x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

England toiling while Europe rests

The winter break starts across Europe with most divisions taking time off, except the Premier League in England.

Louis van Gaal, right, on Bayern’s bench.
Louis van Gaal, right, on Bayern’s bench.

Louis van Gaal must be going soft in his old age. The Dutchman, the coach of Bayern Munich, has for much of his career been caricatured as a relentless martinet, a harsh taskmaster to his players, dogmatic in his football principles but insistent above all on the need for hard work and sacrifice.

So, when Van Gaal signed off for Christmas on Thursday by telling his players: "You should go home now and get some rest", one or two must have wondered if this were the same Van Gaal whose ardent exhortations and over-amplified voice they hear at Bayern's Sabener Strasse headquarters every day.

Perhaps Van Gaal, 59, was simply satisfied with the six goals his team had put past Stuttgart in the German Cup the previous evening, more evidence that Bayern's poor start to the season is behind them.

What is true is that the first half of the campaign will seem a long way behind Bayern by the time they embark on their programme for 2011.

Of the major European leagues, the Bundesliga is the one which put the highest premium on the benefits of a winter break. Germany has a lengthy one. Bayern's next competitive match will not be until January 15, when they travel to Wolfsburg, which is struggling.

That is 27 days between their 17th league match of the season and their 18th. Compare the volume of matches facing, say, Manchester United, the English equivalent of Germany's Bayern, in terms of status and ambition.

United must play six times in the same period, five league matches and an FA Cup game. And before anybody suggests the Cup match might be an occasion to ease up and rest a few players, they should be reminded of United's opposition in the third round of English football's favourite domestic knockout competition: Liverpool.

To make matters worse, another demon hangs over the cluttered United fixture list. Their Premier League visit to Chelsea, the defending champions, was postponed last Sunday and must be rescheduled. Chelsea would consider their own plight even worse. By the end of Wednesday, they will have played twice within 48 hours, against Arsenal and Bolton Wanderers.

If ever the virtues of a half-term in a northern European season should be emphasised, it is now. Chelsea-Manchester United was one of dozens of English fixtures called off last weekend because of the weather. More snow is forecast in the days ahead, threatening further catch-up for a tightly planned, 38-match-a-season fixture schedule.

It is with envy that coaches who are used to pausing the season in late December and early January - like Chelsea's Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti - look at the habits of the German and French leagues, and at those, like Spain's and Italy's, that take a holiday even though there is far less risk of snow and ice affecting their playing conditions.

But the main argument for a rest, one appreciated by Van Gaal, is to relieve the fatigue from which all almost modern footballers suffer.

Van Gaal has diagnosed some of Bayern's recent problems as post-World Cup exhaustion. He urged rest on his players so that the German and Dutch internationals, in particular, can make amends for insufficient holidays last summer.

Spain's world champions, concentrated at Real Madrid and Barcelona, will also appreciate their two-week breather between Primera Liga fixtures, which resume just after the new year, though Spain's break is shorter than usual this season.

Serie A has two-and-a-half weeks off, resuming a week into January. In France, le championnat follows a calendar similar to Germany's. The Dutch league resumes even later.

But downtime means less lucrative time. In the global economy inhabited by elite clubs, the English Premier League steals a march on its rivals for having so many games in the so-called festive period, broadcast worldwide without competition from alternative TV attractions like Barcelona or Milan.

Or Madrid or Inter or Bayern. So even the "resting" players are increasingly asked to put on a show in their time off.

Van Gaal's Bayern will not be training only at Sabener Strasse once they return to practice on January 2. They will be off to Qatar, a tour for which they will be handsomely paid, before returning to a chillier Bavaria.