Son Heung-Min played 78 games of footballbetween 25th May 2018 and 13th June 2019.
He benfitted from just 22 days of rest duringthe summer, 6 less than the minimum (28-42) recommended by medical professionals.
And as a Premier League player, he missedout on a winter break, for which the recommendation is 14 days of uninterrupted rest.
The number of fixtures combined with the intensityof the modern game has led to the suggestion that the workload of players like Son is unsustainableand unsafe.
One organisation making this claim is players’union FIFPRO in a recent report it published entitled ‘At The Limit’.
The report makes the case in various ways.
The pronounced issues, though, are that – firstly- in extreme cases, elite players participate in almost 80 games per year.
That, secondly, players feature in many ofthese games without 5 or more days rest and recovery beforehand, and this happens regularlythroughout the season.
And finally, that the increasing fragmentationof the football calendar is exacerbating those problems, as various competing interests continueto re-structure the sport’s global shape.
Short-term, this leads to players playinga larger number of games in a shorter space of time, but long-term, the clustering ofseparate competitions and the resulting reduction of off-season recovery periods leads to “continuouscompetition cycles”, in which a player may feel physically and psychologically that thereis no end or beginning to any given season.
But, how do we know how many games is toomany? After all, Son’s 78 game season (of which72% were played without 5 or more days rest and recovery) doesn’t sound hugely differentto John Robertson’s 70-game season for Nottingham Forest and Scotland in the 1978-79 season.
Go back even earlier to football in wartimeBritain, and you’ll hear stories of players featuring in over one hundred games a year.
The key is not in the number of games alone, but in the intensity of modern football.
The increasing complexity of tactical systemshas ensured the continual evolution of the sport.
As athletic performances have improved, thegame itself has become more fatigue-inducing.
As Ken Early wrote in an article for the IrishTimes: “The rise of system football means that the English league today has less brokenplay, and more periods of controlled possession.
” Early goes on to note that in the last 10years not only has the number of passes increased by 25%, but the number of tackles and interceptionshas significantly reduced.
“The team that made the fewest tackles 10years ago tackled more than the team that makes the most tackles today.
” Fewer breaks in play clearly leads to a moreintense playing experience, which has both physical and psychological effects.
So, for Son Heung-Min, 78 games is arguablya much weightier burden than a similar number of games of the football played decades earlier.
Perhaps more concerning long-term is the “continuouscompetition cycles”, created as a result of competing governing bodies and the financialimperatives of the modern game.
Pre-season tours are emphasised for commercialreasons, leading to higher intensity games and greater distances of travel.
FIFA are not only seeking to expand the WorldCup but revamp the Club World Cup with greater financial backing.
UEFA has expanded its European Championshipsfrom 16 teams to 24 and is holding the 2020 tournament finals over 12 different citiesin 12 countries.
The impact of these and other expansions andadditions floods the calendar with fixtures, all duelling for prominence.
And the problem is not at its worst in Europe.
In an article for the New York Times, RorySmith wrote regarding the burnout of South American players specifically, due to CONMEBOL’sdecision to hold four Copa America’s in six years to realign the tournament with theEuropean Championships.
Smith writes “Between 2014 and 2020, shouldChile qualify for the Qatar World Cup, it is possible that [Alexis] Sanchez will havehad just one full summer break.
” Even that summer break, Smith notes, wasn’tplanned, Chile simply failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2018.
Had they participated, Sanchez would’veundoubtedly added to the 130 appearances he’d already made for Chile at just 30-years-old.
It’s perhaps no surprise that his form isdesperately poor at Manchester United.
FIFPRO’s report also states that elite non-Europeanplayers are travelling too much, frequently crossing time zones and not getting the recommendedrest and recovery time.
“63% of players say that long-haul travelimpacts their performance.
” For players featuring both at club and internationallevel, the travelling time can be significant.
Son flew 110, 596km last season.
That’s nearly a third of the way to themoon, and the equivalent of taking the world’s longest commercial flight (Newark to Singapore– 15, 344km) just over seven times.
Or 135 hours flying time; five and a halfdays in the air.
The frequent crossing of time zones can alsobe problematic for footballers, who rarely have the time to recover from jetlag.
Interrupted or inadequate sleep can lead tolower reaction time, poorer accuracy, poorer decision making, and crucially it can increasethe likelihood of injuries.
A study – by the American Academy of SleepMedicine – of 80 Major League Baseball players even showed that lack of sleep can reducethe length of a player’s career.
And whilst there are clear physical consequencesto overplaying an under-recovered footballer, such as the increased risk of injuries, thepsychological consequences should not be underplayed.
Speaking about ‘burnout’ to the Guardianin 2014, Dr Andrew Hill – (University of Leeds’ School of Biomedical Sciences) said:“There is often confusion when people talk about overtraining, too many games or fixturecongestions; what they are talking about is physiological fatigue, but burnout is normallyabout psychological exhaustion.
They are correlated.
For every match he plays there is going tobe a psychological expenditure, associated with preparing for games and competing ingames.
” So, how could this be changed? Well, the FIFPRO report makes a few recommendations.
It includes locking in season breaks, limitingback-to-back games and considering match caps.
85% of players surveyed by FIFPRO are in favourof an in-season 14-day break.
64% of players said they “believed theyhad insufficient rest between games.
” And the evidence suggests that “A very shortperiod of recovery between matches – less than 72 hours – for players is associatedwith more matches lost for their teams”.
Limiting the amount of games that individualsplay could, therefore, lead to an improvement in the game.
A fully rested player is more efficient andis capable of higher performance levels.
Plus, limits on player use would inevitablylead to greater use of a team’s whole squad; potentially more minutes for academy graduatesand youth players, something many fans want to see.
Either way, it might be necessary.
As Jurgen Klopp said in a press conferencein May 2019: “IF WE DON’T LEARN TO DEAL WITH OUR PLAYERS IN A BETTER WAY, COMPETITIONWISE… WE KILL THE WONDERFUL GAME.
WITHOUT THE PLAYER, THE GAME IS NOT A GOODONE.
” However, as a result of the way that footballis structured, FIFPRO says that this problem requires a “holistic solution”, as nosingle organisation can make the necessary changes alone.
The task is in convincing competing intereststo holster expansion plans.
And that won’t be easily achieved.