World Cup 2022: Could player burnout and injury ruin sport’s biggest show?

Will the World Cup be full of tired stars? Assessing burnout, minutes played across top leagues.

A strange thing has already happened a couple of times this season: Virgil van Dijk has looked human.

First, it happened on the opening weekend of the campaign. Fulham‘s Aleksandar Mitrovic, no one’s definition of a dangerous dribbler, bore down on the Liverpool penalty area with the ball at his feet. It was a situation you’ve seen countless times over the past five years. The opponent breaks Liverpool’s press and an attacker finds himself in a ton of space, only to see he still has VVD to beat. Most of the time, the Dutch international would usher the attacker into a bad angle and the threat would fizzle out into a low-probability shot or a turnover without Van Dijk even attempting a tackle. One time, it ended with Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez literally giving up and turning around. But this time, it ended with Mitrovic cutting inside Van Dijk, winning a penalty and giving Fulham the lead.

Last week, it happened again. A through ball from Napoli’s Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa put Victor Osimhen in behind the Liverpool backline. Van Dijk chased Osimhen down and had the angle covered, only for the striker to suddenly cut the ball back as Van Dijk clumsily smashed into him and conceded another penalty.

For a player whose dominance had been defined by an almost aggressive form of inaction, he was suddenly doing a lot and doing it poorly. Van Dijk committed 10 fouls in the Premier League last season; through six games this year, he has already committed eight.

There are plenty of potential reasons why. He was bound to have a bad stretch after nearly five years of peerless performance. He’s also 31, right around the age when players at his position start to decline. And then there’s the team around him: With a depleted midfield and revolving door of players next to him at center-back, he’s being put in these specific situations more than he ever has before.

All of that has likely played a part, but what about this? What if van Dijk, like so many other pros, is just tired?

The 55-game threshold

Before the most recent men’s Euros, my colleague Bill Connelly wrote about how the COVID-19 pandemic upended the traditional soccer schedule and smushed everything together. In the yearlong period from mid-June 2017 up to right before the start of the 2018 World Cup, there were 29 players in the Stats Perform database who had played over 5,000 minutes across all competitions, and there was just one — Paraguayan center-back Fabian Balbuena — who broke the 5,500-minute mark. For the year ahead of Euro 2020, held in 2021, an absurd 76 players were above the 5,000-minute mark, 26 were over 5,500, and four were above 6,000.

Thanks to something resembling a normal offseason this past summer, we’re not quite at that same point right now, but we’re still way ahead of where we were before the last World Cup. Over the past 365 days through Sept. 14, 40 players have played more than 5,000 minutes, nine have played more than 5,500 minutes, and one has broken 6,000.

Leading the way with 6,335 minutes is, incredibly, another Paraguayan center-back: Gustavo Gomez of Palmeiras. Right after him? Van Dijk with 5,853 minutes. In other words, Van Dijk missed nearly the entire 2020-21 season with a torn ACL, and followed that up by playing more soccer than anyone else in Europe.

The other Europe-based pros who broke the 5,500 minute mark:

For a study released ahead of the 2022 Champions League final, FIFPRO, the international player’s union, surveyed “a [92-person] mixture of high-performance coaches, sport scientists, strength and conditioning coaches, physical therapists and medical doctors” about player workloads. Some 59.8% said that the maximum number of games played in a season should be under 50, with the vast majority of the respondents (97.8%) saying that the max number of matches should be below 60.

