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Was it passion or fatigue that let England down in South Africa?

21 January 2011

England's summer tournament failures: passion or fatigue?

One of the great images of English football is Terry Butcher’s wide-eyed, blood-splattered expression after a heroic performance to help England qualify for Italia ’90. It epitomised everything a fan wants to see from an English footballer; single-minded focus on doing one’s best for one’s country.

The image has also come to drive public expectation of players pulling on the white jersey of England; the catchword becoming ‘passion’ for millions of supporters. If England are misplacing passes, losing 50:50 tackles or, as we saw in South Africa, being comprehensively outpaced, outmanoeuvred and outplayed by an old enemy, it’s happening largely because the players lack passion.

Passion’s the fashion

This public opinion is summed up no better than a Mirror article on the day of England’s do-or-die encounter against Slovenia in the group stage. The team had put up two lacklustre displays against the USA and Algeria, despite the support of favourable conditions and thousands of fans in South Africa.

Sporting a red and white fake Mohican, Graham Munro, 39, a sales director from Hitchin in Hertfordshire, said: “The last performance was awful. We need to see the British bulldog spirit, more passion and more fight.”… Jimmy Griffiths, 18, wearing a cowboy hat and poncho emblazoned with the St George’s flag, said “At the end of the day they need to show the passion and the effort.”… Abby Cockayne, 19, studying maths and sports science at Loughborough University, said: “They just look like they can’t be bothered. They need to show they are proud of their shirt and put everything into getting a result.

The reason fans and the media love the term ‘passion’ is because it’s impossible to quantify. Perhaps one could measure testosterone levels before games, and compare them to the levels in the players’ respective club matches, but even then this would be a crude measure and certainly isn’t an exact proxy for ‘passion’. Thus no one can prove how passionate the players are, leads to nonsense such as “throw in some lower league players, they know what it means to wear the shirt,” discussed in pubs and during phone-ins following the 4-1 defeat to Germany.

Tired and tested

What can help better explain the uninspiring performances at the World Cup is fatigue, and more precisely the lack of a winter break.

The English Premier League and the Scottish Premier League are currently the only European leagues operating without some form of winter break. In 2004, UEFA released research conducted during the 2001-02 season to determine if winter breaks had a significant effect on reducing player injury in European leagues. The results, to an English football fan, are staggering, especially considering how little the issue is raised in general football discussion.

Teams without a winter break had a significantly higher injury risk during the second part of the season (January to May) compared to team from leagues with a winter break (14.8 versus 7.8 injuries).

This in itself is revealing, given the winter break in European leagues is on average only twelve days between games, and eight days from training. The report goes on:

There was no difference in injury rates between teams with and without a winter break during the pre-break part of the season, neither was there a difference during the period directly after the break (January to March). However, during the end of league play (March to May), the injury rates were significantly higher in teams that did not have a winter break compared to teams with a break (25.8 versus 6.5 injuries).

To summarise, Premier League clubs are twice as likely to see injuries in the second half of the season, and four times more likely to see injuries in the last three months of the season than other European clubs. This can’t be attributed to the physicality of the Premier League, as there was no difference in injury rates between teams before the winter break, and it is fair to assume causality regarding the lack of winter break.

At the time of the research, the Portuguese Primeira Liga was the only other league that had no winter break; since then the league has adopted a two-week break over the New Year period.

This begins to shed an enormous amount of light on the ‘bad luck’ England have suffered before major tournaments. The ‘curse’ of the metatarsal isn’t a curse at all, whatever the headlines may say. Here’s one from the Mail in the wake of John Terry’s training ground injury a month before the 2010 World Cup:

Curse of the metatarsal: John Terry set to join Wayne Rooney and David Beckham on long list of England’s broken foot victims

Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Danny Murphy, Ledley King and Gary Neville have all suffered metatarsal injuries in the build up to a World Cup, and either didn’t make it to the finals or arrived half-fit. Equally Steven Gerrard missed the 2002 World Cup with a groin injury, whilst Rio Ferdinand’s knee prevented him for captaining England in South Africa.

