London: No wonder international breaks are the scorn of club managers. During the latest period away from the domestic game, players in the English Premier League travelled 581,938 miles (936,538km) to represent their countries in friendlies and World Cup play-off matches across the globe.
Luis Suarez amassed 16,859 miles to play in Uruguay’s qualifier against Jordan in Montevideo on Wednesday and was expected to feature for Liverpool in Saturday’s Merseyside derby. However, not all are afforded the luxury of returning in the private jet of the club owner.
Everton’s Bryan Oviedo travelled 21,200 miles to represent Costa Rica in Sydney, while Kagisho Dikgacoi of Crystal Palace made the 11,268-mile round trip for South Africa’s game with Spain in Johannesburg. Dikgacoi did not even get on the pitch.
It is a time when the tumbleweed can drift through training grounds up and down the country, when managers are frustrated that they are not in daily contact with their players against a constant backdrop of injury worry. Woe betide any national team who send a player back with a fresh problem.
The Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, said on Friday: “I don’t like this period. I was 11 days with four players, I don’t know how they [players on international duty] trained, I don’t know how they rested between the fixtures. I don’t know what they did in between the first and second matches. I know nothing. I couldn’t work.”
Mourinho’s sentiment is shared by the majority of Premier League managers, yet it can be difficult to quantify the precise effect such breaks have over a player’s performance. It is more of a problem for certain clubs than others: members of Manchester City’s squad travelled 83,136 miles during the recent internationals, compared with Swansea City’s 2,724. Chelsea’s players spent 1,560 minutes on the pitch for their individual national sides compared with West Ham’s squad playing 116 minutes.
One could argue that the teams challenging at the summit of the Premier League have sufficient depth in their squads to deal with such pressures, but certain clubs appear to perform better after regrouping than others. Opta statistics show that since the 2012 European Championship, Fulham have responded the best after international breaks, accruing an average 2.22 points in the matches immediately following a break, compared with an average of 1.08 points in all matches since the tournament.
Steve Tashjian, a senior sports scientist at Everton, prepared their returning players for Saturday’s match against Liverpool. He said: “When you force players to travel such distances and add things on to Premier League players’ schedules, it is going to have an effect. I’ve noticed weeks where it has a profound, negative effect, and I’ve seen weeks where it doesn’t have any effect at all. It depends on the player, how far they’ve travelled and how fatigued they were before they left.
“We’ve also seen players come back with more confidence and it has benefited us with a few younger lads getting more playing time. We give them strategies on how to change their sleep and eating schedule, to get through the jet lag as quickly as possible. They have things to do on the plane to get increased circulation in the legs, more blood flowing, and other techniques to prevent soreness and stiffness. There are loads of things we give them nutritionally.
“We got lucky this particular break. The few that did travel far are seasoned pros who have done this for a long time.”
In America’s MLS, teams have to travel across the country and switch from different time-zones in their domestic division. It is called the jet-lag effect in the States, and something that the football analyst Chris Anderson says has led to research.
“In the MLS, NFL and NBA there is research into how Pacific coast teams playing east coast teams away from home, how that makes a difference in their performance. It is difficult to determine but some believe there is a real effect,” says Anderson.
There is also the psychological aspect of travelling. Tom Bates, a performance analyst at West Bromwich Albion, admits the long distances can take their toll on players, but that Premier League clubs have the staff and facilities to cope with such issues.
“The clubs go to great lengths, not just here at West Brom, to make sure the comfort of the players is as good as possible,” he said. “From a mental viewpoint, it’s about how they view the travelling. We encourage all sorts of stuff like Facetime, so they can stay in touch with their families.
“Everyone is different. Some players need more time to relax than others. We try to put a positive spin on these trips, we ask the players: what is the thing that you are really going to enjoy about this? Rather than, ‘here we go again, the plane is going to be delayed’ and things like that. There are times when players are tired, even in youth internationals and the under-16s. But that’s where the understanding of the individual comes into play.”
Certain players respond to travel better and recover quicker than others. The Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, said of Suarez this week: “We have seen it before when he’s had a long trip and then been brilliant on the Saturday.”