Over the past 365 days, 204 players in the Stats Perform database have appeared in at least 56 matches. A bunch of these players will get a midseason break in November and December, but by my count, there are 105 guys who might feature in the World Cup who have played at least 56 matches over the past year:

  • Argentina (5): Lautaro Martinez, Inter Milan; Rodrigo De Paul, Atletico Madrid; Guido Rodriguez, Real Betis; Julian Alvarez, Manchester City; Lionel Messi, PSG
  • Belgium (4): Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City; Youri Tielemans, Leicester; Yannick Carrasco, Atletico Madrid; Alexis Saelemaekers, AC Milan
  • Brazil (11): Fabinho, Liverpool; Vinicius Junior, Real Madrid; Everton Ribeiro, Flamengo; Thiago Silva, Chelsea; Marquinhos, PSG; Eder Militao, Real Madrid; Roger Ibanez, Roma; Casemiro, Manchester United; Gabriel Jesus, Arsenal: Pedro, Flamengo; Lucas Paqueta, West Ham
  • Canada (2): Jonathan David, Lille; Alistair Johnson, CF Montreal
  • Croatia (4): Marcelo Brozovic, Inter Milan; Luka Modric, Real Madrid; Ivan Perisic, Tottenham; Mario Pasalic, Atalanta
  • Denmark (1): Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Tottenham
  • England (10): Mason Mount, Chelsea; Jordan Henderson, Liverpool; Harry Kane, Tottenham; Tammy Abraham, Roma; Phil Foden, Manchester City; Raheem Sterling, Chelsea; Declan Rice, West Ham; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool; Jarrod Bowen, West Ham; Jude Bellingham, Borussia Dortmund
  • France (11): Matteo Guendouzi, Marseille; Christopher Nkunku, RB Leipzig; William Saliba, Arsenal; Kylian Mbappe, PSG; Aurelien Tchouameni, Real Madrid; Karim Benzema, Real Madrid; Theo Hernandez, AC Milan; Jules Kounde, Barcelona; Adrien Rabiot, Juventus; Wissam Ben Yedder, Monaco; Antoine Griezmann, Atletico Madrid
  • Germany (6): Antonio Rudiger, Real Madrid; Thomas Muller, Bayern Munich; Kai Havertz, Chelsea; Leroy Sane, Bayern Munich; Ilkay Gundogan, Manchester City; Serge Gnabry, Bayern Munich
  • Mexico (6): Jesus Gallardo, Monterrey; Uriel Antuna, Cruz Azul; Edson Alvarez, Mexico; Jesus Angulo, Tigres; Luis Romo, Monterrey; Henry Martin, America
  • Morocco (1): Achraf Hakimi, PSG
  • Netherlands (10): Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool; Frenkie de Jong, Barcelona; Denzel Dumfries, Inter Milan; Daley Blind, Ajax; Steven Berghuis, Ajax; Davy Klaassen, Ajax; Tyrell Malacia, Manchester United; Matthijs de Ligt, Bayern Munich; Jordan Teze, PSV; Rick Karsdorp, Roma
  • Poland (2): Robert Lewandowski, Barcelona; Piotr Zielinski, Napoli
  • Portugal (9): Bernardo Silva, Manchester City; Joao Cancelo, Manchester City; Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United; Andre Silva, RB Leipzig; Rafael Leao, AC Milan; Diogo Jota, Liverpool; Vitinha, PSG: William Carvalho, Real Betis; Nuno Mendes, PSG
  • Senegal (1): Sadio Mane, Liverpool
  • Serbia (3): Dusan Tadic, Ajax; Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Lazio; Filip Kostic, Juventus
  • South Korea (1): Son Heung-Min, Tottenham
  • Spain (9): Gavi, Barcelona; Sergio Busquets, Barcelona; Alvaro Morata, Atletico Madrid; Pau Torres, Villarreal; Rodri, Manchester City; Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea; Koke, Atletico Madrid; Jordi Alba, Barcelona; Pablo Sarabia, PSG
  • Switzerland (1): Djibril Sow, Eintracht Frankfurt
  • Uruguay (4): Federico Valverde, Real Madrid; Rodrigo Bentancur, Juventus; Joaquin Piquerez, Palmeiras; Ronald Araujo, Barcelona
  • United States (2): Walker Zimmerman, Nashville FC; Christian Pulisic, Chelsea
  • Wales (2): Brennan Johnson, Nottingham Forest; Sorba Thomas, Huddersfield

While the average age of all the players with at least 55 matches played over the past 365 days is 27 — or right in the middle of the average prime — there are some players at the beginning and end of their careers being pushed to the limit, too. Thiago Silva and Modric are both 37, and they’ve each played more than 60 games over that stretch. Messi (35), Benzema (34), Lewandowski (34), and Busquets (34) have all broken the 55-game mark.

