A-League summer football: Fixture congestion, climate and travel

AL Calendar

A-League’s congested period has seen several clubs playing with as little as three days between matches and some clubs being required to play three games in nine days. This has resulted in a spate of new injuries across the league, most noticeably the season ending injuries to key playmakers, Marcos Flores and Paul Ifill.

This issue of Christmas congestion is not just restricted to the A-League, with the English Premier League’s congested schedule once again receiving criticism, and the research is starting to pile up:

“Those (teams) with two days rest needed an average of three seconds more recovery after high intensity activities of 5.5 metres per second or faster. They made an average of 56.9 sprints a game, compared with 62.6 for those who had three days’ recovery. They also took longer to get up to full speed and sprinted nearly 10% less distance on average in the game.”

Omar Chaudhuri

With calls to have a minimum 3 day gap between games in Europe, the question that has gone unnoticed in the Australian football community is should FFA and PFA continue to adhere to the same standard? Or does Australia’s environmental conditions and travel fatigue require further investigation into minimum recovery times?

A-League’s Congestion

TeamFixture DatesFixture Local KO Time
Wellington Phoenix 14th December
19th December
22nd December
Home v Brisbane Roar
Away v CCM
Home v Sydney FC
5:30 pm
7:30 pm
7:00 pm
Western Sydney Wanderers28th December
1st January

11th January
14th January
19th January
Away v Victory
Home v Wellington

Home vs Sydney FC
Away vs Victory
Away vs Adelaide
7:45 pm
7:00 pm

7:45 pm
7:30pm
4:30pm
Perth Glory31st December
4th January
Away vs CCM
Away vs Newcastle
6:00pm
5:30pm
Central Coast Mariners14th December
19th December
23rd December
Away vs Adelaide
Home v Wellington
Away vs WSW (NSW)
5:00pm
7:30pm
7:00pm
Melbourne Victory10th January
14th January
18th January
Away vs Newcastle Jets
Home vs WSW
Away vs Wellington
7:30pm
7:30pm
7:30pm

 

It is hard to assess which players from these clubs have the highest risk of injury:

  • Wellington playing 3 games in 8 days, including a games less than 72 hours apart with an international flight
  • Western Sydney Wanderers with a 4 day gap, including an interstate game, and then only 10 days later required to play 3 games in 8 days (with two interstate games)
  • Perth playing 2 games in 5 days on the eastern seaboard
  • Melbourne Victory playing 3 games in 8 days, with an interstate and international away trips

Football Congestion

“Total injury rates and muscle injury rates were increased in matches with short recovery compared with matches with long recovery.”

Bengtsson et al. (2013)

In the past few years the issue of football congestion has become a common discussion in England. In the past 12 months there have been studies published that indicate that the congestion of fixtures does in fact increase the risk of injury.

Swedish research trio Hakan Bengtsson, Jan Ekstrand (UEFA Medical Committee vice-chairman) & Martin Hagglund (2013) examined 27 UEFA Champions League teams over 11 seasons, and found that there was a significant increase in total injury rates, and muscle injury rates, in matches with short recovery (four or less days), compared to those with long recovery (six or more days).

It has taken more than a decade of research but Ekstrand and Bengtsson appear to have enough evidence to support a 2004 published theory that “a period of match congestion can lead to player fatigue, which may result in injury”.

These results however have not been enough to convince everyone that there is conclusive evidence against fixture congestion. Vincent Gouttebarge, medical consultant to FIFPro, recently stated on twitter that there is “conflicting scientific evidence about influence of many successive matches on performance and injury rate”. Yet the published scientific evidence does not seem to be as conflicting as Gouttebarge indicates.

Several studies (Djaoui et al., 2013; Dellal et al., 2013 and Lago-Penas, 2009) have shown that a congested fixture list does not effect a players physical performance. However, Odetoyinbo et al. (2008) study suggests that whilst the total distance covered by players in a congested period were quite similar, there were reduced numbers of high-intensity actions indicating residual fatigue.

Mean Values

Source: Odetoyinbo et al. (2008)

 

These results are unsurprising when you acknowledge the recent findings of Nedelec et al. (2013) study on French club Lille OSC, which found that significant neuromuscular fatigue can remain evident for up to 72 hours after a football match.

