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Christmas Congestion – “Football’s Festive Headache”


A blog post written by lecturers in sport and exercise therapy Katie Davies and Keith Burnett

It shall be a slightly strange Covid-19 Christmas this year, but after the curbed festivities end in January, like every year, we shall still look back at overindulgence on food and drink and over spending on Christmas shopping (albeit online), whether this be the increased numbers on the weighing scales, or the additional holes required in our belt, or the negative symbol behind the pound sign in our bank accounts. 

This will be the same for the English Football Premier League managers and backroom staff, although their thoughts will turn to the cost of the playing minutes during the festive fixtures and the demand on their playing squad. 

The 2020-21 Premier League season is three months in and the start has already been both mentally and physically demanding for players and staff due to the prolonged break and lack of game ready opportunities during the break for the player’s preparation. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has seen a reduced off-season and cancellation of a week long winter break.   

The recovery time has made way for international and European fixtures and club fixture scheduling to ensure live TV viewing for most games. The load management of the players then becomes extremely challenging for the staff to balance the player’s physical preparation during training and competition as well as providing adequate recovery to ensure injury prevention is paramount for the players.

Dedicated football fans are unable to visit stadiums and enjoy a beer and pie at half-time, but they can settle for watching up to eight live games over the weekend from the comfort of their sofa. Although some fans will be watching a depleted team with a loss of key players through injury which will add an element of frustration as their team may find themselves sliding down the league table due to this. It has been reported that there is a 16% increase in muscle injuries in comparison to this time last year, with these injuries in particular linked to increase in load, game intensity and lack of recovery time.  

Liverpool FC have been hit particularly hard, with more injuries than any other top flight team. The manager Jurgen Klopp has therefore aired his frustrations over a Saturday lunchtime fixture following a Wednesday European fixture and the surprising decision not to continue the rule of five substitutions being allowed per game that was permitted during Project Restart. This frustration may soon be shared amongst clubs as fixtures are to become further congested with the inclusion of Carabao and FA Cup games between now and mid-January.    

ESPN reports that between November 21 and mid-January some teams could play at-least 16 games within 57 days, which works out at a game every 3.5 days. Under the Premier League broadcast schedule, no club can have a gap between games of less than 48 hours.  However a number of teams will be playing Boxing Day and again on December 28 over the festive period so will be close to this limit with a minimal recovery period of two days. 

Fulham and Newcastle may be pleased to hear that they have the longest time between games, with 99 hours to recover between Boxing Day and December 30. Steve Bruce’s Newcastle team were the losers in the congestion battle last year reporting the loss of nine players through injury and illness over the Christmas fixtures.  In response he branded the volume of fixtures as ludicrous.

These challenges stretch the staff and players to the extreme, which is not replicated at any other time during the playing season.

As we are currently planning our Christmas festivities, Premier League clubs will be busy planning an attempt to reduce injury rates with discussion of recovery methods, player rotation and tactical strategies. They are under increased pressure to consider the welfare of staff and players whilst minimising the financial loss surrounding injury. 

The football Injury index in 2019 reported the cost of injuries to Premier League clubs reached £221 million, with one individual team costing in the region of £45m. A player that is spending more time in the rehabilitation room than on the pitch is a financial burden to the club as they do not have the ability to utilise that players’ skillset to add to the team’s performance on the pitch. Research by Eliakim et al. (2020) reported that when key team members are out injured for approximately four and a half months, this can account to the team losing a league point and if this amounts to nine months, then this can cause the team to lose one place in the table.

Competitive sport around the festive period is deep rooted in tradition, but this year’s pandemic has shown us we can be flexible, adaptable and reflective upon usual practice, so is now the time for change? 

A festive football break must be manageable if the Bundesliga gift clubs a scheduled break in competitive league games over Christmas. 

Have a look at the undergraduate degrees in sport and exercise therapy available at the University 

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