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Why Wilshere and Carroll should avoid Under-21 burn-out

30 March 2011

Wilshere and Carroll are part of the senior squad, but should they represent the Under-21s too? (Flickr: Luke_Thigh_Stalker)

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.

Fabio Capello has labelled Wilshere, Carroll and Walcott as “important players” for the under-21 team, whilst Gareth Barry feels a strong team is required in Denmark.

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
Player 2008/09 2009/10 Change 2008/09 2009/10 Change
Gabriel Agbonlahor 2 3 +1 35 35 0
Lee Cattermole 0 7 +7 33 19 -14
James Milner 1 3 +2 31 36 +5
Mark Noble 1 3 +2 28 25 -3
Nedum Onuoha 0 4 +4 20 5 -15
Micah Richards 7 5 -2 33 19 -14
Theo Walcott 4 6 +2 16 12 -4
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!

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Oli permalink
    30 March 2011 1:15 pm

    Please send this to the F.A (copy in Arsene Wenger too)! I think you hit the nail on the head by mentioning a winter break. I think if this was introduced there would be far less of a problem sending Wilshere and Carroll to the championships but with no winter break, these players will have literally no break for nearly 2 years which is absurd! Also, to further back up what you said, you would expect young players, with a summer of experience in a major tournament, to play not just the same amount of games but more for their clubs the following year but clearly, due to burn-out, they play less.

  2. 30 March 2011 1:36 pm

    Wenger is unsurprisingly against Wilshere playing according to the James Lawton article, don’t think he needs me convincing him! Wilshere himself does though – I’ve tweeted him but no reply yet…

  3. Steve M permalink
    30 March 2011 2:59 pm

    Great website by the way, only discovered it recently.

    I feel one important point you didn’t mention is how much, and how intense, football has the player played in the few months prior to any summer tournament. In Wilshere’s case at least Arsenal are only in one competition, but he’s played 44 matches this season already, so a break sounds almost vital. But in Carrols case he’s playing for a team involved in no competitions, has played in 28 matches so far this season with at most only 9 more Prem games to go, and had the whole of Januray and February without playing a match so I can’t see 3 weeks away playing 4 or 5 matches doing him much harm

    • 30 March 2011 3:21 pm

      Thanks Steve, appreciate it.

      A very valid point, and I 100% agree on Wilshere. I’m a bit more on the fence with Carroll (probably due my club allegiance…) but I do feel he would benefit more in the long run as a footballer if he had a full pre-season with Liverpool.

      His is admittedly less of a fatigue issue, though. The tournament finishes on 25 June, which will mean he will go on a little holiday and join the squad later than normal for pre-season. This means less time preparing physically for the new season, time which I see as vital given the concerns over his thigh. It could mean he’s in better shape for the senior Euros, but I appreciate I’m dealing in ‘coulds’ and ‘mights’ here. At the end of the day I’d probably understand it if he went to Denmark and Wilshere didn’t, though I think both will probably end up going.

  4. Adam permalink
    31 March 2011 6:39 pm

    Hi,

    another excellent and well-formulated blog.

    I have a couple of things to add though. Your point that playing in the u-21 championships may cause burn-out is an excellent point, but I would rather see these players take part in the tournament and then miss their club’s purely revenue-based overseas tours which follow a couple of weeks later. Of course, Wenger and Arsenal would realise that going on a money-making tour without one of your best players is less likely to bring in the cash and would prevent their best players from integrating into the team, especially after new summer signings are made. But surely from Wenger’s perspective he should note that the Euros have a much greater advantage in Wilshere’s development, as pointed out by Simon Bird’s quoted Mirror article, than the tour of Japan, and consequently use him sparingly in the latter to protect him from injury. Especially as Spain in particular in the group stage, along with other knock-out teams England will face, are likely to be stronger opposition most teams in Japan.

    Also, you didn’t mention Kyle Walker, who is in exactly the same boat. Of course, as a QPR fan i think he’s a fantastic prospect for the future from what i’ve seen, as his time at Villa has since shown, and he can’t have played many fewer games than Andy Carroll this season. But unlike Carroll and Wilshere who are almost dead certs to have an England career, he may not. Therefore, my question is, do you think he should go to the tournament and potentially build his profile and show what he can do in a national side, or protect himself from burn-out so he can impress in the league campaign next season? Especially as Capello’s successor might be Harry Redknapp, who will already know all about him. From my point of view this question is a very tough one as if Walker stays at Spurs and isn’t loaned out to a club next season he might not play many matches anyway – meaning he certainly should go to the euros.

    • 1 April 2011 3:54 am

      Cheers Adam. I’ve addressed one or two of your points below in response to Ben’s comment if you’d like to have a look. I agree on Walker, and I think the selection is very much a case-by-case basis for club regulars.

      I understand your cynicism about pre-season tours, like Arsenal’s to Japan, and whilst they are definitely cash cows, clubs will not go to these places if they aren’t provided with the facilities to help them with their training for the new season.

      Pre-season results aren’t always the best indicator of form for the season – a lot of the time the work done on the training ground in between matches is more important. Think of Arsene Wenger arriving in England to find his players are unfit drinkers on poor diets – this is all changed during pre-season. And whilst the situation isn’t as drastic as this, ‘tweaking’ the squad during this time, I feel, is important. Again it comes down to two unquantifiable (for us, anyway) arguments; pre-season preparation v tournament experience.

      I’ve provided links in the comment below to the squads for England in the U21 Euros of 2002 and 2000 – let me know what you think of these too.

