LONDON – A few weeks ago, when the players who will represent Wales in this summer’s European Football Championship started signing up, their coaching staff introduced an unwritten rule: Try, if at all possible, not to mention the F- the word.
It is not that the word is expressly forbidden; more discouraged. “We don’t want it to be a factor that goes in,” said Tony Strudwick, the team’s performance manager. “We have not used the term. We are not talking about fatigue. ”
Discussing it in public can seem like excuses. Talking about it privately can cast doubt on the players. Of course, that does not mean that Strudwick and his colleagues ̵
Fatigue is always a factor in a major tournament. The European Championship and the Copa América and the World Championship arrive at the end of long and hard club campaigns. They are contested by the most successful players, those hired by the finest club teams, who rarely get more than a few weeks off before signing up for international duty.
But rarely has the shadow of exhaustion hung so low over a tournament as it does this summer, arriving in a calendar compressed and condensed by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In most countries, what is usually a 10-month season, this year was only slightly more than eight overall.
Many of the players involved in the euro – and the contemporary Copa América, the South American championship – have actually been playing non-stop since June last year. Some are starting to feel it. Marcos Llorente, the hard-hitting Spanish midfielder, admitted earlier this month that in his last few games of the season with Atlético Madrid he got off the field without being able to run any further. “The brain wanted more, but the body said no,” he said.
Didier Deschamps, the coach of France, the world champion, warned three months ago that his star-studded team – a favorite to win the European title – was vulnerable to both physical and mental fatigue. His priority, he said, when he assembled the team at the end of last month, was to make sure there was enough “gas in the engine” to survive a schedule that – if all goes according to his plan – would include seven games in 30 days.
England manager Gareth Southgate has admitted he must be careful not to “break any of these players.” Roberto Martínez, the coach of Belgium, the world’s top-ranked team, suggested that after his team was drawn by Greece in a tune – up game, his players struggled to rediscover the “competitive intensity” they would require to meet their ambitions in the tournament.
And while Strudwick and his Wales colleagues may not be talking about it, fatigue and its threat are laced into the very structure of their planning. They have designed their training programs to take that into account. They have planned more downtime to prevent it. All players who are considered to push too close to their limits will find their training plans monitored, their workload reduced.
They and the other coaches all know that the outcome of Euro 2020 more than ever does not depend on the strategic or the stylistic, the tactical or the technical. Instead, it may depend on the physical, what Strudwick called the struggle “freshness versus fatigue.” This is a tournament for the last team standing.
The explanation for that is obvious. The players called up by the 24 nations that will compete for the postponed tournament have, according to data from Twenty First Group, a sports analysis consultancy, not spent more time on the pitch during the last season on average than they might have done during normal circumstances .
But they have all played more games in less time – Twenty First Group’s study showed that some will enter the tournament after playing more than 200 minutes or more than three games more than their equivalents at the 2018 World Cup – and, just as important, did so with far less time to recover.
Before the last European Championship, in 2016, players had had an average of 4.5 days rest between games. This time the figure is down to 3.9 days according to the study. For some of the big nations, the numbers are still striking: The players representing Spain, France, England and Italy have, on average, only had 3.5 days between matches this season.
For Strudwick, however, it is only part of the story. As leagues and governing bodies struggled to make up for the ground lost to the first wave of the pandemic, there was little or no break between the end of the 2019-20 season and the start of the 2020-21 edition. In some cases, it did not last longer than a few weeks.
“There was almost no free time,” Strudwick said. “Usually there is a season, an international break, a split in the middle, and then you go again. This time it was just a short break and then into the next season with games every three or four days and very close international periods. ”
It is not easy to predict what effect it will have. An initial reading suggests that England more than anyone else is England vulnerable to the effects of fatigue. Team members have played more minutes than anyone else this season: an average of 3,700 or 40 games – eight full matches more than the Euro average.
This can be attributed to the Premier League’s decision not to follow the rest of Europe to allow 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 England’s top flight (although the overall manager, Dutch midfielder Frenkie De Jong, plays for Barcelona in Spain.)
But its effects can be offset by the fact that only one nation in the field – Turkey – has convened a younger group than Southgate’s team. England may be just a little more susceptible to fatigue than France, Portugal and Germany, but its teams are also significantly younger. Belgium, on the other hand, have among the most experienced teams in the tournament, but far fewer recent miles in the legs.
However, it is possible that fatigue – of a kind that disproportionately affects the traditional favorites – can act as a great equalizer; the fact that so many of the big stars are running on steam can serve to make the tournament more exciting rather than less.
That is certainly Strudwick’s reason. “It’s not going in shape,” he said. “There will be disruptions. It may be on the cards for a less heralded team. It will be the one that leverages their team, maintains freshness and navigates best. ”
Strudwick is obviously not a passionate observer. Wales, first of all, has reason to hope he is right. Its team has only a few notable artists – Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey – but neither played as much as they would have liked this season. Neither Bale (for Tottenham) nor Ramsey (for Juventus) passed 1,500 minutes of competitive action for their clubs. Both should in theory be a little fresher than usual.
However, there is another potential problem in all these heavy workloads: not that the players’ physical condition will make the tournament more open, but that it will make it more dangerous.
“There is a proven link between injury prevalence and lack of recovery,” said Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, Secretary General of FIFPro, the Global Players’ Association.
“This season, some top players played up to 80 percent of their matches without the ideal time to recover,” he added. “We have already seen the effects of certain types of injuries that are typical of fatigue. Of course, we hope the players stay healthy and can play at their very best. But after a year like we have had, the reality is that the risk of injury is high. ”
That’s what Strudwick and all his peers and contemporaries and rivals fear most. That is what they have spent weeks and months trying to prevent or at least alleviate. They may not talk about fatigue and all the threats it poses, but they will definitely think about it every day for the next month until only one of them is left and eventually they can rest.