Pause and effect

wsc303The lack of a winter break is more of an excuse than an explanation for the failure of English teams, says Adam Bate

As we approach the climax of another English football season, it is perhaps only to be expected that there should be the usual talk of tiring bodies. Equally unsurprising is the now familiar demand for the introduction of that much-vaunted miracle cure: the winter break. A two-week gap in the fixture list has long been viewed as the answer to English football’s problems. Fabio Capello claimed “all the players were really tired” after England’s miserable performance at the World Cup in 2010. His thoughts were echoed by one of his predecessors, Sven-Göran Eriksson, who added: “It’s more difficult for England than other countries to do well in a big tournament. You need a break.”

Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger have called for a winter break in English club football too. Their clubs’ recent struggles in Europe will only strengthen the argument. “British clubs are always working at a disadvantage because we don’t have a mid-winter break,” argued Sam Allardyce after Arsenal’s 4-0 drubbing in Milan. “While the Italians had come back fresh from their break, Arsenal, like the rest of us, have had to toil on through a highly intense season.”

It is easy to be impressed by the big names lining up to extol the benefits of a proper rest period. Indeed, an unthinking acquiescence on this issue appears to be the default position. But delving into the detail suggests this cause célèbre of modern-day football is at best overstated and at worst a complete myth. Admittedly, the brilliance of both Barcelona and the Spain national team have made it fashionable to want to ape all aspects of the Spanish game.

La Liga’s winter break gave Barcelona 13 days off last Christmas, with Real Madrid enjoying a luxurious 14-day break. But the fixtures have to be made up somewhere. Manchester United played 60 matches last season, compared to Barcelona’s 62 competitive games. As a consequence of the Christmas break, Barcelona were forced to play an extraordinary 15 times in the first two months of 2012. Real Madrid played 13 matches in this time. In Italy, where there is a similar winter rest period, their three representatives in the Champions League knockout stages each played at least 12 games.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United all enjoyed a lighter schedule – playing just 11 times in the opening two months of the year. Those teams were competing on a number of fronts. Wigan played just eight matches in the period, which allowed them to rest for nine days, ten days and a whopping 14 days between games. With Roberto Martinez’s men having three winter breaks, you have to wonder where all this talk of overcrowded fixture lists has come from.

The Spanish season will also extend some time beyond the culmination of the Premier League. Barcelona will contest the Copa del Rey with Athletic Bilbao on May 25 – nearly two weeks after the English domestic season is completed. There will be over four weeks between the end of the Premier League season and England’s first match at Euro 2012. Surely that is enough time to dispel talk of fatigue that could be avoided thanks to a fortnight off six months earlier.

Perhaps the key question to be asked is how exactly would English clubs utilise a winter break. The German experience suggests the notion of a genuine rest period may not be all that it seems. With just 18 teams, the Bundesliga is well placed to accommodate a complete break from football, but Bayern Munich used their break from mid-December through January to play money-spinning friendlies in Qatar and India.

It is easy to imagine Manchester United being whisked off to the Far East over the New Year, while English audiences are starved of their traditional games over the holiday period. A non-competitive match is not necessarily guaranteed to provide immunity to serious injury – as Jack Wilshere discovered when he required ankle surgery following a friendly against New York Red Bulls in July.

None of this will put an end to earnest talk of the need for a winter break. Just do not be surprised when it is not the answer to English football’s problems that some appear to believe it can be.

From WSC 303 May 2012