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Real Madrid’s injury crisis proves the football calendar is broken

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Real Madrid have suffered thanks to a broken calendar and their injury crisis is one reason why change is desperately needed

Real Madrid CF v Sevilla FC - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Did you know that if you search Parte Medico on Google, two Real Madrid players pop up on the image results? It’s the perfect demonstration of how Real Madrid’s season, from a fitness perspective, has gone so far. Toni Kroos was the latest Parte Medico this week after he picked up an injury during the 4-2 win over Granada. He is the 17th separate injury of the season and the 14th different player to pick up a knock after just 10 competitive games.

Despite nine players having so far recovered from their ailments, the injury crisis doesn’t seem to be letting up and everyone has a theory why. Question marks over training methods has undoubtedly been the most popular after a clip of several first team players using a bench press wrong went viral on Twitter.

The departure of Antonio Pintus has also been cited as a factor while Real Madrid partnership with the health specialist Sanitas has been controversial since the dawn of time.

It would be arrogant of me to just write off these other potential factors as causes of the crisis, however, I have long suspected that fatigue had a part to play in Real Madrid’s injury troubles and, as it transpires, it appears to be a problem for almost every football club in Europe.

Fatigue, according to the dictionary, describes the overall feeling of tiredness. In a footballing sense, it’s a term connected to the physical and physiological effects of an ever more demanding footballing calendar.

In light of years of recent research, fatigue amongst top level footballers has become a serious concern. A recent report by FIFA called At The Limit found that top level professional footballers are playing up to 80 games per year and around 60 per season. For some context, Dave Tenney, a leading sports sciencst working for the Seattle Sounders told the New York Times in an interview that a footballer in his prime-between the ages of 23 and 29- could stand a threshold of 50 games a season.

As well being overplayed, footballers are also not being given ample time to rest. The average footballer needs at lest 72 hours of rest to properly recover, most don’t get that sort of time off.

As well as games, there are off-the-pitch exercises which can cause fatigue, such as flying. Most footballers (especially non-Europeans) rack up a huge amount of air miles without observing the rule of a day’s rest for every time zone passed through.

Despite a significant body of research on fatigue around professional footballers, the exact effects are unknown. Often it depends on the individual and how overworked they have been. It is agreed that the effects of fatigue can impact almost every aspect of a player’s performance. It can burn them out mentally and make them more susceptible to injury and thanks to the historic three peat, Real Madrid are increasingly becoming the poster boys of those consequences.

Over the last four years, Real Madrid have played at least 50 games every campaign and have broken the 60 game a season threshold twice. Seven of Real Madrid’s first team squad started over half of the 231 games Real Madrid have played in that four year time span and eight have played over half of the 20,850 minutes the team has played.

Real Madrid squad start and minutes breakdown 2015-2019

Should one take the aforementioned Tenney quote and FIFA’s recommendations then Real Madrid are already guilty of overplaying their players. However, in the context of the rest of Europe, Real Madrid games and minutes are probably about the norm. Barcelona have played about the same number of games as Real Madrid have over the last four seasons, however, a key difference between Real Madrid and the rest of Europe is that most Real Madrid’s calendar congestion has been related to the Champions League.

A study looking into football and fatigue discovered that “in the company of other top players, you are forced to cover more distance, sprint more, run faster. The overall level of the match demands that you perform at a higher physiological level, and “drags” you up to that level.”

The study names drop the Champions League and the World Cup as among the pinnacle of soccer competition and its not a stretch to believe that playing in Europe demands a different type of exertion than playing in the Copa del Rey. Even if one is sceptical of the findings of the aforementioned study, Real Madrid’s situation is unique due to Europe. Where many of Barcelona’s “extra” games were based in Spain, Real Madrid’s calendar has demanded them to travel to the Middle East twice and to Japan for the Club World Cup alone.

Much of this travel will have been done without the recommended recovery time. This season alone, Raphael Varane played 58% of his games (36) with less than five days rest and had just 32 days rest over both the winter and summer breaks combined. Considering how Real Madrid’s season went last year, one can only imagine the scarce amount of rest Varane and his teammates got during the three peat era.

Then there is international duty...

As well as the 161 starts he made for Real Madrid over the last four years, Sergio Ramos also played 37 games with his national team. Presuming a best case scenario where all 37 of those matches lasted for 90 minutes, that would mean Ramos has played 3,330 minutes ( a season worth of football) with Spain betweeen September 2015 and August 2019.

Things don’t improve amongst the rest of the squad. As well as making the most starts and minutes of anyone with Real Madrid since 2015, Toni Kroos also started 21 games with Germany, an extra 1700 minutes on top of an already extreme workload.

In some ways, Real Madrid have been lucky with these injuries because, when you crunch the numbers, most of the senior members of this squad should be out on their feet. We can thank the fact that most of the squad is European (and Spanish for that matter) and hence didn’t have far to travel far for international duty in comparison to South American players. We can also be thankful that good squad building allowed the three peat generation to face this calendar in their primes otherwise things could have turned out very differently.

Nonetheless, Real Madrid aren’t out of the woods yet. Having been knocked of the Champions League early last season, Los Blancos go from the very extreme of playing demands to the extortionate amount the rest of Europe is being subjected to. They also facing this calendar with alot of minutes already on their legs since 2015 and largely passed their primes.

Continuing to push these players has already had consequences on the pitch. Thanks to a demanding 2018/19 and a marathon World Cup, Luka Modric played 5,000 minutes at the age of 33 last year. The Croatian was already Real Madrid’s second most played player between 2015-2019 and instead of being managed carefully to get the best of his last years, he’s was pushed beyond the limit and likely won’t be the same this season because of it.

There are also concerns for the welfare of these and other players across Europe once they retire as well. Former players with no where near the sort of minutes some of today’s elite players have clocked often complained of aches and pain, which is concerning.

I have only dipped my toe into this area, undoubtedly there are more authoritative voices out there. However, from my brief reading, there is cause for concern with how much the modern game is pushing it’s players physically and there doesn’t seem to be any certainty on what sort of impact such demands could have on players in the future.

Fatigue has probably played a big role in Real Madrid’s injury crisis and it might just be the tip of the iceberg unless some big changes happen soon.