Ken Early: The game has changed so much it’s time to change match schedules

Players not only have to cover greater distances in matches but also have to do it faster

Liverpool’s James Milner sits injured  during Sunday’s FA Cup third round match against Everton at Anfield. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Liverpool’s James Milner sits injured during Sunday’s FA Cup third round match against Everton at Anfield. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

 

Last Thursday, James Milner covered 13.11km as Liverpool beat Sheffield United at Anfield. This, according to Opta, was the furthest a Premier League player has run in any match so far this season. The news will not have surprised many people at Liverpool, where the teetotal Milner is regarded as one of the fittest players in the history of the club.

On Saturday, Milner turned 34, and posted a picture of himself on Instagram drinking a celebratory cup of tea at Liverpool’s training ground. This cyborg runs on tea and Ribena. On Sunday he started against Everton in the FA Cup, and left the field with a hamstring injury after eight minutes – because he is not actually a cyborg.

When Klopp sat down after the game the injury was the first thing he wanted to talk about, his annoyance aggravated by regret at his own decision to start Milner rather than a teenage substitute.

“Two players started the last game, one of them got injured. That’s the situation we are in, and that’s why a lot of managers make a lot of changes – it’s nothing to do with the cup, it’s the timing.”

In just the last few weeks, Klopp has described plans to increase the number of Champions League matches as “absolute bollocks”, labelled the decision to play Premier League games on December 26th and 28th a “crime”. He sent a youth team to lose the Carabao Cup quarter-final while his main team was in Qatar at the Fifa Club World Championship, rather than try to find space for the cup match in the January schedule.

There are many who think it’s a bit rich for a multimillionaire football manager to complain about his multimillionaire football players having to play a lot of football matches. Hasn’t it always been this way? Those people should listen to what Klopp had to say last Friday, when he explained the basis of his reasoning.

“Somebody has to stand up for the players . . .Yesterday I spoke to Chris Wilder [of Sheffield United] after the game . . . he said: the difference between the days when it was like this and always like this, and today, the difference in game is a massive difference.

“The boys last night ran 13 kilometres. 13 kilometres to win a Premier League game. I can’t tell them, come on, try to run only 11 and you’ll be fine for the next game. It doesn’t work like this. It’s more, it’s quicker, it’s more physical, it’s more demanding in all departments.”

Demands

Is Klopp’s view backed by the evidence? The earliest high-quality data about the physical demands of professional football in the good old days is a PhD thesis from the 1970s, An Ergonomic Evaluation of Occupational Stress in Professional Football, by Tom Reilly, a Mayo man who went on to become professor of sports science at Liverpool John Moores University.

Reilly conducted a study at Everton that ran from July 1972 until early the following summer, when the manager, Harry Catterick, was sacked, and the new manager, Billy Bingham, sent him and his study packing.

His conclusion, broadly, was that professional footballers were not under a great deal of occupational stress at all, at least compared to people who had real jobs, like coal miners. He compared professional football to the acting profession, with occasional stressful performances punctuated by long spells of doing virtually nothing.

The average Everton player worked for 18.5 hours a week and spent 10.5 hours a day in bed, with a total of 19.5 hours per day either sitting or lying down. Reilly: “It seems that the professional footballer can be described . . . as ‘homo sedentarius.’”

Regarding the demands of the game itself, Reilly calculated the average distance covered by a player at 8.68km per match. This varied by position – centre-backs averaged 7.7km whereas midfielders did 9.8km. Today the average figure for all players is over 10km, and top midfielders like N’Golo Kante, Christian Eriksen or Jordan Henderson average more than 11km, and sometimes push to 12km or 13km.

Of course it is not just the distance that has increased, but the speed at which that distance is covered. It’s hard to make a fair comparison between the players of today and 50 years ago because of the difficulty of getting reliable data for the older players. However, a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine showed that in 2013, Premier League players were running 30 per cent further at high intensity, with 50 per cent more high-intensity running actions (i.e. runs) per match, than they had been in 2006, just seven years earlier.

Physical limits

This is not to say that the players of yesteryear would have strolled through the packed Christmas schedule with ease. They too were operating close to their physical limits, which were necessarily lower when you consider how they were trained.

One amusing aspect of Reilly’s thesis is the occasional tone of bemusement that creeps in when he is confronted with the primitive training techniques employed at the top level of English football. The average training session was only 75 minutes (sometimes as short as half an hour), and not much of what happened could be described as “training” in the sense of “physical activity which is likely to make you fitter”.

The Everton players engaged in several different types of training including warming-up, calisthenics and mobility work, skills practice, drills such as team shape, running, and playing practice matches.

All the physical training was aerobic slogwork, with explosiveness training entirely absent: there were “no exercises specifically designed to improve power or muscular strength”.

But even the aerobic training was not done particularly well. Reilly measured the players’ heart rates and found that the only part of training that was done at anything close to the intensity of a real match was the practice game, when the players pulses would reach 157 beats per minute.

Of the other forms of training, only running and “drills” took their heart rates above 140 bpm, and even the runs lasted only 10.5 minutes on average. The rest of the time the players were “training” at such low intensity their bodies would hardly notice it and certainly would not derive much benefit from it.

This is where the phrase “match fitness” comes from – in the old days players got fit by playing matches because the training was not really serious.

The game has changed, the training has changed, it’s time for the schedule to change too.

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