A meeting of the Netherlands and Spain would normally be something to savour, a glamour match-up between two of the great names of European football, but it and this week’s other international friendlies are a nuisance to coaches of Europe’s top clubs concerned about the physical toll a packed calendar is taking on players.
The game in Amsterdam is one of a host of matches on Wednesday before a double-header of UEFA Nations League fixtures as European national teams pack in three games in a week. Despite this being a shortened season because of the coronavirus pandemic, this is the third international break since September and the demands on elite players are becoming too much for many.
“We are going to kill the players,” complained Paris Saint-Germain coach Thomas Tuchel recently. “We have no time for recuperation, not enough time to prepare. Without preparation, everything is fragile. It is not an excuse, it’s the truth.”
As it happens, PSG were missing eight first-team regulars against Rennes last weekend, including Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, and lost three more to injury during the match.
At least in France, and in many European leagues, teams are permitted to make five substitutions during games instead of three.
That is not the case in the Premier League, but there are now growing calls for England to fall in line. By late October, the specialist website Premier Injuries had reported 78 muscle injuries over the first five rounds of matches in England, a 42 per cent increase on the same stage last season.
In Spain, Pedro Luis Ripoll, a doctor and founder of a specialist sports injury clinic, told newspaper ABC there had also been 78 muscle injuries in the first 50 days of the Spanish season.
– Players ‘are not machines’ –
“Footballers need to be looked after. They still have two legs, two lungs and two hands. They are not machines,” said Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui.
Injuries are an occupational hazard but it is the mounting number of muscle problems that are of greatest concern, and demands will only increase in the weeks ahead.
The Premier League will pack in nine rounds of matches between November 21 and January 2. Teams involved in Europe will have a further three games in that period, and there are also the League Cup quarter-finals.
“The teams with international (club) football are in the toughest period ever, because October is like the usual December, November is like a usual December, and December is still like a December! And January will not be much different,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.
Elsewhere, France will play seven rounds of games in under five weeks before the end of December, and Germany is effectively doing away with its cherished winter break.
– Friendlies shoe-horned in –
France coach Didier Deschamps has this week been extolling the virtues of reducing the number of clubs in Ligue 1 from 20 to 18, which would give clubs more breathing space. Meanwhile, he is preparing his team for three games in seven days, including Wednesday’s friendly against Finland.
The decision to go ahead with the Nations League has been criticised at a time of travel restrictions and with concerns international get-togethers could facilitate the spread of Covid-19. Yet extra friendlies are shoe-horned in after being postponed earlier this year during the first wave of the virus.
Playing them now theoretically allows federations to bring in much-needed revenue, yet France against Finland will be played at an empty Stade de France and it is tempting to ask what the point is.
In Amsterdam, Spain will be without Jesus Navas, who broke down with Sevilla at the weekend, and Barcelona’s Ansu Fati, set to miss four months with a knee injury. Their Dutch hosts are without their formidable centre-back pairing of Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt also because of injuries.
But the show goes on, even behind closed doors, and even as the players themselves struggle to keep up.