Managing World Cup Fatigue in the Premier League
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
So, the 2022 FIFA Men's World Cup in Qatar is officially over. But, never fear as Premier League fixtures resume in just one week! This season is fascinating given this unique challenge for Premier League physical preparation and sports science staff, and we are just now heading into the eye of this storm...
In my own experience working in a Premier League football team after a World Cup, we had five different training periodisation plans depending on when players were knocked out. However, we still had more than a month after the final until the first league game of the season!
A just-published systematic review of fixture congestion in men's professional football (Page et al., 2022) found higher injury incidence, although potentially lower layoff times, during these periods. However, in the case of the Qatar World Cup there's added complexity than just fixture congestion alone...
As I've been discussing in a series with Output Sports, there are the added travel demands, time changes and jet lag, heat stress, plus potentially further disruptions to recovery with late kick-off times (7pm UK time is 10pm Qatari time), all as a result of this tournament. Without, of course, the summer break to rest and prepare for domestic fixtures...
Interrupting the Premier League with a Mid-season Tournament
Mid-season tournaments are more common elsewhere, such as the Concacaf Gold Cup and Copa America. Using data from these, Zone7's Ben Mackenzie recently investigated injury risk in players returning to their domestic leagues from a mid-season tournament. He found a three-fold increase in injury risk in these players within the first seven days back at their parent club. For more on this analysis, check out the infographic included in our last piece on illuminating the black box.
So, managing recovery and injury risk will be a key focus for the club staff, though admittedly for some teams more than others. While every Premier League team was represented at the World Cup, there is a vast difference in involvement across the league, as shown in Figure 1 below. [Update: see the bottom of the page for outfield players only]
Unsurprisingly given their wealth of talent, Manchester City have had the greatest total involvement with more than 4500 minutes played by their players. Meanwhile, Southampton have the least with just 270 minutes of playing time by Ghana's Mohammed Salisu.
Playing minutes are publicly available but I'm sure many teams will want to get more detailed information on their players' loads and recovery status. For instance, we saw a snippet of England using Output Sports for VBT measurements while gym training in Qatar.
Securely accessing this data (where available) would allow domestic teams to remotely track some aspects of their players' fitness-fatigue status. Such information is still of use even when not in a mid-season tournament, and I'm sure many clubs have built a symbiotic relationships with the national teams to share information both ways in recent times. On the other hand, national teams will have different approaches in relation to data collection and training philosophies, so understanding the sports science landscape at each of the national team setups is important.
Interestingly, this tournament was the first time the players were given access to the new FIFA Player App. This application includes their individual physical performance data from games, captured by in-stadia optical tracking. So the players themselves can also provide a source of objective information as well, of course, as their subjective perspectives on their load and recovery to their domestic team's sports science staff.
Possible increases in injury risk will not solely be as a result of high playing time and chronic fatigue. Within each Premier League team, there is also a wide range of player involvement at the World Cup as shown below in Figure 2.
[Update: see the bottom of the page for outfield players only]
Aston Villa have the largest range, having to manage both Jan Bednarek who played just three minutes with Poland, along with victorious goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez who of course played every minute for Argentina, surmounting to nearly 700 minutes of playing time (not to mention the celebrating!!!).
For some the focus is largely on recovery. For others, player management will involve a delicate balance between recovery from the travel stress and potentially increasing their training load, if conditioning has been lost. Teams may use fitness or readiness tests on their players' return to assess this.
Yet, it is just not about the playing time and training loads. West Ham will have to think carefully about how they manage Alphonse Areola for example, their French goalkeeper who will have experienced massive emotional demands this week, despite no playing time in the tournament. Let's not forget the people behind the numbers!
Reintegrating as a Team
How teams reintegrate their World Cup players is fascinating. Yet, I think of equal intrigue is how the domestic teams have managed their other players in the meantime. Could the scheduling of that period, particularly in teams with less involvement, provide competitive advantage as the competition resumes?
Many teams seem to give their players a couple of weeks off before resuming with training and some friendlies, either at home or abroad. Some going abroad to seek warm weather training, while others it seems have been balancing physical preparation desire with commercial needs. Crystal Palace travelled to Turkey for friendly games, Everton played in the Sydney Super Cup in Australia, Man City travelled to Abu Dhabi for a training camp, Newcastle to Saudi Arabia, and Nottingham Forest to Greece. For a full list, see this article by Sky Sports.
Southampton - the team with the least involvement - were due to go to Miami under Ralph Hasenhuttl, but with Nathan Jones recently taking over the club instead went to Spain for a training camp. This highlighting the influence the coaching staff's philosophy would have on each team's approach to this unique training period.
With the tournament over and the Premier League back in the spotlight, how teams and staff reintegrate their players together will be crucial. Did they track their players remotely at the World Cup? Did they adjust and individualise their training loads upon return? Were they able to maintain their non-World Cup players conditioning to appropriate levels of match fitness? Let's find out...
I received a request to replicate the figures above without the Goalkeepers included. You can find the figures below with only outfield player data included.