The past three weeks have been relaxing for the many soccer players of Europe’s top soccer leagues. Bundesliga and La Liga players alike have been able to be with family and enjoy the holiday season without any soccer-related activities to hinder their relaxation. Similarly, players in France, Holland, and Italy have been able to enjoy brief respites from the normal stresses of the soccer season. However, the players of the English Premier League have not been privy to any break; on the contrary, the Premier League was host to 44 games in the period between December 23rd to January 3rd. Incredibly, it took 87 days to complete the first 11 rounds of this season’s Premier League fixtures, while the next 11 rounds were played in just 47. This scheduling has been widely criticized by managers and players alike, with many pointing fingers at this schedule to explain English teams’ relative lack of success in European competition. Does this period of intense soccer do positive or negative things for the Premier League?
There is a clear link between the number of games played and the injuries sustained by said player. A 2012 study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine confirmed what basic logic could already stipulate: players who participate in more than one game per week get injured at a much higher rate than their well-rested colleagues. The study “found an injury rate of 25.6 injuries per 1000 hours of exposure in the group of players who played two matches per week compared to 4.1 injuries per 1000 hours of exposure in the group who had six days or more between matches,” meaning a player who plays two matches per week sees over a 600% increase in injury frequency. However damning this statistic is, its magnitude increases as one examines the schedule for teams during the so-called “festive fixture” period. Leicester City played four games in just under nine days, effectively doubling the tested study. It is therefore unsurprising that the Foxes managed to claim only four points from a possible twelve, underachieving according to FiveThirtyEight’s metrics. Furthermore, the intense period has led to a “hangover period” which saw Leicester draw 0-0 to League One side Fleetwood Town, as the Foxes played a heavily rotated squad, perhaps to offset the effects of their previous two weeks.
However extreme the Premier League schedule seems, it becomes all the more intense when also considering the non-league soccer that teams have to play. Between the Carabao Cup, FA cup, and European competitions, English teams (particularly those who finished in the top six the year before) often play above 50 games per year. In comparison, with the exception of Champions League quarter-finalists Bayern Munich and DFB Cup winners Borussia Dortmund, no German team played more than 46 games last year. Furthermore, those German teams were the beneficiaries of the (extremely) long Bundesliga break, which measures almost a full month. At the end of the day, EPL teams are forced to play at a bare minimum 40 games (which would suggest early losses in the aforementioned cups), but with teams balancing a number of competitions, the number can easily rise to 55 and even 60 (Manchester City, with their success this season, are most likely on pace for a 60 game season). When given that injuries increase sixfold when teams play twice in one week, and given that the soccer season is around 40 weeks per year for Premier League teams (when compared to 36 weeks for the Bundesliga, which has a four-week break), teams will average considerably more than one game per week. Additionally, when the Premier League deliberately schedules a 12-day period with four games per team, injuries are bound to happen at a much higher rate. Per the below graphic courtesy of BBC, players average many more sprints per game during this holiday period. With this increased exertion, many managers from Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp to England boss Gareth Southgate have questioned the rationale behind this scheduling.
Not everything about the festive fixture period is bad. It is in part due to increased viewership that Premier League sponsorship rights have increased exponentially in price, and the accessibility of soccer to an American audience over this period that has led to a 67% increase in viewership for NBC sports. There is also an esteemed history of English soccer being played on Boxing Day – a British national holiday – and fans enjoy the spectacle of holiday fixtures. However, it would appear that the benefits of this period are far outweighed by the benefits of taking a winter break; even a two-week break similar to the La Liga schedule would do wonders for the fitness of English teams. Perhaps eliminating the League Cup – the third-most important competition, would also alleviate some of the intensity; this would open up at least one game week for most clubs, while also eliminating a competition that “[wastes] a lot of energy, ” per Pep Guardiola. While the league will most likely be reluctant to change, the recent criticism might lead to substantial differences in scheduling in the future.