England have suffered the indignity of not reaching a semi-final at a major tournament since hosting Euro 1996, in which they suffered a heart-breaking penalty shoot-out defeat to Germany. Whilst pundits have delved into the issue of the prerequisites of compiling a winning side, managers have concerned themselves with the key criterion of football: results.
Last week Jürgen Klopp joined Louis van Gaal and Sam Allardyce in condemning the fixtures over the festive period, a schedule which “hurts England’s chances in major tournaments”, according to the 48-year-old German. A tame statement in comparison to van Gaal’s forthright use of “evil” to berate the same situation, Klopp’s assessment is rather telling given the short time span in which he has come to such a conclusion. Whilst his former employers 1. FSV Mainz 05 and Borussia Dortmund, along with the other 16 clubs in Germany’s top flight, enjoy the longest winter break of any major European league, Klopp has taken just under three months to comprehend the incessant nature of the Premier League.
Whilst he may be exuberant on the field, the German’s serenity off it means his latest observation must be taken with a sense of credibility. The pace, power and physicality of the Premier League has developed on an unprecedented level since 1996, yet that is not to suggest that the other European leagues have stagnated. Nevertheless, to suggest that the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, La Liga or Serie A provides stiff competition to the Premier League on these aforementioned aspects would provoke guffaws from pundits, managers and supporters alike.
The increased physicality and the cluster of fixtures at this time of year is a partnership that sparks the tradition versus reality debate. Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger stated in October that he “would cry” should the Boxing Day fixtures be abolished, and whilst such histrionic statements do not befit such a distinguished figure in the game, his love for the traditions of English football are patently evident.
However, in reality, the impact the festive fixtures have on the players brings to mind the struggles of one of Wenger’s former players, Marouane Chamakh. The 31-year-old Moroccan, who joined Arsenal from FC Girondins de Bordeaux in the summer of 2010 on a free transfer, stated that he was breathless after just 20 minutes on his Premier League debut against Liverpool at Anfield. If this is the level of competitiveness in each league game, how are our national stars expected to avoid running themselves into the ground during this period where matches are played every two or three days?
Such selfishness is apparent in football organisations, with the Premier League reluctant to reduce the number of teams competing in the league whilst their counterparts at the Football Association are disinclined to scrap the Capital One or FA Cup.
Whilst not wanting to permeate this article with anti-Conservative propaganda, such a situation is comparable to David Cameron’s government, who want the maximum output from GPs, yet simultaneously are willing to put in minimal input to achieve their goals for the NHS. Similarly, a footballing body that should have England’s wellbeing at major tournaments as a primary concern is the very organisation that is unwilling to dispose of two competitions which, although carry historical sentiments, are nowadays considered second-tier trophies.
To add to the exasperation of the fans, foreign eyes encounter few problems locating the discernible problems as a consequence of the lack of a winter break. Michel Platini, who was recently banished from football for eight years, stated that English players are “lions in the winter and lambs in the summer”. Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain captain Thiago Silva has described the Christmas and New Year fixtures as “a great effort” which would hinder their Champions League knockout stage opponents Chelsea in “the crucial moments of the season”.
Whether these are premature mind games from the 31-year-old Brazilian or not remains to be seen. Nevertheless, besides Chelsea’s European triumph in 2012 and their semi-finals appearance in the 2014 version, English clubs have largely failed in Europe’s greatest club competition. According to Silva, this is because “they are more tired because they didn’t have a winter break”.
Spain are superior tactically, with Pep Guardiola the symbol of their strength. Italy’s voracious rearguard and the Germans’ mental strength have been ever-present qualities in their sides over the years. Yet it is more difficult to pinpoint England’s, simply because national team players’ fatigue levels heavily outweigh their ability to execute plans efficiently after a laborious season. Sadly, changes to the fixture schedule in England seem as far away as the national team’s next success at a major tournament.
Photograph: Jason Cartwright via Flickr