The detrimental effect of this fatigue is further examined in Dupont et al. (2010) study. Their findings acknowledge that 72 to 96 hours between fixtures appear to be sufficient to maintain physical performance, but not long enough to maintain a low injury rate. Dellal et al., (2013) further substantiates these claims by finding that injury rates during training and match-play increased in periods of congested fixtures.

The only scientific evidence that appear to conflict with these results are Carling et al. (2010) and Carling et al. (2012). However, their research was restricted to one club, and both studies acknowledge that:

“The club’s player rotation policies and/or recovery strategies may be a reasonable explanation for this result.”

The result of these studies leads to questions about A-League’s scheduling as it is clearly not in the best interest of player welfare. A primary example of this is Wellington required to play at home less than 72 hours after playing away against the Mariners. It is also important to note that all of these studies were completed in Europe, where clubs face their congested periods in winter, and are rarely required to take lengthy flights across multiple time zones.

Travel Fatigue

“There was a strong positive association between HA (home advantage) and the number of time zones crossed by away teams (in the A-League).”

Goumas (2013)

Whilst Wellington Phoenix’s away trip to Perth Glory is often incorrectly attributed as the longest trip in world football, there is no doubt that the travel times in the A-League are far greater than the leading leagues across Europe. For that reason, travel fatigue must be a factor considered when assessing the minimum number of days between fixtures required for recovery.

It is well known that travel fatigue and jet lag can have an adverse effect on athletic performance as the circadian rhythm (‘body clock’) can be altered causing issues with sleep, concentration, fatigue, loss of appetite and gastrointestinal disturbance (Manfredini et al., 1998).

Arguably the greatest concern for athletes is the issues that can be caused with disrupted sleeping patterns. There has been significant research into the link between sleep factors, cognitive processes and metabolic function, to suggest that there is a relationship between sleep and recovery in elite athletes (Samuels, 2008).

The link between travel fatigue and sleep problems has been observed in Australia after Richmond et al.’s (2004) study on the interstate sleep patterns of players from West Coast Eagles AFL team. Their results showed that the athletes sleep was most impaired on the same night that the team had travelled, supporting the theories of travel fatigue.

The existence of travel fatigue and jet lag has a proven effect on A-League sides. As Goumas’ (2013) study into home advantage in Australian football found that home advantage (the percentage of competition points gained at home and percentage of goals scored at home) increased by a relative 20% per each time zone crossed by the away side.

Furthermore, travel fatigue in Australia is not limited to crossing time zones, as there are even results that show that regular short haul air travel in Australia results in elite athletes showing symptoms of travel fatigue (McGuckin et al., 2012).

It is hard to understand what justification there could have been to schedule Perth with two away games in five days on the eastern seaboard. Flying back to Perth, to only fly back a few days later, would have made the players more susceptible to travel fatigue and have had a large effect on their recovery schedule. It is no surprise then that Perth elected to stay in NSW. How the players coped with being away from families for a week during the New Year, and if the club or FFA covered the cost of their stay, is another question entirely.

Australia’s Climate

“Ankle sprains and ACL injuries are generally more likely in teams playing in warmer climate zones.”

Orchard et al. (2013)

Round 6 match between Perth Glory and Adelaide United created headlines across the country after the 2:30 pm game kicked off in 32 degree heat. FFA was firm in their response, rejecting claims that player welfare was not given the utmost consideration. However, the issue of A-League players being subjected to the heat of Australia’s summer, and being subjected to these conditions in a congested fixture period, require further investigation.

The evidence is clear; football players who are subjected to heat have a lower overall running performance, and have a large drop in performance towards the end of a match (Mohr et al, 2010).

Fatigue towards the end of a game may be related to depletion of muscle glycogen, probably the most important substrate for energy production in football players (Bangsbo et al., 2006). Jentjens et al.’s (2002) study on heat stress supports this theory as they found that the utilization of muscle glycogen is increased during exercise in the heat.

The fatigue caused by these conditions may also increase the risk of non-contact ACL injuries, an injury in which dry weather and surface are a potential risk factor (Alentorn-Geli et al., 2009). A recent study completed by Orchard et al (2013) has supported this theory after they found that AFL teams in Australia, and football teams in Europe, playing in a warmer climate are more likely to suffer ankle sprains and ACL injuries.

It is reasonable to hypothesize that as high traction shoe-surfaces are deemed by Orchard et al as the most probable reason for the increase in injuries, the A-League, a summer sport played in significantly warmer temperatures than the AFL and European Football seasons, may be at an even greater risk.

