ‘doms’ — delayed onset muscular soreness — when the muscles are inflamed and feel heavy or sore. Most are used to doing that but there’s no doubt it makes injuries more likely, so it’s an issue of player welfare. When you add in travel time and perhaps less sleep because of such a tight schedule then you are asking a lot. To me, it seems common sense that the footballing authorities should take a look at this and consider the schedule more carefully.”
Goom’s opinions are increasingly being shared by top-level managers in England who have grown to accept that the Premier League may never introduce a winter break but are concerned for their players’ welfare and calling for a more level playing field.
Arsenal manager Wenger, whose side had to come back from 3-0 down to Bournemouth on Tuesday having faced Crystal Palace on Sunday, is one of those coaches.
He lost Francis Coquelin to injury at the Vitality Stadium and blamed tiredness for his team’s slow start.
“In 20 years it is the most uneven Christmas period I have seen,” he said. “Bournemouth deserved a lot of credit, but I think the disadvantage of a day less rest is too big.
“When you play against a team that has over three days recovery and you played on Sunday, late afternoon, it’s too big a handicap at the start.”
Meanwhile Allardyce, whose Palace team played the same night and lost in the last minute to Swansea, was even stronger in his assessment, saying: “It was down to fatigue. We didn’t have the same recovery time compared to Swansea and it was blatantly obvious we didn’t have the energy levels to stop Swansea passing the ball.”
For Liverpool manager Klopp, the issue was not such much the unfairness of the scheduling but a genuine fear for the welfare of his players.
He first raised the issue in October, saying: “We have less than 48 hours between our game against Man City on December 31 and in Sunderland on the 2nd. Forty-eight hours is an interesting idea but less than 48 hours I cannot believe. For me it’s no problem to play a game every day —I don’t have to run. But the players have to run.”
The pressure on the FA and Premier League to take notice, then, is growing. If Christmas 2017 is going to be less controversial they will need to start listening.
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