The schedule is relentless for the modern men’s footballer. They often need to be primed to play twice a week and matches are especially bunched this season because of the World Cup in Qatar. Helpfully, footballers are almost superhuman, built for the physical rigours of a high-tempo sport and backed by incredible science and coaching to keep them at their best.
The science behind nutrition, fitness and medical treatment is helping footballers achieve their athletic peak. At the top level they are playing more games than ever. Going into the 2018 World Cup, 29 players had featured for more than 5,000 minutes in the previous 12 months, but almost three times as many did so in the year before the European Championship in 2021. Their bodies are capable of doing more and are still being able to recover within a limited time frame.
Last season Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk played 60 matches for club and country, and in this campaign 17 already. That is an impressive feat but all the more so considering he missed most of the previous season with a cruciate knee ligament injury. He is a fine example of what the body can endure when prepared in the right way.
Clubs took opposing views on how best to plan for this season’s adapted calendar after a summer off. Tottenham ran their players hard to increase fitness, while Manchester City kept things more relaxed, preparing the squad to peak at various stages through the campaign.
City played two pre-season friendlies before the Community Shield after finishing last season on 22 May but Tottenham arranged four fixtures before the Premier League kick-off.
City will hope their methods pay dividends and that they will be in the Champions League final on 10 June. It is all part of a strategy aiming to get the best out of their players over an elongated season. Antonio Conte, on the other hand, wants his Tottenham squad to be pushed to their limits to understand the demands of playing for him, ensuring they are as fit as possible to deal with the rigours of his coaching style.
International players’ regimes work in cycles, ensuring they peak at the right time. This often involves a summer tournament, so they will be on a bespoke, carefully orchestrated plan for this season. Sports science staff at clubs are focused on doing the best for their employer but that requires working hand-in-hand with the national setup because they know the importance of major tournament football for their players. In Qatar, the players have the opportunity to take part mid-campaign when they should, in theory, be fresher.
Many countries have lost players from their squad. N’Golo Kanté has been ruled out for France after surgery on a hamstring problem and Diogo Jota will not feature for Portugal. In addition to confirmed absentees there are a number of players in a race to be ready. England have gone from having a great stock of talented right-sided players to worrying about the fitness of Kyle Walker and Reece James.
A Fifpro survey showed players feel they are more likely to suffer injuries if they are playing many matches in a short period. Before a tournament I had to flick a switch when I crossed the white line to ensure I did not let thoughts of potential injury affect my game at club level because that is when you are more likely to be injured. Seeing teammates sustain injuries can spark extra anxiety, bringing home the realisation it could happen to you too, but it is important to clear your mind of such thoughts and focus on training and matches.
Physically, players are prepared for these situations but the mental impact of a non-stop schedule can take its toll. This aspect will have a further impact after the tournament. The emotion is the key thing to deal with. I always felt it took me six months to recover mentally from playing in a major tournament but physically I had to jump pretty much straight into a league campaign.
Everyone who reaches the World Cup will have put so much effort and dedication into representing their country that it is hard to recover. Some will be left wondering what is next having reached their perceived pinnacle and it can be difficult to get going again, especially if you have played plenty of games in recent years.
The body can recover quicker from exertion and get through fatigue, it does increase the risk of injury, but it is the psychological element that is the hardest to recover and restore back to freshness. Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah enjoyed contrasting fortunes when they returned to Liverpool from the Africa Cup of Nations: the former was flying after winning the tournament, while the Egyptian struggled to get back to grips with the Premier League after the final defeat on penalties. The same could be seen when comparing Italy’s triumphant Euro 2020 squad with many of the England players who lost.
The modern player is equipped to deal with everything physically, even though more and more is demanded from them. The real test this season for those at the World Cup will be how they cope with the psychological demands when they return to their club duties.