Controlling the controllables during the World Cup

Here are some of the key considerations that domestic clubs should be strategically considering for players remaining at home during the World Cup

With the first ever winter World Cup kicking off yesterday, the commentary for this tournament’s unprecedented positioning in the global football calendar has caused plenty of provocative headlines, particularly surrounding its impact on player injuries. 

Is this scaremongering or is there evidence to corroborate the vociferous media headlines implying that injury Armageddon is around the corner?

In search of definitive answers, Zone7’s research department interrogated the available football database for relevant insights that could perhaps alleviate some of the anxiety that this mid-season (for many) international tournament is causing “the beautiful game’s” stakeholders. Details of this investigation’s findings can be found on the Zone7 Performance Hub

For the few players competing in mid-season international tournaments such as Copa America, the Gold Cup, and Afcon, our research found that 14% of players get injured in the first seven days of returning to their parent club. If this was taken literally in the context of this World Cup, where 32 teams have a minimum quota of 23 players in their squads, that would equate to 103 players getting injured on their return to their parent clubs. That statistic is something that implores those managing the reintegration of these players to do so in a very considered and careful manner. 

However, this particular mid-season competition is unchartered territory due to the domestic competition disruption. With training and playing rhythm significantly altered, the affect on the players that remain at home (which is ultimately the majority of professional footballers) will be critical. How these players are managed will potentially be what makes or breaks domestic clubs’ seasons post World Cup.

The few players competing in the World Cup are fundamentally out of their parent club’s control, however, the management of remaining players across this time period is certainly something clubs can control and should think about carefully for optimal outcomes when competition resumes. 

Below are some of the key considerations that domestic clubs should be strategically considering. Generally speaking, the greater the deviation taken from the normal cadence of a team’s standard operations, the greater the risk of adverse outcomes. This includes;

When and how long do players and staff have time off?

  • While mental health is highly important and the World Cup break offers a great opportunity to provide non-international players with some mental decompression time away from the football club, the detraining effects of this period should also be considered. 
  • Additionally, upon return from any time off, careful consideration is required on how reintegration to normal training levels can be facilitated to meet the training needs for performance whist in parallel mitigating injury risk. (See this study comparing injuries between the 5 weeks prior to and following the first league game of the season for more context on this). 

What does the training periodisation and friendly game schedule look like during this period?

  • Players returning from time off will need to gain a training rhythm through gradual loading over several weeks in preparation for the restart of competitive fixtures.
  • Alongside gradual loading to normal training rhythm, being aware of how closely any friendlies mirror the cadence of matches in normal domestic league action which if scheduled appropriately, in theory should further ensure a reduction of injury risk.

When and where do friendlies take place? And do overseas travel demands need to be factored into their player management processes?

  • There will be a benefit in accounting for the physiological demands of travel – both in terms of the time spent travelling as well as adaptation and acclimatisation to other time zones and how this affects player’s circadian rhythms. 
  • Additionally, implementing elements of heat and / or altitude during any training camps could allow for necessary cardiovascular loads whilst reducing the locomotive and mechanical demands on players, which could further mitigate the risk of injury amongst the squad.

These considerations identified are not meant to be an exhaustive list but representative of the complex situation that needs to be strategically managed as effectively as possible. If as many of these risks are understood and planned for, the better the outcomes will be when domestic football resumes.

It’s worth noting that as this mid-season disruption is a first-of-its-kind scenario, therefore a ‘Best Practice’ framework for clubs to reference and work from does not yet exist. However, through applying ‘Good Practice’ principles, clubs can be confident that they are optimising performance potential post World Cup whilst mitigating the risk of adverse outcomes such as avoidable player injuries.

Is this a fool proof strategy? No, but being fully empowered to the risks and working strategically to mitigate them is surely better than leaving post World Cup success down to lady luck.