This hypothesis is supported when analyzing Ekstrand et al’s (2009) study on injury incidence in European football. Unlike Australia, the most common injury in European football found in their study was a thigh strain, with knee injuries only accounting for 18% of all injuries.

For fans of Australian football this figure may seem quite low and this is not surprising as 10 of the 25 players (40%) unavailable through injury for this weekends A-League fixtures have knee injuries.

Whilst the conditions in Perth in Round 6 may not have risen above the point in which a game may be postponed under FFA’s heat policy, the results of the above studies indicate that by allowing players to compete in these conditions may be putting them at risk of suffering serious knee injuries.

The Role of PFA

The PFA has a significant role in the issue of football congestion as it is their responsibility to fight for the rights of the players and their welfare. The PFA’s researches the injuries that occur each year, releasing their findings in an annual A-League Injury Report, in which they “detail and analyse the injuries experienced by professional football in the A-League”.

The report compares injuries with previous seasons based on the total amount of games that injured players have missed. There are some obvious flaws with this approach.

Hypothetically, in the table below, we can see that this data may not accurately reflect the injuries experienced at A-League clubs. If two players on the same team suffered season ending injuries, as a result of an opponent’s tackle, their team’s accumulated missed games could provide the same total as a club who consistently had different players suffering soft tissue injuries.

Team AMissed GamesTeam BMissed Games
2 Players 40 missed games 10 players 40 missed games
Player 1 (ACL)
Player 2 (Broken Leg)
20
20
Player 1 (Groin)
Player 2 (Groin)
Player 3 (Groin)
Player 4 (Groin)
Player 5 (Hamstring)
Player 6 (Hamstring)
Player 7 (Hamstring)
Player 8 (Hamstring)
Player 9 (Hamstring)
Player 10 (Hamstring)
1
2
2
6
3
3
3
5
5
10

 

The report does include the number of players injured and the total number of injures for each club and this information supports the above argument that missed games are not an accurate reflection of A-League team’s injuries.

The PFA’s own data indicates that Melbourne Heart (ranked 9th) had one less player injured and the same amount of total injuries as Adelaide United (ranked 6th). The large discrepancy in total missed games can be explained by Mate Dugandzic’s broken foot injury suffered in Round 7. If Dugandzic had not suffered the broken foot injury, Heart would have been ranked 5th overall; arguably one player’s injury should not make such a significant difference to the data.

The same discrepancies can be seen with the PFA’s top ranked side, Western Sydney Wanderers, who had 3 more injured players and the same amount of injuries as 3rd ranked Central Coast Mariners.

The report is further flawed by the reliance on accurate data to be submitted in media releases and FFA’s weekly A-League match previews. In recent weeks Marc Warren, Matt Thompson and Joel Chianese have not been selected for Sydney FC’s A-League or NYL sides. Reports on social media have indicated that they have been injured, but there has been no official reporting of the injuries.

Admittedly, the PFA acknowledges that:

“The accuracy of the PFA Injury Report’s results and analysis is dependent upon the accuracy of the sources of information from which it is derived. Accordingly, the PFA does not warrant that the results are an exact and complete record of player injuries. They are, however, an accurate summation of the publicly available information provided by FFA and club sources. “

Ultimately the PFA’s report provides some important data, but as they are not “an exact and complete record of player injuries” it is not possible to reflect on whether issues such as congested fixtures, travel fatigue or teams playing in warmer climates result in the same increases in injury rates seen in Europe.

It would be in the best interest of the FFA, PFA and A-League clubs to provide a more transparent and open account of player injuries so that thorough and accurate analysis could be completed on injury rates in the A-League.

Future Considerations

The question that now remains is where the responsibility lies in ensuring that player welfare is the most important consideration when debating fixture congestion in Australia. Should FFA take greater care in its scheduling to ensure that players have an appropriate time to recover between games? Or does the onus fall onto A-League clubs to ensure that squads are rotated during congested periods and recovery procedures prioritized?

There are growing calls in England and Europe to remove congested fixture lists, and when you consider the greater toll that the Australian climate and travel conditions puts onto A-League players, it is hard to justify a congested fixture list in the Australian summer.

Doug Kors

Doug is currently studying a degree in Sports Coaching and Administration. He is also completing an internship as a performance analyst and holds accreditation in Football Coaching, Strength and Conditioning and as a Sportscode user.

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