COS contributor Martin Skellern takes a closer look at the evidence behind the ‘burn out’ theory used to explain England’s South African demise.
This might make me the biggest nerd in football fandom – though I suspect I have fairly strong competition – but this morning I sat down with a list of all England’s fixtures and results since January 1st 2000, with the sole purpose of establishing whether there is any convincing evidence that England players get tired as the premier league season draws to a close.
I’ve heard it said for years that England’s top flight is the most grueling in the world, but I’ve never really known whether there’s much truth to the claim. I’ve certainly never been clear whether, if true, this impacts much on the national team.
But after England’s abject failure in South Africa I found myself trawling the internet, listening to endless hours of post-mortem on the radio and even hoping ITV’s Adrian Chiles might help me fathom why England had been so miserably, terribly, depressingly awful.
Fabio Capello’s assertion that his players were tired is, apparently, a ‘tired excuse,’ at least according to most football pundits and newspaper columnists. And I too was happy to deride Capello’s explanation, particularly as certain decisions he made leading up to, and during, the World Cup, like personnel, formations and substitutions had driven me mad. But then I heard David Davies, a former Executive Director of the Football Association, tell a story on the radio.
He recounted that when former England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, was traveling home after his team’s quarter final exit in the 2002 World Cup, he revealed to Davies that when the squad first got together in preparation for the tournament, he was shocked by their initial round of fitness tests, which revealed that only one member of the squad was properly fit to play at their peak in the tournament. That player was Owen Hargreaves.
When I heard this story I wondered whether it was just a coincidence that Hargreaves was also the only member of the squad who didn’t play in England’s premier league. Back in 2002 Hargreaves plied his trade for Bayern Munich in the German Bundesliga and we all know how successful the Germans have been in World Cups.
Eriksson was still in charge of England at the 2006 World Cup. Going into that tournament he believed he had the players to win it. Afterwards he admitted he had expected to win, but once again, when the fitness of the players was assessed on the eve of the competition the same results were found. Only one player was showing the kind of fitness required and once again the player was Owen Hargreaves, who was still playing in Germany.
After another disappointing quarter final exit, the England fans voted overwhelmingly that their player of the 2006 World Cup was Owen Hargreaves. It seemed to the fans, for both those who’d traveled to Germany and for those watching from their sofas back home, that Hargreaves was just about the only England player to play with any real heart, passion and determination – all the assets most commonly associated with English football. To us fans it appeared as though Hargreaves was the only one who cared. But was he really the only player who cared? Or was he the only player with the necessary reserves of energy to give everything for the cause? Had the other members of the team already given too much in the previous weeks and months on the playing fields of the Premier League? I began to wonder.
I hunted around online for any information that might shed some light on the subject. There was plenty of strong opinion, often from the mainstream media’s best known football pundits and writers, but none of it seemed based on any in-depth research into the subject, or if there was, it certainly wasn’t referenced. Clearly, if I wanted statistical analysis, I’d have to be the one to do the dirty work.
So I got myself a list of all England’s results since January 1st 2000 and started analyzing the data. Since the beginning of the 21st century the England senior side has played a total of 125 matches. Of these they won 73, drew 27 and lost 25. Put another way, England won about 59% and drew about 21%. Not bad, but does England’s performance level drop off towards the end of the season? Is there statistical evidence to show that the England team might play better in summer tournaments if, like the Germans, they too had a winter break?
I decided that because a winter break would divide the season into two halves I would divide all the fixtures into two halves, using the international free month of January as my divider, as it is likely that a winter break, if instituted in the premier league, would come in January. This seemed to be an easy way of checking whether, as the premier league season draws to a close, there is any clear statistical evidence for a downturn in England’s performances, while at the same time gathering evidence of whether a winter break might benefit the national team.
During all the months of September, October and December since January 1st 2000 England played 47 matches. They won 27, drew 10 and lost 10. This gives them a winning percentage of 58%. Almost identical to their overall percentage of 59%. That being the case you can probably guess that the statistics for their post January matches are almost identical. In matches during February, March, April, May, June and July, England won 60%, drew 21% and lost 19%. Almost identical statistics in both halves of each season, indicating there is absolutely no credence to the argument that England suffers in tournament football because of tiredness. So that answered that. England plays at a fairly consistent level all year round and tiredness doesn’t seem to be a relevant factor in the country’s failure at major tournaments. Obviously, the Germans are wasting their time having a winter break. With that settled, I went for lunch.
I was meeting a friend at a café. It wasn’t far. Only a ten minute walk, but I didn’t make it. Half way there I stopped in my tracks. Something wasn’t right about this. The Germans are never wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, they’ve been wrong about some stuff (see the history books for more info on this) but they’re never wrong about the most efficient way of doing things. They just don’t make mistakes about stuff like winter breaks, just winter invasions of Russia. Was I really going to back my half-baked analysis against nearly fifty years of German footballing prowess? I called the friend I was meant to be having lunch with and explained I would have to postpone. My country was calling.
Sitting down again with my list of all England’s fixtures and results since the start of the century I decided to look at things a little differently. I wondered how England had fared against the big football nations both before and after January. Might those stats reveal how a little extra fitness makes a big difference when matches are at their closest?
The big football nations of the last decade, I decided, were Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal. During the months of February, March, April, May, June and July, England’s win rate against these big teams was a miserable 16%. BUT when England played any of these teams during the months of September, October or November their chances of victory increased to 33%! That’s an astonishing 17% improvement. I wonder how 17% might have impacted on all those heart-breaking World Cup matches lost by the odd goal or after a penalty shoot out. Would 17% have tipped the balance in England’s favour?
Maybe, just maybe, if the premier league had a winter break and England didn’t arrive at tournaments knackered… well, I’m not saying England would win the World Cup, but the stats do seem to indicate that supporting them might be considerably less humiliating. And after what I saw in South Africa, I’d consider anything better than humiliation as a giant leap forward.
Of course there are lots of other factors that contributed to England’s poor performance in South Africa, but having spent some time looking at the data I am convinced that Capello, and Eriksson before him, are right to consider tiredness, at the very least, as relevant.
I’ve read many football writers in the mainstream media who were very quick to scoff at Capello’s suggestion that his players were tired, while at the same time heaping praise on the Germans and marveling at their meticulous preparation for World Cups. Somehow they seem to miss that the winter break in the Bundesliga is part of that preparation. Given the success Germany seems to have at major tournaments it seems odd to think that they are wasting their time and money on having a winter break.