This season doesn’t look any different and with United still competing in three competitions, coupled with Fernandes’ World Cup qualifying commitments for Portugal, a conservative estimate could see the 27-year-old appearing in 60 appearances.
But that’s far from being an issue exclusive to Fernandes and United.
The exhausting schedule of the football calendar and the physical and mental toll it places on players has been the subject of much discussion for several years now.
It’s a problem that has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, as leagues around the world struggled to complete truncated seasons before starting the next campaign almost immediately.
Add in the current international schedule – which sees Confederations cramming into more games than ever before due to game cancellations due to the pandemic – and players at the top of the sport are now experiencing the worst schedule congestion of their careers.
“An obscene amount of games”
It’s not just playing too many minutes each week that affects star footballers. It’s also long-haul international flights across multiple time zones, a particular problem for those traveling from Europe to South America and Asia on international assignments.
From 2024, football will need a new calendar as the current format will expire. However, rather than reducing the number of matches to prevent players from burning out, the current proposals would see footballers potentially playing. Following matches at club and international level.
This is due to the expanded Champions League format touted by UEFA, the governing body of European football, which would translate into 100 more matches per season, and the plans offered by FIFA, the governing body of world football. , to organize a World Cup every two years. instead of four.
Darren Burgess, a performance coach who previously worked at Liverpool and Arsenal, remembers his time with the Gunners when he was trying to manage the players’ workload.
“Certainly in my role, most recently at Arsenal, where we played the semi-final of the Europa League, then the final of the Europa League several years in a row, including a Carling Cup final, we just played a number obscene of matches, ”said Burgess.
While UEFA and the European Club Association (ECA) have criticized FIFA for its plans, UEFA itself has been criticized by key officials in Europe’s biggest leagues for its own proposals.
FIFPro says football governing bodies need to have a big picture of player burnout.
“What I think is quite interesting (…) is that our arguments are always presented by other stakeholders when someone else makes a proposal,” said FIFPro general secretary Jonas Baer Hoffmann.
“So when do you need more Champions League games, then all of a sudden ‘well the players are playing too much’, the leagues say and say FIFA. If you want a second World Cup,” oh, the players also play a lot, ”says UEFA.
“Now, I guess at some point if you hold them accountable for this argument, then you will have to force them to hold it against them too.”
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who has been one of FIFA’s main voices in its campaign for a biennial World Cup, has previously insisted they were “very aware” not to increase the number of matches for players.
“You have 20% national team football and 80% club football and we want to maintain that balance, but we just want to reorganize it more effectively.
“It means consolidating and reducing qualifying in national team football, creating longer periods for players to stay at their clubs and establishing a guaranteed rest period for players each year.”
Baer-Hoffmann was speaking at a roundtable hosted by FIFPro, where the union proposed a new plan that would see players take planned and mandatory breaks during the season to protect their physical and mental health.
The proposal stems from a FIFPro report which the union says shows footballers are currently playing an alarming number of minutes in what it calls the “critical zone” – playing at least 45 minutes in matches with less. five days of rest between them.
FIFPro claim that playing an excessive number of minutes in this critical zone can significantly increase a player’s risk of injury and even shorten his career.
Depending on the regularity of these forced breaks – whether footballers are absent after only three consecutive games in the critical zone or five – players could miss between two and eight games per season at club and international level.
While this may sound drastic to many football fans, similar concepts are often applied in other sports.
In the NBA, for example, where players regularly play consecutive nights and every other night throughout an 82-game season, franchise stars typically have scheduled rest periods in their seasons, more often than not. called load management.
The FIFPro report is based on data from around 40,000 appearances from a sample of 265 male players from 44 leagues between June 2018 and August 2021 and states that these mandatory mid-season breaks will benefit players and teams at long term.
For players who combined club and international duty, the report found that 67% of their minutes last season were played in the critical zone, up from 61% in each of the previous two seasons.
In Fernandes’ case, the midfielder never fell below 67% between November 2020 and April 2021 and was consistently at or near 100%.
“What we are seeing with these high workload figures across a number of indicators, whether back to back [matches] or travel, that it is simply unbearable for the player, but also for the game and for the competitions, “said Alexander Bielefeld, head of global policy at FIFPro.
“So the question really is how to intelligently regulate this. The report does not offer solutions to the regulation itself, but assumes that only intelligent management and intelligent coaching will do.”
Bielefeld says that currently “the pressure is too much” on everyone involved in football to achieve consistent good results for them to leave star players out for some games, but says it is crucial to ” start the conversation before the new schedule.
How would a manager or head coach react when told that their star player has to be absent for the next game? How would a fan react who traveled to Paris to watch Lionel Messi or Manchester to see Cristiano Ronaldo after spending hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to watch his favorite player?
Burgess believes that real forward planning before the start of the season could largely offset these problems.
“Part of my role with Mr. [Arsene] Wenger and M. [Unai] Emery, the coaches for both seasons, had to talk to them about this problem, the planning and these players, “he said.” Some players can play, some players cannot play.
“So if these rules are in place at the start of the season, then it allows the high performance coach, doctor, coach and supporter to understand that this is done to promote performance and protect the players. so you can maximize player exposure to the most critical games.
“So as long as these guidelines are in place, it allows you to plan. “