England’s overworked footballers give Spain advantage in Euros final

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Professional football has always been a physically demanding job, but as competition organisers push to “supersize” tournaments and add new ones many elite level players say they are close to breaking point.

For the England and Spain teams heading into the Euro 2024 final, the impact of these demands could be crucial, as players who have just finished intense club seasons risk burnout while playing for their countries.

During the group stages, England manager Gareth Southgate said members of his team could not play at the desired intensity because of their “physical condition”. Last month players launched legal action against Fifa, the sport’s governing body, over its plan to expand the Club World Cup, saying the calendar was becoming “overloaded and unworkable”.

As Sunday’s final in Berlin approaches, data on workload suggests that Spain should have a slight but crucial fitness edge on England.

A long season of domestic football

The figures on how many minutes each team has clocked up during the club season vary greatly between different countries. Members of the squad for host nation Germany played the most minutes for their club sides this season, with an average of 3,289 per player, which roughly equates to 37 matches. 

That German figure was boosted by Borussia Dortmund reaching the final of the Champions League, and domestic title winners Bayer Leverkusen’s participation in both the German cup final and the Europa League final. Real Madrid’s Champions League winning side also included two German internationals, Toni Kroos and Antonio Rudiger.

England were just behind in second, with fellow finalists Spain down in fifth place. The English figure has been slightly skewed by the inclusion of a handful of players who have not featured heavily during the domestic season, through injury, suspension or being out of favour.

Increasing demands on top players

The number of footballers heading to Euro 2020 who had played more than 4,050 minutes in the domestic season was 31. This year the figure has jumped to 45, as a broader array of club competitions makes further demands of those playing for successful teams.

Of the 10 players who had played the most minutes this season before kick-off in Germany, three are in the England squad but just one in the Spanish side. Three of the top 10 play for Aston Villa — the Premier League side that reached the semi-finals of the Europa Conference League, which only launched in 2021.

Although not in the top 10, the 16,033 minutes played by England’s star midfielder Jude Bellingham before his 21st birthday is the second highest figure in history for a European footballer.

After England’s last-gasp winner by Villa striker Ollie Watkins on Wednesday, Bellingham spoke of his relief at avoiding extra time. “I don’t know if I had another half an hour in me,” he said.

Southgate’s men are on the pitch for longer

The England manager has been criticised for his reluctance to make early substitutions that respond to tactical changes by opponents, although Watkins’ late addition in Wednesday’s semi-final proved a masterstroke. He has made just three substitutions before the 65th minute.

Spain’s head coach Luis de la Fuente has been more willing to take players off earlier in games, reducing the physical demands on the starting 11.

Spanish players benefit from more rest

The more rested Spanish squad may help explain one key difference between the two finalists. Spanish players have run an average of 108.6km per match during Euro 24, higher even than the competition average during the 2022 World Cup.

That tournament was hailed for its exciting matches, which some attributed to the lack of fatigue — due to Qatar’s scorching summers the event was held in the middle of the European football season.

By contrast, England have been running a lot less, backing up Southgate’s concerns about the squad’s fitness.

Spain are the tournament’s top scorers, with all 13 goals coming from open play. England have bagged seven, including one penalty by Harry Kane against the Netherlands.

Workload issues set to grow

As international bodies push to increase the number of matches they can sell to broadcasters, domestic competitions are being forced to scale back. FA Cup replays in England have been scrapped to help “maintain player welfare”, while France’s top division shrank from 20 teams to 18 last season after growing concerns about player welfare.

The next men’s World Cup will feature 48 teams instead of 32, taking the number of matches up from 64 to more than 100; the new version of the Fifa Club World Cup launching next year will go from seven teams to 32; and Uefa’s Champions League — the elite club level competition — is expanding from 32 teams to 36 from next season. 

Next season the warnings from players are only likely to get louder.

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