All of Europe's major leagues take a substantial winter break around the holidays — except the Premier League, which pushes its players to their physical limits in December.
As Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi post photos on social media of themselves relaxing with family over the holidays, players in England prepare to continue the grind. While the Bundesliga, La Liga and Ligue 1 players enjoy a winter break, Premier League teams enter their roughest stretch of the season.
“It’s very difficult. I have lots of respect for players in this country,” said Chelsea manager José Mourinho after his team’s 2-0 win over Stoke City on Monday. “At this moment, the German guys are on the beach, the Spanish guys are in the Maldives getting sun and in this country, you play this day, Boxing Day, the 28th. There is no Christmas, just football.”
It’s no coincidence that injuries start to pile up around this time in England, especially soft-tissue problems. Premier League match days on Boxing Day and Dec. 28 leave 48 hours between kickoff times for player recovery despite most research indicating a minimum requirement of 72 hours for full repletion of energy stores.
The quality of play is what suffers most, both immediately and later in the season, when the cumulative effect of exhaustion creeps up on even the youngest, fittest players. Strained muscles, viruses and general fatigue are at their peak because of the combination of poor weather making adequate warm-up more difficult and the lack of recovery.
“If you look at the load this year on players, it gets greater than ever before,” West Ham boss Sam Allardyce said in a press conference. “Not only do they travel at international level across the world, but the constant pressure of the Premier League is getting faster and more demanding, both physically and mentally.”
Add in the third round of the FA Cup the first weekend of January, when top-flight teams enter the competition, and most are playing four times in just over a week. Bigger clubs benefit more from the lack of a break thanks to their depth, which smaller clubs are unable to match so they can field comparable teams.
“The fans buy into international breaks no problem. It is a fact of life,” Allardyce said. “Remember, they didn’t buy into us kicking off on a Monday night or at 12:30 on a Saturday or Sunday lunchtime when Sky [television] came in, but they are happy with it now.”
The ease of long-distance travel for international duty makes traversing the globe easier, but recovering from these flights is still no simpler. Compression stockings and sleeping pills can only go so far to normalizing the human circadian rhythm after traveling multiple time zones and back in a short period of time.
Premier League players who played at the World Cup have been going since August 2013 without much respite. Even with a short club-approved rest after the tournament granted on a case-by-case basis, the pressure exists to get back into training as soon as possible for the biggest stars on whom teams rely.
Manchester United and Bayern Munich’s injury crises are direct results of the superhuman volume of work being asked of the players. The difference is, Bayern now has some time to recover and possibly get players back for the second half of the season that includes vital league and Champions League matches.
The Bundesliga’s six-week break allows for a full cycle of recovery and a second preseason preparation period before resuming competition in the final days of January. Other major leagues’ breaks, while not as long, still give some time for players to get back to 100 percent mentally and physically: Spain, Italy and France are all off for two weeks to allow muscles and fields to thaw.
“We have problems with our squad. We cannot rotate as much as we’d like to,” Bayern manager Pep Guardiola said in November. “We must be patient and keep going until we can recover over Christmas.”
While his side takes a much-needed break, with the dozen Bayern players who were at the World Cup getting their first real rest since last year’s winter period, their Premier League colleagues will continue pushing through physical and mental barriers in poor weather and on rough pitches.
Now more than ever, England’s appeal to calendric tradition looks as inadequate as arguments against goal-line technology and other modern advances in the game. It’s antiquated scheduling from back when players drank tea at halftime and hailed the “magic sponge” as proper treatment for injuries.
For some players, the only rest they’ll get is when they inevitably pull up with a muscle strain and are forced to sit out a couple weeks.
“We still don’t look after our players as well as other countries because we don’t put a couple of weeks in January to recharge the batteries for everybody and let them go again,” Allardyce said. “If you can’t get a rest then, that is going to promote even more injuries. The injury list for most clubs in and around December and January was horrific for a lot of teams across the entire football league.”