      • Adam permalink
        1 April 2011 10:16 am

        I agree that pre-season prep is important and wasn’t suggesting that Wilshere and the like don’t go, but just that they are given some extra rest in matches and in training. There was a lot of talk a few months ago with the dutch physiotherapist Raymond Verheijen with his notion that the best way to be successful is to train your players less, as this creates very few injuries. His theory is backed up by only 1 injury in the last 3 world cups he’s worked in. Wilshere, therefore, wouldn’t need to be completed rested, just play a lesser role in pre-season.

        I think your point on successful 2000 and 2002 euro u21 team members is one well made. I had a look at some of the other teams too to see if it was simply a trend in England, which may point to poor player development over here, rather than a general view that the euros don’t bring through talent across the continent.

        From the Italy 2000 and 2002 squads combined only Pirlo and Gattuso have become regulars, while Xavi, Puyol, Capdevila are the only players from Spain’s 2002 squad to make the successful transition to the national squad. It seems to be little different from other teams.

        This points to two things:
        1. In general, the best players have always skipped or not been selected for the euros – which, in the case of the last two World Cup winners, doesn’t seem to have done them any harm on the world stage.
        2. Those who are selected either just didn’t develop through the U21s or, as simply stand-ins of better players who chose not to go, didn’t improve enough to cement their position in the national squad.

        Perhaps then, it would be better for players to stay back home and rest – but for the likes of Walker etc, I think the risk is definitely worth taking, especially if England u21 have a successful tournament.

        Furthermore, if Wilshere and Carroll are not given the option of being rested in pre-season (an idea i expect dalgleish is more open to than wenger), then the pre-season tour may be better for them on this evidence. Though I still stick by my argument that the U21s do provide a learning curve – they haven’t exactly prohibited the careers of Pirlo and Xavi after all.

  5. Ben permalink
    1 April 2011 3:15 am

    I think they should go. Why should they be wrapped up in cotton wool but players like Walker, Tomkins and Albrighton who have all played week in week out this season in the Premier League (and Walker in the Championship) not be? Because they are seen as ‘better prospects?’ Well if that is the case, surely they need to gain the experience required to play in these tournaments over the summer.

    Look at Jack Wilshere- he turned 19 this year. If he isn’t able to play in a tournament over the summer now, when will he be able to? Arguably, he is as fit as he is ever going to be and he is less likely to pick up niggles and knocks when he is young.

    Andy Carroll has spent the last 2 and a half months injured, and hardly had a game since he came back because of how fixtures have worked out et al. He has 8 league games left and Liverpool are only left playing in the league. Why does he need a rest when arguably he has just started a 14 or so game season? Also, see Wilshere, he also is young and if he can’t do it now when will he be able to?

    The stats above about injuries don’t worry me really.
    a) Nedum Onouha was at City and couldn’t get a game because of their squad and the new players coming in. Yes he had injuries but we don’t know if they lasted 5 days, 5 weeks or 5 months from the stats and whether or not he could have played with them anyway had there not been such an abundance of talent at City.
    b) Micah Richards- he had 2 more injuries following the tournament, which apparently cost him 14 games but he was also at City, so we can’t really read into it.
    c) Cattermole got injured in a game against Liverpool. Don’t think that it was to do with him playing over the summer, and he was suspended a lot that season he got sent off 3 or 4 times.

    It really shouldn’t be a problem. If this squad is the ‘next generation’ then they need to get playing together as much as possible and learn not to hate each other as they no doubt will be portrayed to by the English press as they start to get into the full squad (see Man Utd & Liverpool players, Lampard & Gerrard, Everyone & Terry etc etc).

    • 1 April 2011 3:43 am

      On the injuries front – I do think it’s tough to argue with the ‘no break, more injuries’ facts. The UEFA research shows it, and whilst my simple comparison is up for debate, it’s mainly because a small percentage of the squad were actually regulars before the tournament. I stand by the belief that players will pick up more injuries – the question is is this cost smaller than the benefit of playing in the tournament?

      Have a look at England’s U21 2002 squad (http://bit.ly/gXHcSz) and 2000 squad (http://bit.ly/h7I0jS). Out of both squads, the only regulars to emerge are Danny Mills (or at least for the 2002 World Cup), Paul Robinson, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry (Peter Crouch’s role as a ‘regular’ is arguable). Were these players better players at the international level for their experiences? Danny Mills maybe, but certainly not the other three.

      So why, as England senior regulars, should they go to a tournament which in the past has shown to not really be a breeding ground for success for the England senior team? As I commented above, I can perhaps understand Carroll going to Denmark given the reasons you’ve also highlighted, but Wilshere has already had a long season with, importantly, the experience of massive European and domestic matches.

      I think the players you mentioned, however, have more to gain. If Carroll/Wilshere have a good tournament, it doesn’t exactly propel them towards the national side. For Albrighton/Walker/Tomkins, a good tournament for players who only have domestic experience could show Capello or the next England manager that they have the ability and temperament to play for the senior side.

  6. Ben permalink
    1 April 2011 3:18 am

    Having read further into it, Cattermole was only sent off once that season and had a 12 week injury layoff for the injury against Liverpool I mentioned.

  7. Ben permalink
    1 April 2011 4:02 am

    There is no doubt Carroll and Wilshere already have the quality they need. It’s the experience that is the main point for me.

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  1. **Official**England National football team thread - Page 11 - PlanetCricket Forums

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