Festive Football - Not just an injury concern

As English football enters the most congested period of the season all the usual debates about player fatigue and injury prevention have started. Managers talk about player welfare and the need for ample recovery time. Add to this the increasing tactical maturity of the Premier League and it is not surprising that managers, coaches and players often voice disapproval regarding the short turnaround times between games at this time of year. 

The BBC has recently published a table showcasing the hours taken to complete all three games over the festive period. It reveals huge discrepancies with Chelsea having 90% more recovery time than Southampton, who have the toughest schedule. The Saints are expected to play three games in less than five days while Chelsea have over nine days to complete the same fixtures.

Injury is an obvious area for the debate to focus upon. However, should more attention to given to illness during this physical and emotionally stressful period? The key for any medical team is to ensure that injury and illness have as limited impact on performance as possible. This covers both training and competition as any interruption can have a negative consequence.  

Injury and illness have been tracked for a number of Olympic cycles across the British high performance system via a project called Injury and Illness Performance Project (IIPP). Anyone that has been in a high-performance training centre in the UK during the build up to a major tournament or Games will be aware of the strategies employed by athletes and staff to limit any illness. Should football be doing more in this area to ensure players remain fit, healthy and from a performance perspective, available for selection, particularly during the festive period, when the squad becomes increasingly important?

Sport scientist, Palmer-Green and her team have produced a number of review studies regarding the IIPP. They have shown that while injury accounts for the majority of training or competition days missed, significantly illness was responsible for a third of these interruptions.   

Winter generally increases the likelihood of illness, so with the intensity of the winter fixtures and the increased physicality of the Premier League Morgans et al (2014), conducted the first study of its kind looking at a leading Premier League club’s player immune markers during this critical period. Under normal season conditions, one game a week, immune markers do drop following a match but generally return to normal levels within a number of hours. However, when the team looked at players during the congested festive period, they found that immune markers were beginning to fall following the second game, with them being significantly lower than baseline levels following the third and remaining that way for a fourth and fifth (the team looked at 5 games in a 15-day period). It seems that the fixture congestion during the festive period just doesn’t give players the appropriate time to recover regarding this well researched immune marker. The obvious conclusion is that with decreased immune function players are increasingly likely to become ill. This could result in them being unavailable to play, train and in some cases, excluded from tactical sessions in order to reduce the risks of infecting other members of the squad.

A plethora of opinions are voiced regarding the congested fixture schedule over the festive season. While most fans are generally sympathetic to the increased demands that are put on players, very few want to see less football over the holidays. Injury concerns remain the main objection from managers, but as football begins to pay more attention to player welfare, will illness become an increasing factor in the calls to reduce the congested fixture list throughout the festive period?