LONDON – A few weeks ago, as the players who will represent Wales at this summer’s European Football Championships started showing up for work, their coaching staff instituted an unwritten rule: try, if possible, not to mention the F word.
It is not that the word is expressly prohibited; more discouraged. “We don’t want that to be an inbound factor,” said Tony Strudwick, team performance manager. “We didn’t use the term. We are not talking about fatigue.
Discussing it in public can sound like an apology. Talking about it in private could cast doubt on the players. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Strudwick and his colleagues – and every other top team in the world facing a championship-filled summer – don’t think about it almost constantly.
Fatigue is always a factor in a major tournament. The European Championship and the Copa America and the World Cup come at the end of long and arduous club campaigns. They are contested by the most successful players, those employed by the best club teams, who rarely have more than two weeks off before showing up for an international duty.
But rarely has the shadow of exhaustion hovered so low over a tournament as this summer, which arrives in a timeline compacted and condensed by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In most countries, what is usually a 10 month season has only been crammed this year into just over eight.
Many players involved in the Euros – and the competing Copa América, the South American Championship – have effectively been playing nonstop since last June. Some are starting to feel it. Rock-solid Spanish midfielder Marcos Llorente confessed earlier this month that in his final games of the season with Atlético Madrid he came off the pitch unable to run any further. “The brain wanted more, but the body said no,” he said.
Didier Deschamps, coach of France, world champion, warned three months ago that his team of stars – favorite to win the European title – were vulnerable to physical and mental fatigue. His priority, he said at his team meeting at the end of last month, was to make sure there was enough “gasoline in the engine” to survive a schedule that – if everything goes according to plan – will include seven games in 30 days.
England manager Gareth Southgate admitted he had to be careful not to “break any of these players”. Roberto Martínez, the coach of Belgium, the highest ranked team in the world, hinted after his side were held in check by Greece in a tune-up game that his players struggled to rediscover the “competitive intensity” they would need to achieve their ambitions in The tournament.
And while Strudwick and his Welsh colleagues may not talk about it, fatigue and its threat are built into the very fabric of their planning. They have designed their training programs to take this into account. They have scheduled more downtime to prevent it. Any players deemed too close to their limits will have their training programs monitored and their workload reduced.
They and the other coaches all know that, more than ever, the outcome of Euro 2020 may not depend on strategy or style, tactics or technique. It may, on the contrary, depend on the physique, what Strudwick called the battle of “freshness against fatigue”. This is a tournament for the last team in contention.
The explanation is obvious. Players called up by the 24 nations who will play in the postponed tournament have not, according to data from Twenty First Group, a football analysis consultancy, spent on average more time on the pitch in the last season than they did. ‘they could not have done so under ordinary circumstances. .
But they’ve all played more games in less time – the Twenty First Group study has shown that some will enter the tournament after playing more than 200 minutes, or more than three games, more than their FIFA Cup counterparts. world 2018 – and, just as important, did it with much less time to recover.
Prior to the last European Championship in 2016, players had received an average of 4.5 days of rest between matches. This time, that number fell to 3.9 days, according to the study. For some of the big nations, the numbers are even more striking: players representing Spain, France, England and Italy have had, on average, only 3.5 days of interplay between matches this season.
For Strudwick, however, this is only part of the story. As leagues and governing bodies have struggled to make up for lost ground in the first wave of the pandemic, there has been little to no pause between the end of the 2019-20 season and the start of the edition. 2020-21. In some cases, it didn’t last more than a few weeks.
“There was almost no free time,” Strudwick said. “Normally there is a season, an international break, a split in the middle, and then you go back. This time it was only a short break, then the following season, with games every three or four days and very dense international periods.
It is not easy to predict what effect this will have. A first reading would suggest that, more than anyone, England is vulnerable to the effects of fatigue. His squad have played more minutes than anyone else this season: an average of 3,700 or 40 games, eight full games more than the average Euro player.
This can be attributed to the Premier League’s decision not to follow the rest of Europe in allowing teams to use five substitutes this season. It is no coincidence that five of the six players who have seen the most action this year play in the English top flight (although overall leader, Dutch midfielder Frenkie De Jong, plays for Barcelona in Spain.)
But its effects can be offset by the fact that only one nation on the pitch – Turkey – called up a younger side than Southgate’s side. England may be a little more susceptible to fatigue than France, Portugal and Germany, but their squad are also significantly younger. Belgium, on the other hand, are among the most experienced teams in the tournament, but far fewer recent kilometers in their legs.
It’s possible, however, that fatigue – of a kind that disproportionately affects traditional favorites – could act as a great equalizer; the fact that so many major stars are running on vapors can serve to make the tournament more exciting, rather than less.
This is certainly Strudwick’s reasoning. “It won’t form,” he said. “There will be upheavals. It could be on the cards for a less advertised team. This will be the one who uses his team, keeps its freshness and navigates it the best. “
Strudwick is not an impartial observer, of course. Wales, for their part, have reason to hope they are right. His squad has only a few notable performers – Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey – but none have performed as much as they would have liked this season. Neither Bale (for Tottenham) nor Ramsey (for Juventus) have spent 1,500 minutes of competitive action for their clubs. Both should, in theory, be a bit cooler than usual.
There is another potential problem with all of these heavy workloads, however: not that the physical condition of the players will serve to make the tournament more open, but that it will make it more dangerous.
“There is a proven correlation between the prevalence of injuries and poor recovery,” said Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, general secretary of FIFPro, the global players’ union.
“This season, some top players have played up to 80% of their games without the perfect time to recover,” he added. “We have already seen the impact of certain types of injuries typical of fatigue. Of course, we hope the players stay healthy and can play their best. But after a year like the one we have had, the reality is that the risk of injury is high. “
This is what Strudwick and all his peers, contemporaries and rivals fear most. This is what they spent weeks and months trying to prevent, or at least mitigate. They might not talk about fatigue and all the threats it poses, but they will certainly think about it, every day of the next month, until one of them is left standing and they can finally rest.