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Following this summer's major tournament in Ukraine and Poland, England's heavyweight clubs will struggle to put out their first choice sides on the opening weekend of the season



SPECIAL REPORT
By Greg Stobart

The life of the modern footballer may be one of luxury, but for the elite players it can stretch 11 months of the year and take its toll on the highly tuned bodies of the finest athletes.

This summer, many of the game's biggest and best international stars have taken part in Euro 2012 or the Olympic Games - some even featured in both - before being pitched straight into an up-and-at-'em domestic season that gets underway with the start of the Premier League this weekend.

Could it be that at some point between now and the final day next May, it is the clubs - the people who pay these players such vast wages - that suffer the affects of burnout and fatigue?

The old school argument that a footballer should be able to play a couple of matches a week is far too simplistic given the advancement in recent years of statistics and sports science.

"Ferguson has moved with the times and carefully plans his team selections, sometimes up to four matches in advance, to ensure the players are all fresh & peaking for the run-in"
This is now a multi-billion pound industry and clubs need to look after their assets. That is without doubt, for example, one of the reasons behind Gareth Bale's decision to withdraw from the Olympics, whatever Tottenham and the Welsh winger may claim.

One of the theories behind Fernando Torres' alarming slump since his £50 million move to Chelsea in January 2011 is that the Spaniard's body is now, at the age of 28, giving up on him after constant football since the age of 17, including regular summer tournaments.

Chelsea themselves played 61 matches in all competitions last season and the workload told in their Premier League displays - the Londoners finished sixth in the table, 25 points behind winners Manchester City.

Clubs now have dedicated teams to assess the health of their players, to make sure they will be fresh, to ensure they are not in the 'red zone' and at risk of picking up an injury should they be selected.

In English football, there was initially skepticism towards squad rotation, the likes of Claudio Ranieri and Rafael Benitez often criticised for tinkering with their selections. But those decisions are made with full knowledge of the facts and the data, and rotation is now widely acknowledged to such an extent that Sir Alex Ferguson can go for dozens of matches without naming an unchanged starting line-up.

Ferguson may now be 70 but he has moved with the times and carefully plans all of his team selections, sometimes up to four matches in advance, to ensure the players are all fresh and peaking for the run-in when the destination of trophies is decided.

It is the likes of Harry Redknapp, the former Tottenham manager, who are seen as pre-historic for refusing to make use of their squad, and it has shown in Spurs' performances in the second half of the season in the last two years, not to mention their bulging injury list.

Accumulated fatigue over the course of the season occurs especially after summer tournaments and greatly increases the chance of injury.

It offers some sort of explanation as to why Robin van Persie looked so ineffective at Euro 2012 after playing every Premier League game for Arsenal last year; it explains why England were unable to select a whole team of players for the tournament, from John Ruddy, Kyle Walker and Chris Smalling, to Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Darren Bent.

Much of that is down to modern training sessions, with the likes of former Netherlands coach Raymond Verheijen criticising the standard of coaching in English football, singling out Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City on his Twitter account for their coaching methods.

Verheijen is an advocate of the 'less is more' periodisation philosophy, believing that football is a game of high intensity made up of regular sprints, that training sessions should be short and intensive and that players should be given adequate rest with fatigue in mind.

"If you want to improve as a player the most important thing is to improve the speed of your actions," Verheijen explained to Goal.com last December.

"That proves football is an intensity sport and not an endurance sport. In endurance sports you need more and longer sessions and in intensity sports you focus on the quality of a session.

"If you want to increase your speed of actions, fatigue is your worst enemy. For every football session you need to be fresh and if you want to improve as a player you need to be fresh. In other words, 'less is more'. The only way a player can improve is with better training and not more training."

"When you are fatigued, the signal from your brain to your body is slower. If the signal arrives milliseconds later, you are already making an explosive football action, for example, with an unprotected knee and then a ligament snaps."


"Much has been made of the lack of a winter break in England as a reason for the national team's poor performances in major tournaments, with an obvious contrast to be drawn with Spain and Germany, who have two-week breaks in in their calendar"

For Verheijen, basic fitness is not an issue or a problem for modern top flight players, but a lack of freshness results in greater risk of injury that could damage the season of both individuals and the team.

Before the new season has even started, the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United are dealing with injuries to key players.

Much has been made of the lack of a winter break in England as a reason for the national team's poor performances in major tournaments, with an obvious contrast to be drawn with Spain and Germany, who have two-week breaks in in their calendar.

With the fixture list jam packed with Premier League, Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, it is hard to see how the Football Association could rejig the calendar to squeeze all of the matches in, but it would give the players a chance to recharge their batteries.

Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill believes the benefit of such a break would be mental as well as physical.

"I would love to see it happen, even for a week or two because psychologically, I believe when you start off the season, it's pretty long and it gives you something to think about during that time," said the Ulsterman last year.

It is is something that seems inevitable eventually, with managers of Premier League clubs and the national team insisting it will make a big difference. For now, though, they have to deal with the hand they have been dealt and get their players fit and firing for the next nine months.

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