This season is threatening to become an exercise in suffering for footballers and their employers. Player availability for games and training are currently at all-time lows, and there is no respite on the horizon.
There is, though, a sense of inevitability about it all. Yes Covid-19 has thrown a spanner in the works, but the inability of the league and the national governing bodies to re-adjust the season to protect the physical and mental health of the players poses not just a problem for now, but for the future. With the World Cup in Qatar starting in just over two years, structural changes must take place soon to ensure that the tournament can truly be the greatest show on earth.
Injury rates and player availability during the restart and completion of the 2019-20 season were much better than had been predicted. The introduction of five substitutions, the controlled environment of one game per week and the self-regulation of the players all contributed positively.
Set against this, however, was the increasing pressure building from Covid-related disruption. A virtually non-existent pre-season training block, twinned with the requirement of players to report for national duty before the Premier League had even started, has laid the foundation to the injury challenges facing clubs now.
The bio-bubbles created to protect the players also mean there is less flexibility to draft in reserves or under-23 players to make up numbers at training. All of this is happening at a time when league stakeholders, club owners and commercial departments are desperate for the best players to be on the pitch selling the product to the world. Without season ticket and game-day revenue, TV revenues are ever more critical. Depleted squads, especially at the top teams, will only serve to jeopardise the popularity of the Premier League.
It is the absence of a normal pre-season that is now starting to bite the most, as has been witnessed in the NFL, where there have been an unprecedented number of hamstring and serious knee injuries.
Pre-season training develops players’ physical capacities and prepares them for the demands of the competitive season. Uefa-sponsored studies conducted by the Football Research Group analysed the role of pre-season on the health of the players throughout the season, specifically looking at injury-related measurements such as frequency of severe injuries, attendance at training, availability to compete and frequency of injuries. Their conclusions were that for every 10 additional training sessions during the pre-season it reduced the number of days lost due to injury by 22. The frequency of severe injuries decreased, too.
Overlay this on to a compressed season, where the recently adopted winter break has also been discarded, and you can fully understand why managers led by Jürgen Klopp are concerned that their squads are ill-equipped to deal with the relentless run of mid-week games or, as they say in Germany, the Englische Woche.
English football was already suffering from the lack of a winter break. Studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine had shown that English teams were losing an average of 303 days during the season compared with teams in leagues with a winter break, along with a higher frequency of severe injuries.
With the Premier League’s decision to scrap it this season, it will mean that teams are going to be forced to find ways to give players physical and mental breaks as we enter December and January. You can imagine that one of the first points of potential conflict will be between clubs and countries. More than ever, national and domestic teams will have to face the inconvenient truth that withdrawing from national team duty and resting is a necessity if they want to be competitive come next June at the Euros or Copa America.
Footballers, like everyone, are also likely to be suffering from mental wellbeing issues. Unable to escape from the pressure cooker of the game and constrained by the strict rules of behaviour and routine associated with Covid-19, a season without a break will weigh heavily on their minds. FIFPro, the worldwide representative of players, has already been pushing strongly for interventions to protect player performance and wellbeing, including the introduction of obligatory four-week-breaks off-season and two-week-breaks during the season, and the limiting the number of matches in which players have competitive consecutive matches with less than five days to recover in between.
As for now, it will be the teams and players that are the most resilient who will prosper. Resilience is not simply the ability to weather the storm, but also to adapt positively and take responsibility during periods of change. Some teams will definitely benefit from fewer players on international duty and no European club competitions, but it will be teams like Southampton – who were very purposeful in their management of players and staff during the first lockdown – that will likely come to the fore.
Mental performance strategies will be needed more than ever. Injuries are inevitable, so it will be teams that focus on collective and individual player mindsets and wellbeing that will lead to better performances on the pitch.