England will never again win another major tournament.
Regardless of the collective talents of the 23 men assembled by Roy Hodgson or his successors, England will always be undermined by the following:
- the amount of domestic football played in England
- the intensity of the Premier League
- the lack of a winter break
- all of the above.
Indeed, these excuses have been trotted out so often – Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello were particularly fond of them – that they have almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But is there a shred of truth to them?
Analysing data in relation to games and minutes played in club football this season, intensity of play and injuries suffered, we compared the current England squad to the major sides at the European Championship and the other home nations.
Even before a ball is kicked, do England already have an excuse?
Do England play more than their rivals?
It is a popular assumption that players who ply their trade in England get through more work in a domestic season than those in the leagues across Europe.
However, when it comes to the squads for Euro 2016, that is simply not true.
England lag behind Spain and France when it comes to both average number of games and minutes played in the 2015-16 season and stack up very similarly to Germany.
Indeed, when it comes to comparing Hodgson’s men to the defending champions, Spain’s 23-man squad averages five games and almost 300 minutes more than England’s.
There are some mitigating circumstances. Jack Wilshere, who missed almost the entire season, drags England’s averages down but, even if the Arsenal midfielder had played a full campaign, England would still be behind Spain and France.
As it is, of the teams analysed, England’s workload is greater than Italy, Wales and Northern Ireland’s, but, in the case of the latter two, their squad includes more players who are not first-team regulars for their clubs.
What about individuals?
The Premier League does, however, provide the three individuals to have played the most football this season from the nations analysed.
Manchester United pair Chris Smalling and Anthony Martial and Liverpool defender Nathaniel Clyne have completed the most domestic minutes on the field.
However, the difference in workload between the players at top of the list is minimal, so it is perhaps better to look at trends within squads.
Here, England’s players are once again shown not to get through more work than their rivals.
Of Hodgson’s men, 13 have played 40 or more games, compared to 18 in the Spain squad and 13 each from France and Germany.
The Spanish total could be explained by three La Liga teams – Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla – making European finals and the fact that Barcelona, with other international commitments, played more games than any other team on the continent last season.
Still, those clubs were not involved in the sort of squad rotation that saw Liverpool, the other team to reach a European final, field virtually two different XIs in the Premier League and Europa League by the end of the season.
“There certainly is a culture of resting players in La Liga, with the question of possible ‘rotaciones’ always raised before every Barcelona and Real Madrid game,” said Spanish football journalist Andy West.
“But perhaps a subtle difference is that squad rotations in Spain are generally carried out on a more selective basis, with only two or three changes made to a team rather than six or seven.”
But isn’t the Premier League more intense?
Even if England’s players do play less than their rivals, the notion that the Premier League, and even the Championship, are more physically demanding could negate the advantages of not spending as much time on the pitch.
This theory holds water, but only to a certain extent.
Performance analysts ProZone have studied the major leagues in Europe – the top flights of England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy – and provided evidence that the Premier League could be more physically demanding.
For instance, teams moving the ball quickly from one player to another, known as fast tempo possessions, are 20% higher in the Premier League than the European average.
“In 2015-16 the English Premier League was characterised by a much higher propensity for fast tempo and sustained offensive possessions when compared with the other major European leagues,” said ProZone head of performance lab Paul Neilson.
“This data could support the view that the speed of the game in England is faster compared to other competitions, which may also link to higher physical demands and speed of decision-making.”
However, when it comes to counter-attacking, the Premier League is 16% down on the European average.
“Many people associate counter-attacks with high physical demands,” Neilson said. “However, it might also indicate the tactical importance within the Premier League of possession and not being caught out in transition – although this did not stop Leicester City exploiting this tactic very well.”
Even if we were to take the leap that the Premier League is more physically demanding than the rest of Europe, then we should also remember the effect that has on the rest of the teams at Euro 2016.
The Premier League is supplying 103 players to the tournament, some 81 who are not in the England squad.
“So many players from other nations at Euro 2016 play in the Premier League anyway,” said former England midfielder Jermaine Jenas. “Some of the top players too.
“Cristiano Ronaldo was with Manchester United for a number of years and he was still doing it for Portugal.
“N’Golo Kante has been playing the way he does week in, week out for Leicester all year but he does not look tired because he obviously trains hard and looks after himself. Him doing that for France won’t be an issue.”
What about the winter break?
The list of names who have called for a winter break in English football reads like a who’s who of imported managers.
Among them are Arsene Wenger, Louis van Gaal, Jurgen Klopp, not to mention former national team bosses Capello and Eriksson, with the latter going so far as to say that England will struggle to win a tournament until one is introduced.
While the intention here is not dismiss the positive effect a winter break may have on the collective freshness of the England squad in France, it can perhaps be demonstrated that Hodgson’s squad are not so disadvantaged by the Premier League’s refusal to fall in line with much of Europe.
Firstly, the Premier League and Championship are supplying almost a quarter of the players to the tournament. Straight away, the England squad are on a par with the other 111 men not to have taken a break this season.
In terms of breaks taken by leagues across Europe, the hiatus of the Spanish top flight was cut to 10 days this season, about the same amount of time a Premier League team gets off if they fail to reach the fourth or fifth round of the FA Cup.
Also, consider this. If we are to take a typical winter break in Europe to last for around three weeks, then, according to physioroom.com, nine of the England squad have had the same amount of rest this season through the time they have spent out injured.
Taking all breaks – scheduled and injury-enforced – into account, then 14 of the England squad have gone without a period of rest, a number not dramatically greater than the nine players in the France squad in a similar situation.
“A period of injury can be more restful than being fully fit,” said injury data analyst Ben Dinnery. “Not only because of the physical demands of the Premier League, but also the psychological aspect, travel, training and recovery, especially when there are two or three games a week.
“However, it’s not as simple as saying an injury is as good as a break, it depends on the player and the type of injury sustained.
“Some players could work harder trying to get fit than they do when they are playing regularly, maybe doing two or three sessions a day.”
What do the players think?
Even if some evidence suggests that England have no more reason to be fatigued at a major tournament that their rivals, the popular belief that they should be at a disadvantage is likely to remain.
“If you keep telling players they are tired, they will be tired,” said former England striker Alan Shearer, who played in the European Championships of 1996 and 2000, as well as the 1998 World Cup.
“I didn’t go into any tournament feeling tired, in fact I would actually say I always felt great. I would never use the excuse of being tired if I didn’t play well.”
To support Shearer’s view, Smalling, the most worked man in our analysis, is not feeling any sense of fatigue before what will be his first appearance at a European Championship.
“When you get on a roll of games, you just want to keep going and I want to contribute to a successful summer,” he said.
“When you’ve looked forward to something all season, you can’t be tired when you’ve got such a massive carrot at the end of it. Now it’s getting to the stage where the excitement will drive you through any tiredness.”
Still, if the scheduling and demands of domestic football do ultimately leave England at a disadvantage when compared to the rest of Europe, they can take inspiration from the Denmark team of 1992.
While the story of the Danes lifting the trophy after being summoned as a late replacement for Yugoslavia is well known, what is not often documented is their own domestic season prior to the glory in Sweden.
A restructuring meant the Danish top flight played a season in the summer of 1991 and immediately followed that with another campaign in 1991-92. More than half of the squad effectively played a season and a half before going on to be crowned European champions.
Sometimes, there really are no excuses.
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