England players stuck between a rock and a hard place as clubs and country clash over player fitness concerns

Miguel Delaney
·8-min read
England players are having to play more games than ever before in a shortened space of time for club and country (Reuters)
England players are having to play more games than ever before in a shortened space of time for club and country (Reuters)

Gareth Southgate is already primed for what he describes as the “power game” around it all.

“Whether that be phone calls, messages, press conferences… we know everything that goes on.”

These are the little mind games that managers play when it comes to international sides and the fitness of their players.

It has long been a source of tension at the top of the game, but has now only been further complicated by the calendar from this Covid-19 crisis, to the point it is a controversy that has particularly dominated this internal break. Jordan Henderson is the latest England player to return to his club with a concern, to go with a fair few injuries around the world.

Managers are echoing many in the game, and wondering why these matches are taking place at all.

That is ultimately because the federations need to fulfil contracts from the summer’s cancelled fixtures, and there is a feeling that the international game did the clubs “a favour” by agreeing to move Euro 2020.

Read more: Premier League fixtures and table — all matches by date and kick-off time

The bigger question is how all concerned actually deal with it and navigate it. One involved source describes it as “a political nightmare every time”. Dave Hancock, who has worked on both sides as a physio for clubs and the England national team, can appreciate the diplomacy.

“It’s a really difficult tightrope people are on.” And one only made more slack by this crisis.

“It’s the player caught in the middle. The bottom line, however, is that they want to play.”

This was something Southgate stressed in his press conference ahead of what is now a dead rubber of a game against Iceland.

“The players want to play for their country, and win as many caps as possible. Cristiano Ronaldo, 150-plus caps, Sergio Ramos 150-plus. If you look at the English players of the past, Frank Lampard was one you know came every time no matter what. Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, John Terry… you don’t get to 100 caps without putting yourself in there every time, and players have that personal ambition.

“They want to play. They want to achieve personal landmarks.”

It was a view naturally backed by Kieran Trippier. The Atletico Madrid full-back had been asked whether he had ever faced pressure to pull out of an international squad.

“No, me personally, I have never experienced it. Obviously, if I get the opportunity to play for England, then I’ll be here. It’s just ‘report to England and try and play’ really. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

Kieran Trippier says he has never felt pressured to skip international dutyGetty
Kieran Trippier says he has never felt pressured to skip international dutyGetty

It has happened, mind. Sir Alex Ferguson’s willingness to withdraw players became something of a joke in the game, although much of that was before the regulations changed so international medics had final say on reported injuries.

Since then, there have been a few more serious accounts, like the story of the fall-out between one high-profile European manager and a star player. The coach had insisted his player pull out of an international break, only for his agent to try and plead they just couldn’t do that without a real injury. It led to quite the blow-up.

These are the extremes of the kind of “power games” Southgate refers to. For his part, the England manager says he can “understand” the thinking, a viewpoint that is pretty essential to the circumstances.

“I also have huge empathy with the club managers. We do not just have two clubs in the title race any more or three clubs - we are looking at six or seven clubs in England and there is huge pressure on every result.

“So there is all of that noise in the background but we’ve got to remember that we are competing against France, who pick all their players, Spain, who pick all their players, Portugal, who pick all their players.

“So everybody is inevitably going to fight their own corner. Four years ago I started thinking you know I’d better be careful of that, and careful of that and then you know what can you do if you start going down that route: we have to pick one from every club and make sure we balance that, it’s impossible. So I've got to do what's right.”

Players are suffering more injuries than normal due to the post-Covid-19 effects on the fixture listReuters
Players are suffering more injuries than normal due to the post-Covid-19 effects on the fixture listReuters

Despite perceptions, that involves what are generally positive relationships between countries and clubs, particularly the medical departments.

“I think we have as good a relationship as we possibly can with all of the clubs,” Southgate says.

“They share a lot of information,” Hancock adds. There are a lot of links between the various parties, but England also have someone from STATSports - the company that provide GPS vests to the national team and most Premier League clubs - based at St George’s Park, who offers what is seen as a “neutral” conduit sending player data in both directions.

“There’s still pressure from the managers,” Hancock explains. “The bottom line is it’s still minutes on the pitch. And the more minutes someone plays football, the more chance they have of getting injured. Fact. Scientific fact.”

That is why so much of this comes down to faith in the international managers, and steps they take to placate coaches - while doing what they need themselves.

Southgate has been especially conscious of this in the current situation.

“I think it's correct that we have managed those with a heavy schedule through Europe in the friendlies in particular and with the training. We've run twin programmes, two groups on certain days. Again, that's not ideal because you split the group and it's not perfect for harmony but I think we had to manage that that way. Belgium did similar. When it comes to the games we've got now, we've got to continue to improve as a team.

“No player until this point has started more than five matches. We have played seven. In fact, Kieran is one of three who have started five and we took him out of two of those. Declan (Rice) is the other outfield player. He does not have European football. So we have tried to manage that as best as we can. We are representing 50 million people and we are trying to prepare for the European Championships. We have had seven games in 12 months and we have got four more games in the next four or five months to prepare for the European Championships.”

It is that very competition that has created a big crunch in the calendar, particularly given football’s apparent insistence on playing a normal season despite the entirely abnormal situation.

Southgate is thereby correct in saying that this problem isn’t just a product of international football.

He feels the game could have done much more to be creative with the calendar.

“It is not international football on its own which is causing the issue, it is the collective load of everything: European matches, club matches, internationals. I said at the beginning of the week there was a missed opportunity to deal with all of that ahead of a winter World Cup (in 2022). So we are where we are. And everyone is trying to manage it as well as we possibly can but also, everyone is also realistic enough to know they have to get their team prepared as well as they possibly can.”

<p>Southgate has learnt that the management of England players is a tricky business</p>Getty

Southgate has learnt that the management of England players is a tricky business

Getty

Hancock does feel there is something of an irony in that all of this will ultimately be to the detriment of Euro 2020.

“Looking at it from the outside, the schedule is crazy. Absolutely crazy.

“It’s all about load… so a lot of players barely had a pre-season break before training, then they’re straight into a Premier League that’s shortened because of the Euros, then there’s internationals, and ultimately maybe 10 days’ break before the tournament. If you look at this longitudinally - and that’s the word, it’s longitudinal analysis, not blocks of months - over a year, year and a half, then players will be developing more and more before fatigue. And the problem is you only have so many games before your next game, then your next game. You can do all the injury prevention strategies you want, but longitudinally there’s nothing better than rest, or days off.

“These guys, if you count the accumulated number of minutes they’ve been playing, and how much rest they’ve had in between, and the big breaks, like the summer breaks - in that longitudinal cycle, that break is not going to happen for a year and a half, maybe two years.

“These players I think are going to be worn out. That’s only going to be detrimental, from what I see, when they reach the European Championships.

“What you’ll see - once you start seeing fatigue, which will be muscle and tendon - are more tears in hamstrings, groins, calves, achilles, patellars, more of those issues. Especially if they’re tearing these later in the games; the 85th, 87th, 89th minute. Soft-tissue injuries are the key here. If you’re seeing more, that is either lack of preparation or fatigue.”

But when the games are scheduled, the players will want to play. That creates the bind, and these "power games". The hope for now is that they just get through these final international games.

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