We’re in the middle of December, which inevitably means that the annual debate surrounding English football’s apparent reluctance to sanction a winter break will begin again.
Just looking through the newspapers, we can see a number of Premier League managers have already started to complain about the notoriously hectic Christmas schedule. West Ham United boss Sam Allardyce told the Sunday Mirror that we “keep flogging players” and putting them at risk of injury.
He was quoted by the publication as saying: “Until everybody gets their heads together and really sorts it out, we are always going to be faced with the fact that at this time of year we are asking them to deliver four games in eight days.”
Meanwhile, Manchester United coach Louis van Gaal – who hadn’t worked in England before 2014 – has also had his say, suggesting that he is far from happy with the December fixture list. He remarked: “I cannot change that but I don’t think it’s good for the football players that they play within two days another match. In the December months, it shall be like that.”
What’s the problem?
It’s become a long-held tradition for footballers in England to play a number of games over the festive period, including matches on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.
This season, every Premier League club will play four games between December 20th and January 1st, before yet another game in the FA Cup on the weekend of January 3rd/4th. At the same time, most other leagues across Europe will close down for a month, allowing their players to rest up and spend time with their families.
Two sides of the argument
Many supporters in England tend to be dead against a break, as football has become part of the very fabric of the festive season. They claim that footballers are paid astronomical sums of money and should play when they are told. There’s also a legitimate argument that Premier League clubs have a 25-man squad to pick from, so there is no reason why teams cannot field a fresh team in all matches over Christmas.
The argument that “football has always been like this – it’s tradition” is a bit of a red herring, though. Yes, players have always been expected to play a lot of games over Christmas, but the sport has evolved considerably over the years and modern-day players are more like finely-tuned athletes. You seldom hear about current professionals going out drinking and smoking the night before a game, something that was not uncommon in previous eras.
High-calibre athletes need time to recuperate, and managers are correct when they say that footballers cannot be expected to perform at their optimum level when so many games are being played in such a short timeframe.
Are injuries more common after Christmas?
At the time of writing this piece, it seems there is a bit of an injury crisis in the Premier League in general, and we haven’t even reached the hectic Christmas period yet! A lot of clubs have lengthy injury lists at the moment, which is obviously a great concern.
There are few statistics to suggest that footballers are more likely to pick up injuries as a result of overexertion in December, but what is clear is that hamstring strains are becoming more prominent. A study published by Physioroom.com showed that an eye-watering £194,352,438.36 was spent on injured players in the Premier League in the 2013/14 season alone.
Arsenal suffered the most, with players losing 1,716 days to injury during the season, while Stoke City were the least affected, as the Staffordshire club lost just 555 days to injury. That said, even Stoke have been having a rough time of it lately, with a host of first-team players missing games through injury in recent months. Is there a reason for this apparent spike in injuries throughout the league, or is it just a coincidence?
Earlier this year, ex-Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein told BBC News that he is a “great supporter of a winter break”. He was quoted as saying: “The players have got to have a break. They deserve it. It is a long hard season. More injuries occur in the second half of the season than the first half.”
Summit Physio’s verdict
As an industry leader when it comes to injury prevention and performance, we can certainly see the benefits of a winter break, though we appreciate that this won’t be popular with everybody.
While clubs have got 25 first team players to choose from, every manager will want to pick his best team for each game, which could put undue strain on these players. For any athlete, getting plenty of recuperation time is of the utmost importance, otherwise you do increase your chances of suffering an injury, particularly a muscle strain.
We’re far more likely to hurt ourselves when we are tired, so managers need to be extra vigilant to ensure they’re using their squad correctly during games. That’s all well and good, but the rules dictate that teams can only make three substitutions per game, so there’s only so much a coach can do.
We mustn’t forget the mental impact that playing so many games can have either. Earlier this year, Bayern Munich star and World Cup winner Thomas Muller claimed that English players have underperformed in international tournaments – which take place in the summer – because they don’t benefit from a winter break.
The German forward, who is now 25, said at the time: “Normally the body can regenerate by the time of a tournament but the mental thing is harder to recover from.”
The public will laugh when they hear that a £300,000-a-week footballer is feeling mentally drained over Christmas, especially when a lot of people get up at 6am every morning to complete a 12-hour shift. However, this is another somewhat clichéd argument that gets bandied around rather frivolously when the subject of winter breaks is raised.
Remember that footballers are human too, regardless of how much they are paid. They usually train on Christmas Day, and those who are due to play an away game the following day will head straight off to a hotel without seeing their family. While this doesn’t account for the physical strain that footballers are under, it’s still important that we don’t dismiss the emotional difficulties they can face.
Regardless of where you stand on the debate, we think it’s only a matter of time before England falls in line with the rest of Europe and a winter break is introduced. This is good from an injury prevention and performance perspective, but we at Summit are football fans too, and it would be a real culture shock for the season to suddenly stop for a month. Is there a compromise that will keep everyone happy? Perhaps a two-game period where teams can make five substitutes instead of three, or maybe a new rule that forces clubs to use a certain number of under-21 players in December? We’re always complaining that youngsters don’t get a chance, so maybe this would work?
What is your opinion on this controversial matter? If you would like to learn more you can visit our injury prevention page.