Fixture Congestion and Playing Styles vs Injuries in European Football
By: Salil Akundi
Over the last few years, debate over fixture congestion in English football has increased, both on social media and by so-called sports pundits and former players on television. A key contributing factor to this debate is the increase in number of foreign mangers (mostly from continental Europe and South America) in the English Premier League over the last 5 years. Not only are these managers used to fewer matches (and winter breaks) in their home nations, they also bring in radically different styles of play that demand higher levels of fitness from the players. This article takes a closer look at the main reasons behind injuries by looking at patterns in other top European leagues over the years.
Fixtures and Winter Breaks
The following table gives an overview of the number of winter break and rest days across the top 5 European leagues. An important point to note is that Spain’s ‘rest-day’ statistics are skewed by the presence of the two super-clubs Real Madrid and FC Barcelona (two teams with excellent squad depth and great medical facilities).
Top 6 teams in England play 4.65 games more than their counterparts in other countries. While this might not seem like a great deal, when compounded with the lack of a winter break and the lack of an ‘extra’ rest day, English teams are at a big disadvantage. Moreover, English teams play 26.5% of their total fixtures in the months of December and January and have 3.7 rest days on average. Meanwhile, their foreign counterparts play 16.6% of their fixtures over the two months and enjoy 6.6 rest days, in addition to having the luxury of a winter break.
This difference becomes especially apparent in the second half of the season, when English teams accumulate most of their injuries. This is highlighted by the fact that there is a general trend over the last 5 years in the Premier League that has seen the number of soft tissue injuries rise by 45% and the total number of injuries rise by 13% in the months of December and January (according to injury data analyst Ben Dinnery). On the other hand, German and Spanish teams accumulate roughly the same number of injuries in the second half of the season as they do in the first half of the season (5% and 6% increase respectively).
This puts them at a disadvantage when they compete in continental competitions such as the UEFA Europa League and the UEFA Champions League, and is often cited by many Premier League managers, most notably, Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger, for England’s poor performance in European competitions.
A counter-argument to the introduction of the winter break in England is the fact that Boxing Day and New Year Premier League fixtures have been a tradition since the post-war period. In addition, television companies and the Premier League itself make huge revenues from the festive fixture period by scheduling matches in a staggered fashion (one after the other), which often leads to Premier League teams playing 2 matches in less than 48 hours and in some cases, 3 matches in just 6 days. In addition to creating fixture congestion, this creates an unequal playing field as some teams enjoy longer rest periods between matches compared to their opponents. For example, in the 2017-18 season, Leicester City played 4 matches in 213 hours, while Arsenal played the same number of matches in 294 hours, a difference of more than 3 days.
It is up to the Premier League to decide whether to value its own revenue by remaining spectators and watch its teams exit the continental competition at an early stage or help to support its clubs’ performance in continental competition by including a winter break.
Playing Styles and Squad Rotation
It is intuitive that a high-intensity style of football that focuses on pressing, possession recycling and winning the ball in the opponents’ half of the field requires higher levels of fitness from players as opposed to a low-block, deep-defending, counter-attacking style of football. The former style, employed by teams such as Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool is one of the factors for a poor injury record, as is suggested by the graph below.
However, simply correlating the number of injuries per season with a team’s playing style can be misleading due to long-term injuries and contact injuries in games which skew the data significantly. This is not to say that the managers of teams who like to play this way are blameless, however, since it is their responsibility to buy players who are less-injury prone and employ better squad rotation strategies to circumvent this issue. A good example of a manager who has managed to successfully implement his high-intensity style with a low injury record is Tottenham Hotspur’s Mauricio Pochettino. This is evident from the graph above, which shows that Tottenham Hotspur’s injuries have decreased from the season he took over (2014-15) to last season (2016-17). Over the last three years, the Argentine manager bought physically robust players that not only fit his style but are less-injury prone such as Victor Wanyama, Toby Alderweireld and Heung-Min Son. In addition, in the 2016-17 season, he regularly rotated his full-backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker with Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier and his midfielders, which led Tottenham Hotspur to have the highest points tally of any Premier League team in the second half of the season, when most of their rivals began to suffer dips in their performance and fitness levels.
To conclude, both fixture congestion and playing styles have a clear impact on injuries. The introduction of a winter break in the English Premier League would be much welcomed, especially by managers of the top 6 clubs. Playing style is certainly a factor but is very much secondary to fixture congestion. While the issue of playing styles can be resolved simply by having larger squads and employing better rotation strategies, the issue of fixture congestion is one that can change only if it garners the support of the members of the hierarchy of the FA and the Premier League and will benefit all clubs, regardless of their playing styles.