It is difficult at this time of year as places are won in European competitions not to get distracted by the prestige of it all. Newcastle United, set for their first continental football for six years, must certainly be excited. But there is a note of caution this week: for all the glamour and class of midweek games, playing repeatedly without sufficient rest can seriously damage a team's health.
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That in itself might not be news, but a new and comprehensive study by Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen has shown just how profound the damage is. The study, published online this morning, looks at over 27,000 games and over 71,000 goals dating from the 2001-02 season, in the English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian divisions.
The main finding is incontrovertible: playing after just two days' rest drastically reduces your chances of success. A team with just two days' rest against one with three or more days is 39 per cent less likely to win at home and 42 per cent less likely away.
It is when playing away while tired that teams suffer most. In ties between two teams with two days' rest, the percentage of away wins drops from 26.8 per cent – its usual figure – to 19.8 per cent, while the visitors' average goals in the last 30 minutes drop by 48.9 per cent.
"Normally it takes 48 hours to recover from a game," Verheijen explained to The Independent. "So on the first and second days after a game you either have a light recovery session or a free day. And then after 48 hours the body has fully recovered. But if you play, for example, on Saturday and Tuesday, then you will train on Monday to prepare. So while the body is recovering on the second day after a game, it has to work again to prepare, so the body gets even more fatigued."
Naturally, this impact is felt the strongest in European football. Teams playing in the Champions League and Europa League both have their domestic league performances hit by the extra work. Playing on Saturday after a Wednesday night Champions League game knocks off an average 0.55 points per game, while the Europa League equivalent of Sunday after Thursday costs 0.41 points each time.
Verheijen, who has worked at Chelsea, Manchester City and Wales, and was yesterday announced as the new assistant manager of Armenia, pointed to the performances of English teams in this season's Champions League. City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United played 24 group games last autumn, winning 13, with 11 losses or draws. Of those 11, all but one were after two days' rest. "It doesn't have to do with playing in Europe in general," Verheijen said, "it has to do with two days' rest because of European football. As long as you have three days' rest, you can play European football every week."
This has been a complaint of the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, before but for Verheijen the solution is clear. "The people who are responsible for solving this are Fifa and Uefa," he said. "They should implement an international rule that every team will always get a minimum of three days' rest between games."
Until, then, though, individual associations will have to take the lead to protect their clubs. "Portugal is the only league without this negative effect in Europe," Verheijen said. "When Benfica play on a Tuesday, they can play their league game on the Friday before. And if Sporting play Europa League on a Thursday, they are allowed to play in the league the next Monday. This is fighting a symptom, but in Portugal they felt two days rest was not enough.
"For the sake of English football it would be great if the English FA would change this, because you have a 100 per cent guarantee that English teams will do better in the Champions League next year."
The Premier League are unlikely to do so. They say the integrity of their competition is important, and there is not much sympathy for clubs benefiting from Champions League windfalls worrying about the schedule, as the vagaries of the fixture calendar can break either way. But managers next season might now have some more ammunition for their complaints.
Raymond Verheijen is co-founder of the 'World Football Academy'. To see a full summary of the study's findings please visit worldfootballacademy.com