Jan Ekstrand, vice chair of UEFA’s medical committee, fronted the research on winter breaks and told the BBC:

We have collected x-rays for players suffering from metatarsal fractures and can see that they have stress signs on the metatarsal bones. We consider most of them stress injuries – the bone is weakened by fatigue of the bone. We know from other sports that if you continue and don’t have a rest, you have problem with injuries.

Ekstrand’s disclosure makes a mockery of such headlines as:

World Cup injuries: the curse of the Premier League

where the Mirror attributes injuries to Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Michael Ballack, Jose Bosingwa and Velon Behrami to sheer bad luck. The fact that so many of these players represent Chelsea shouldn’t be a surprise either; they reached the knockout stages of the Champions League (albeit only the Second Round) and the FA Cup final.

England’s players have consistently turned up to recent World Cups and European Championships desperately fatigued after over nine months of non-stop football. Of course, the players can’t cite this as a reason for poor performances; the public and media will bat it away as a feeble excuse given the amount of money they earn. No matter how much money the footballers earn, however, they will always be constrained by physical bounds.

There is even an argument to suggest players will attempt to hide injuries in order to make the 23-man squad; players will see it as one of very few opportunities to travel to a major tournament. It’s interesting to note that Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard, two of England’s better performers at the World Cup, actually missed sizable parts of the season through injury. Particularly Ashley Cole, who missed two and a half months of football from February to April, may have ensured he had sufficient rest before returning to league action and risk injuring his ankle again. On the other hand Wayne Rooney, who was integral to Man United’s title challenge, was perhaps risked in league games towards the end of the season despite suffering an ankle injury in the Champions League against Bayern Munich. He arrived at the World Cup lacking full fitness and belief in his body, and it showed.

Fatigue can help explain many of the failings of England players at the World Cup; as mentioned earlier misplaced passes and losing tackles can be considered a symptom of tiredness, rather than a lack of desire. The players pushed their bodies to the limit throughout the season, faced a training camp to get into the squad before finally a month-long tournament; it is hardly surprising they failed to perform.

And what about other Premier League players?

The reasoning can be extended to other Premier League stars who played poorly in South Africa, and indeed in tournaments prior to the summer’s World Cup. Fernando Torres is perhaps the most obvious example; injured and rushed back for Liverpool on numerous occasions during the 2009-10 season, we saw a half-fit player overshadowed by his team mates. Not a single Premier League player made it into the All-Star team for the 2010 tournament. At Euro 2008, UEFA named a 23-man ‘squad’ of the best players from the tournament; only five of those players (van der Sar, Ballack, Bosingwa, Fabregas and Torres) played in the ‘world’s best league’ at the time, and it’s fair to say none were the undisputed star of the tournament.

The trend extends to the 2006 World Cup, where only four players of the 23-man all star squad played an entire Premier League season before the tournament (Lehmann, Terry, Carvalho and Henry [Note: Maniche made the squad, but only played for Chelsea from January]), the 2002 World Cup with just two (Campbell and Reyna) and Euro 2000 only three (Desailly, Vieira and Henry). The only exception in the past 11 years – a period in which the Premier League has accumulated more and more foreign players – is Euro 2004, where an abundance of English players (Campbell, Cole, Lampard and Rooney) all made the all-star squad along with four non-English players (Mellberg, Baros, Ronaldo and van Nistelrooy). This is somewhat attributable to the smaller nature of the tournament; and makes the lack of Premier League players in the all-star squads for Euros 2000 and 2008 all the more disappointing.

It’s a trend that seems to have gone largely unnoticed in footballing circles, but certainly reinforces the argument that the Premier League needs a winter break for it to not only support its own national team, but also the players of other national teams at showcase tournaments.

