The English Premier League continues alone as the rest of the major European leagues enjoy their winter break. Is it time to join them?
Make or break for our game
With the exception of Kevin Keegan, every England manager since Graham Taylor has, at some point, knocked on the door of the powers-that-be and asked a simple question: "Is there any way we can have a winter break?" Sven Goran Eriksson went so far as to bring along a power-point presentation showing that 16 of 17 World Cup winners and every winner of the European Championships enjoyed a winter break in their domestic leagues. Fabio Capello has been somewhat more discreet.
"We did inquire whether there was anything that could be done in terms of tweaking the fixture list ahead of the World Cup in 2010," said one member of Capello's coaching staff. "We knew that introducing an actual winter break was almost certainly a non-starter, but maybe there were other ways we could work things. We'll see what they come back with. "In the meantime, all we can do is make the best of what we have and work with the clubs. But, if like us you're trying to get players to perform in June, the fact that they've been playing football non-stop for the previous 11 months is not a good thing. In fact, it may make the difference between success and failure."
The performance of the national team seems the only accepted counter-argument to playing straight through, from August to May. Until recently, some blamed it for the underachievement of English clubs in European competition, but after the Premier League provided three of the four Champions League semi-finalists last season, it has been put to rest. And so England stands in splendid isolation as the only major league in the world that does not contemplate time off in the middle of the season (even Scotland has one these days).
"I know tradition is important, but, from an athletic and training perspective, it makes no sense whatsoever," says Antonio Pintus, the West Ham fitness coach, who previously worked at Juventus, Monaco and Chelsea. "There's a reason why boxers and runners don't compete every day. The human body is not a machine, you have natural peaks and troughs. You need time off to recover and to top up your energy levels."
In recent years, the winter break has become a kind of secondary pre-season. "It depends on the length of the break, of course," says Pintus. "At Monaco, we had nearly three weeks. We'd give them a few days off until Christmas, so they could get a break mentally as well and then get them in for a full week of really intensive training. "This would re-establish the fitness base which wears down over the course of the season. And then we would simply ease them back into the normal routine we have during the year, leading up to the first game back."
That "fitness base" which Pintus talks about is crucial. It can only be established through heavy cardiovascular training and, while it is true that it can be somewhat maintained during the season by simply playing matches, it is equally true that, to some degree, it will deteriorate as the season wears on. "Put it this way," says Pintus. "If you are at 100 when the season begins, your fitness will naturally rise and fall, but you'll never get back to 100 unless you have a break and do some proper training.
"You might get back to 99 and then, after a few weeks, to 98 and so on. When you exert yourself, you destroy muscle tissue and you need the rest in between to build it back up. If you don't rest, well, you lose muscular mass." That is why some managers use rotation and suspensions to allow players time to revive their energy levels. The Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was one of the first to do this. When he gives a player a game off, it will usually mean two days of very tough, individual work, followed by rest. Like a top-up.
But that only tells part of the story. Even at full fitness, players still have natural peaks and troughs in performance during the year. Conventional wisdom aims at getting two periods of peak performance - October/November and March/April - out of the players. This approach was pioneered by AC Milan in the early 1990s and has now become widespread. "We track our players individually and try, whenever possible, to coordinate their cycles," says Bruno De Michelis, the scientific coordinator at Milan Lab, the club's medical and fitness facility.
"The idea is to peak together at certain, crucial times. Could we do it if there was no winter break? I suppose so, but it would be a lot less effective. "The break serves to put everyone back on the same level and sort of 'reset' the squad physically." Rafa Benitez employs a similar approach and, indeed, Liverpool have tended to finish stronger than other clubs. That said, it is far from an exact science.
"We have this idea of what we want to do and then we have to face the reality of players getting injured and needing to rehabilitate or players getting sidetracked somehow or whatever," says Benitez. "So it's more of a goal to strive towards than anything else. But obviously the lack of a winter break does not help us." If that is the case, why continue with English football's brutal scheduling? Well, tradition is obviously a big factor. The English game is something of a paradox. In some ways it has been trailblazing, dating back to when it introduced such innovations as three points for a win or shirts with personalised names.
Then again, we have the tradition of seemingly interminable FA Cup replays and the nuisance which is the League Cup is still with us today. And yet these days it probably boils down to one thing: money. From around the third week in December to the second week in January, English football is the only show in town, everywhere around the world. Newspapers in Spain, Germany and Italy turn to England to fill their sports pages. Elsewhere, the Premier League no longer has to jostle for space with La Liga or Serie A. Ratings rocket.The lack of a break also allows the FA Cup to be played on weekends, something which is unique to England (and Scotland). Again, this helps the domestic cup competition maintain a level of uniqueness which sets it apart from its counterparts in other nations, while making it a far more valuable commodity to the FA, especially when it comes to negotiating TV rights.
So if the men who bankroll the Premier League do not want a winter break and the folks who run the FA do not want one either, do not expect English football to change any time soon. Even if the England manager, like his colleagues before him, may feel otherwise. firstname.lastname@example.org