Premier League teams face World Cup hangover after abridged pre-season

Paul Wilson on 21 July 2018

Whether it is possible to have too much football is a question frequently asked during World Cup summers, and one which seems likely to raise its head again when the domestic league programme resumes next month.

Conventional barroom wisdom has it that these are all young lads in peak condition and a few extra games in what is normally the close season should not make a great deal of difference. Yet that glib assertion ignores the mental and physical intensity of elite-level tournament football and the readily observable fact that players who do not get a meaningful summer break tend to suffer the consequences further down the line.

At the very least, those players who went to the later stages of the World Cup will find their regular club pre-seasons have been disrupted, and José Mourinho has just become the first manager to moan about absentees.

We are at the point now where general fitness work at training grounds gives way to sharpening, when specific drills and individual programmes are introduced to bring performance up to as high a level as possible. Yet many World Cup participants are on holiday.

Player numbers

The accepted minimum is a three-week break, which is fine for players and nations who came home from Russia in June but a little tight for anyone whose involvement lasted until mid-July.

There is only a four-week gap between the end of the World Cup and the start of the Premier League season, and even that has been nibbled into by the decision to bring the kick-off in England forward to a Friday night.

Manchester United and Leicester City will be the first teams in action when the Premier League gets under way – two sides, as it happens, that were both well-represented in Russia.

United had 11 players in Russia, including Paul Pogba going all the way to the final, for a club total of 4,230 minutes of involvement on the pitch. Leicester had 10 players at the tournament, with Harry Maguire clocking up an enormous total of 700 minutes on the pitch in an overall club figure of 2,371 World Cup minutes.

Will any of that matter come the first Friday of the season at Old Trafford? Possibly not. The differences are not all that stark, though discrepancies might begin to emerge as the season progresses.

Minutes played

Bournemouth and Fulham, for example, had no players at the World Cup. Their squads had a summer of rest, while Cardiff, Crystal Palace, Burnley and Newcastle were minimally affected, with only one or two players making the trip.

Everton got off extremely lightly, more than half their 1,324 minutes of involvement being provided by England ever-present Jordan Pickford. That, incidentally, is the most World Cup minutes played by any Premier League performer this summer, by virtue of being picked for every game, making it to the final weekend and playing in a couple of extra-time finishes. His closest challenger was Dejan Lovren, who reached the final and played even more extra time, but was rested in the final group game against Iceland and therefore registered only 706 minutes.

Given a choice between watching a team of non-internationals who are well-prepared and a team of World Cup performers who might be a bit tired, most supporters would plump for the latter and they would probably be right.

Yet there will be a consequence in the first few weeks, perhaps even the first few months, of the new season. Even when still in Russia Harry Kane looked too tired to finish his World Cup campaign properly, and Spurs fans might already be fearing the worst for a player who already has a habit of starting league seasons slowly.

Kieran Trippier had a tremendous World Cup and returns home with his stock higher than ever, though quite apart from the extra attention he is bound to receive from opponents it would be asking a lot to expect him to maintain such a high level from the word go.

Players left

With a French goalkeeper and a core of Belgian and English players, Mauricio Pochettino may be concerned that his side will be affected more than most by the demands of playing in the World Cup, though in fact the total of minutes on the pitch by Spurs players in Russia (5,202) is comfortably topped by the 5,636 racked up by those from Manchester City.

The contributions of John Stones (697 mins), Kevin De Bruyne (578) and Kyle Walker (535) go some way to explaining that, though the real giveaway is the fact that City sent 16 players to the World Cup. That is easily the most of any English club in spite of Germany somehow managing to overlook Leroy Sané.

City were, in fact, the world’s best-represented club in Russia alongside Real Madrid. While that supremacy has not yet manifested itself on the playing field in the Champions League, one could hardly ask for a clearer indication of the scale of inequality within the Premier League.

Manchester City could not only have named a World Cup side with five substitutes, the possibility cannot be discounted that such an imaginary team might have come home with the trophy.

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