Why Wilshere and Carroll should avoid Under-21 burn-out
In a busy week of international football news and matches, one of the stories that emerged is the club v country fight for England’s young talents. This summer’s European Under-21 Championship has created a rift between the national team and Premier League clubs Arsenal and Liverpool, homes to eligible players Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll.
The clubs’ primary concern is player burnout; Wilshere and Carroll are set to be important players for their clubs next season, and the last thing they want is exhausted individuals underperforming. England and the FA argue the tournament is a worthwhile experience and good preparation for senior tournaments.
It’s worth getting a feel for the pro-tournament reasoning, before I launch my counter-argument.
Jack Wilshere, the man at the centre of the debate, knows exactly where he stands.
This is international football and I want to play in any international football.
Meanwhile, Gary Cahill highlights the benefits of going to tournaments with junior sides, and these benefits are perhaps best summarised by Simon Bird in the Mirror:
Far from the two-week event being an unnecessary distraction, the England kids will get their first schooling in what tournament football feels like.
Lessons like how it feels during three weeks away from home, bonding with club-football rivals who become friends and team-mates.
They will learn to cope with the boredom and down-time that seems to drive England’s seniors to distraction and depression at World Cups and Euros.
They will learn how to qualify from a three-game group stage, then face the pressures of knockout football and maybe the odd penalty shootout.
Those were the lessons that Germany’s youngsters learned as they crushed England 4-0 in the Under-21 Euros final of 2009.
A year later, four men from that title-winning team were regular starters for the full national side – Mesut Ozil, keeper Manuel Neuer and defenders Sami Khedira and Jerome Boateng.
Bird’s points are all valid; there are certainly benefits to be gained from the experience of playing in a summer tournament. At the same time, however, there appears to be a desperate lack of cost-benefit analysis of the situation, as demonstrated in James Lawton’s column in the Independent:
…Wilshere again sticks his head above the parapet to say that he wants to do a little more for England.
It is something Wenger should glory in rather than dampen. Yes, we know of the problems of burn-out. We know the draining effects of too much action, too soon. But if Wilshere cannot stretch himself now, if he cannot respond to the most compelling cries of his own nature, when will he be able to do so?
Once presented with the facts, as we will see, Lawton’s argument is very difficult to understand. He’s trying to stress the emotional aspect of the circumstances, and says he is aware of the physical strain, but he fails to properly take this into account.
We tend to overvalue the desire of our players to play for England, and this seems to be the case again. Whilst it is admirable that Wilshere wants to represent his country, he, amongst others, has shown short-sightedness on the issue.
As Simon Bird pointed out, the last edition of the Under-21 Euros was in 2009, and a number of players already established as first team regulars for their club sides (as Carroll and Wilshere currently are) competed in Sweden. The tournament lasted from 15th June to 29th June, thus reducing the summer holiday for the players involved by two weeks. Club managers’ primary concern with the Championships is player burn-out, and so I looked at injury rates before and after the tournament for established club-first team players in the squad:
|No. of injuries||No. of league starts|
|Injury history courtesy of physioroom.com. Only bone/muscle injuries have been included; viruses, concussions and gashed legs have been excluded as these are less likely to be fatigue-related injuries.|
Every player apart from Micah Richards picked up more injuries in 2009/10 than in the season before the Championships, and every player apart from Milner failed to start more matches the following season. Of course other factors can and will be at play, but I feel it is more than coincidence that so many players went on to have seasons riddled with injuries. After the 2007 edition of the Championships, established club players Baines, Onouha and Milner all suffered more injuries than in the season before, whilst Anton Ferdinand played 9 fewer matches as a hamstring injury plagued his 2007/08 season. The burn-out for the players involved is undervalued.
Players in England are overstretched by May; UEFA research finds Premier League players to be four times more likely to be injured in March, April or May than players from European leagues with a winter break.
To go on a brief tangent: Kevin Doyle was therefore about four times less likely to be injured playing for Ireland during the international break had the Premier league adopted a winter break this season. His injury devalues the relegation battle, particularly if Wolves go down.
Come June, young English players are pushing their bodies to the limit. They’re already exhausted, and without an extended summer break they return to their clubs the following season anything but refreshed. This leads to injuries – both muscle and bone as the previous link shows – and young bodies are being severely strained in a season building up to a World Cup or European Championship.
Simon Bird suggested the experience of playing in a summer tournament will stand them in good stead for the senior side. Given Wilshere has already enjoyed the benefits of playing in big European nights both at home and away, I’d suggest a complete and intensive pre-season would do him more good than the intangible benefits of a summer tournament. Under the guidance of Arsene Wenger and club staff, he’ll be able to prepare his body for what will be an important season for Arsenal. And although Carroll has missed a large chunk of the second half of the current season, I’d again suggest a pre-season with the Liverpool is imperative. Time with physios to monitor progress along with time to develop combinations with teammates to find form would be more beneficial to the senior national side come the European Championships in 2012 (assuming England qualify).
One also has to question the role of the Under-21 team – is it to develop players for the national team, or achieve success at summer tournaments? Surely Carroll and Wilshere, now senior players, should be made to focus their attentions on performing for the full national side? Playing Carroll and Wilshere as first-team players in the Under-21s only serves to block the paths of other players hoping to break into the senior team.
I’m no doctor or scientist, but it appears youthful exuberance has got the better of Wilshere, and someone needs to remind him of the risks. ‘Burn-out’ has been mentioned, but only as a manageable side effect; this is a complete fallacy. We must do our best to protect our young talents, not encourage them to run themselves into the ground before we have the opportunity to see their full potential.
Are we ignoring the costs of sending our best young talents to Denmark? Or will experiencing a summer tournament be invaluable at the European Championships in 2012? Vote in our poll and get involved via the comments below!