The number of official matches that every season professional footballers play, has increased. Apart from the usual league matches, the best teams have to dispute other matches in European competitions, as well as local competitions. Also, many of its players have to also compete in other international competitions with their respective national teams. During the ’70s, the number of encounters disputed by the champion team of the European Cup was 40, but in recent years that number exceeds 70 matches. For instance, in 2018/2019, Heung-Min Son (Tottenham Hotspur and South Korea) and Alysson Becker (Liverpool and Brazil) played 78 and 72 matches and travelled over 110,000 and 80,000 kilometres. Teams are forced to dispute two matches in a very short period of time and playing too many could be a risk for its players. Match overload is considered a threat to a group’s performance.1,2
A recent research3 has proven that football teams that do not have a winter break during the season have a higher incidence rate of injuries. The study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine magazine in 2018, depicted an analysis of 56 elite teams from 15 different European countries for seven consecutive seasons (2010/2011-2016/2017). A member of the technical staff of each club registered the injuries and participation in training sessions as well as matches for every player. Winter breaks are defined as the number days between the last activity of the team (training session or match) before the break and the first activity (training session or match) after the break. The average winter break was of 10 days (minimum value of 4.3 days in Scotland and the maximum value of 29.5 days in Denmark). There was no break in England.
These results suggest the following conclusions:
- If e compare teams that had a winter break with those that didn’t, the latter have lost an average of 303 days during the season because of injuries (p<0.001). If we look into more detail, teams with no winter break lost 185.9 days due to injuries for every 1000 hours training or competing (1,300 days per season). At the same time, teams that took a winter break lost 127 days for every 1000 hours training or competing (888 days per season).
- Teams with no winter breaks had a higher frequency of severe injuries than teams that had a break (+2.1 severe injuries per season).
- Results were similar along the three periods August-December (p=0.013), January-March (p<0.001) and April-May (p=0.050).
- Winter breaks did not increase participation in training sessions (82.7% for teams without a break and 84.1% for teams with a break) or the availability to dispute matches (86% vs 87.8%).
- The climatology of each region was associated with the frequency of injuries.
The practical applications of this work suggest that the inclusion of rest periods during the season may be a good measure to reduce the risk of injury. Furthermore, based on the report, At the Limit: Player Workload in Elite Professional Men’s Football4 by FIFPro, other useful measures which could be applied are:
- Introduction of obligatory 4-week-breaks offseason and 2-week-breaks during the season.
- Limit the number of matches per season in which players have competitive consecutive matches with less than 5 days to recover in between.
- To consider the possibility to establish a maximum number of matches per player to protect their performance and wellbeing.
- Develop an in advance alert system to supervise the match load per player.
Carlos Lago Peñas
1 Ekstrand J, Waldén M, Hägglund M. A congested football calendar and the wellbeing of players: correlation between match exposure of European footballers before the 2002 World Cup and their injuries and performances during that World Cup. Br J Sports Med 2004; 38:493–7
2 Ekstrand J, Waldén M, Hägglund M. Hamstring injuries have increased by 4% annually in men’s professional football, since 2001: a 13-year longitudinal analysis of the UEFA Elite Club injury study. Br J Sports Med 2016; 50:731–7.
3 Ekstrand J, Spreco A, Davison M. Elite football players that do not have a winter break lose on average 303 player-days more per season to injuries than those teams that do: a comparison among 35 professional European teams. Br J Sports Med 2019; 53:1231–5.
4 FIFPro. At the Limit: Player Workload in Elite Professional Men’s Football4 2019. https://fifpro.org/attachments/article/7689/At%20The%20limit%20-%20Player%20Workload%20in%20Elite%20Professional%20Men’s%20Football%20-%20Final%20Report.pdf