At the other end, Gavi (18) is the youngest player on the list, and he has played 69 matches over the past year. Both Bellingham (19) and Nuno Mendes (20) can’t buy a drink in Ohio, but they’re old enough to play 56 games in 365 days.

The bane of back-to-back matches

FIFPRO also surveyed 1,055 professional players for their thoughts on the current match calendar, with 55% saying they’d suffered an injury because they were playing too many matches. Meanwhile, 97% of the high-performance coaches surveyed said that playing too many matches increased the risk of injury.

Predicting injury is still one of the holy grails across all sports. The science behind it is still debatable at best because every player’s body is different, everyone experiences different stressors, every team demands different things from their players and everyone exerts themselves differently across a match or a training session. But the basics don’t really seem disputable, and you don’t really even need science to lead you to the answers.

Playing a lot of games makes you more likely to get injured — both because you’re putting more strain on your body and because you’re putting yourselves in more situations where you can get injured. But more dangerous than the raw, accumulating minutes toll is the limited amount of time between matches. According to the consultancy 21st Group, players who have only two or three days of rest between matches have suffered an injury about 4.2% of the time. From there, they found that the probability of injury decreases with each successive game off.

I asked FIFPRO if they had any specific player-welfare concerns for the upcoming, bifurcated-by-the-World-Cup season, and it echoed the issues raised by 21st Group’s research.

“We have concerns for players at the top of men’s professional football who will be participating in the majority of competitions this season,” FIFPRO said in a statement. “The World Cup will increase match congestion for these players in what is an already-crowded calendar, reducing recovery time and increasing mental and physical health risks.

“One of the key metrics in helping to safeguard player health and performance is limiting the amount of back-to-back matches in a season. Scientific research shows that players need five days between games for adequate recovery While total match load will be lower for many players starting the World Cup in November rather than in June or July, it is the congested calendar before and after the tournament that poses dangers to player health.”

When they say “back-to-back” matches, they mean games that take place with fewer than five days rest in between. In their survey, they found that 85% of players and 80% of high-performance coaches felt that the number of back-to-back matches should be limited. However, thanks to the midseason World Cup, there are fewer open dates on the calendar this season.

Teams playing in Europe this season will have fewer open midweeks than ever before, with most league play taking place on the weekend, then either continental competition or domestic-cup play or even more domestic-league play filling the open weekdays. (The postponement of matches in the Premier League over the past two weeks will likely be a blessing in disguise for a lot of players.) The World Cup itself is also taking place over a shorter timeframe than usual; there’s a three-day break between the group-stage matches, and then similar crunches through the knockout rounds.

While it doesn’t appear that there’s been an increase in injuries so far this season, we’re only a month in. And although there have been some minor guardrails put in place to help — five subs, increased World Cup squad size from 23 players to 26 — the current schedule is going to stress the bodies of the top players as much as it ever has. While high-profile players such as Kevin De Bruyne and managers such as Jurgen Klopp have both publicly criticized the increasingly bloated schedule, nothing is likely to change because, as my colleague Gabriele Marcotti has pointed out, this is still only an issue for the top teams. A lot of other clubs and players — say, mid-table teams without European matches to contend with — wish they could play more games.

Once again, we’re left to shrug and hope that no one gets hurt. If you want to try to turn this into a positive, you have to squint really hard and then still lie to yourself about it. But perhaps this will favor the underdogs come Qatar. Not only, by definition, will their players be fresher by the time the tournament starts, but between now and Nov. 20, their players are way less likely to get hurt, too.

Credit: Source link