Merry Christmas for everyone?

However that is not, of course, the Premier League’s aim. The Christmas period is seen traditionally as a popular time for English football, where fans flock to matches and, more recently, television can exploit (and influence) a large number of matches during a short period. Christmas is where the money is and where clubs receive the highest gates – or that’s what we’ve come to think.

During the period of 26th December to 5th January, most Premier League sides hosted two home matches, with Blackpool and Everton the only exceptions. Eleven of the twenty clubs saw their average attendance across the two games fall relative to their average attendance for the season; in the case of Sunderland this was as much as 12%. Liverpool (9%), Blackpool (7%), Bolton (5%), Everton (5%) and Villa (3%) also saw notable attendance declines, though in the case of Liverpool and Villa this may be due in part to poor performances on the pitch. On the whole, league attendances were 1.4% lower during this period that the average for the season.

An alarming point about the attendances is that a number of teams posted one attendance higher than their average (typically the Boxing Day or late December fixture), followed by an attendance significantly lower than the average (typically one of the early January fixtures). Sunderland, for example, had nearly 43,000 fans watch their match against Blackpool on the 28th, but only 26,000 watched them play Blackburn at home four days later, compared to their average of 39,000. The fact is that most fans cannot now afford to see two matches over the Christmas and New Year period, and so will choose one fixture over another. Indicative of this was the sale of the first £100 Premier League ticket on January 5th; a prime seat for Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Man City at the Emirates. For this year at least, the winter period wasn’t as all-popular as it has been made out to be.

Time will tell if this will become a trend. If the evidence supports this, then it is perhaps worth the Premier League considering a winter break. There will significant opposition, primarily for the reason of keeping tradition, but a greater initiative to encourage Premier League fans to attend matches at their local Football League or Non-League clubs may be a solution to the problem. There is also the issue of the timing of the winter break; hosting the third round of the FA Cup on the first Saturday of the year is a tradition that is unlikely to change. The Premier League will have to settle for 10-14 days break before or after this date.

Losing in a winter wonderland

The issue is best summarised by Sir Alex Ferguson:

Because of the nature of our game and because of the demands from TV to have a programme every week, the idea of a winter break, which I was first talking about 30 years ago in Scotland and have done since I came down to England, nothing has happened about it. The English season is exhausting. Most Decembers, we play between eight and nine games at the worst time of the year. The pitches are heavier, the weather is worse and then in the second half of the season you’ll find a lot of players at all clubs carrying strains, pulls, but, because of the importance of the games, they keep on playing. And then when they get to the end of the season and have a major tournament like a World Cup or European Championship, they are not 100% fit. They [the FA] must realise that, going into the World Cup, they have handicapped their team.

It would be naive to suggest that fatigue was the only reason for England’s second-round exit at the 2010 World Cup. Fabio Capello failed to appreciate the social needs of England’s players, and it is fair to suggest this didn’t help the mood of the camp. Tactics perhaps were too a cause of England’s downfall, as well as individual mistakes (you know who you are, Robert Green).

But it’s lazy to suggest passion was the root cause of England’s failure. We can wait for the next generation of ‘hungry’ footballers, but they too will find exhaustion gets the better of them at major summer tournaments. Fatigued players meant England played badly in South Africa, and haven’t made it past the quarter finals of a World Cup or European Championship since 1996. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole are still top-class footballers, and did not become bad players overnight. Unless the FA and Premier League implement a winter break for the sake of their English stars, summer success will continue to elude the national team.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    1 February 2011 12:58 am

    Very good article. Completely agree.

  2. Calum permalink
    27 March 2011 12:08 pm

    Very interesting. I’ve always thought a winter break in mid-Jan would be perfect, allowing the boxing day, new years day etc fixtures to be kept. The Premier League should be in favour of it because the more their players shine in world cups the more prestige they gain. But those in charge are clearly too short-sighted to think of it that way

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