Shortly after 10:15pm, on Friday 19th December, the Bayern Munich players walked over to salute the travelling fans in the The Coface Arena, in Mainz. Having registered a 2-1 win, thanks to a 90th minute goal from Arjen Robben it was smiles, hugs and high-fives all round. No wonder. Not only had they just succeeded in extending their lead at the top to 14 points, but they were looking forward to the winter break. Consequently, there was an almost end-of-term feel, and it would have been no surprise to see Thomas Müller wandering around wearing his club tie around his head like Rambo.
With the league not kicking off again until the end of January, the players walked off the pitch in the knowledge that they could put their feet up for around two and a half weeks before reporting back for light training and friendlies in the Middle East in the New Year.
Hotly debated in England, the winter break is a fixture in much of mainland Europe. However, it was not always a part of the Bundesliga calendar. Before its inception in 1986/87 season, teams played on through the elements.
Compared to other countries, Germany’s six-week break is extremely long. In comparison, teams in Serie A and La Liga down tools for only 14 and 12 days respectively.
There were three main reasons for introducing the break in Germany. Primarily, the winter break allows professional athletes time to rest, recuperate and properly treat niggling injuries or have necessary minor operations.
Another reason is the weather. Having lived in Germany for several years, I can say with confidence that the winters here are generally harsher than in England. In fact, Germans often smirk into their morning coffee when they see reports of ‘winter chaos’ in London after 5cm of snow has fallen. Although undersoil heating is mandatory throughout the top leagues, simply getting to and from the stadium on match day is not always possible.
The third reason is that the Bundesliga has only 18 teams, compared to 20 in the top leagues in England, Spain, Italy and France. Add to this that there is only one cup competition in Germany – the DFB Pokal – and it is clear to see how the schedule allows for a break.
Still, not all are in favour of the break. German legend and rent-an-opinion, Franz Beckenbauer argued that as the Bundesliga has only 18 teams it does not need a rest. Plus, after such a long hiatus the league – in the Kaiser’s opinion – pretty much starts from scratch. In fact, the break is so long that the team at the top at Christmas is officially known as the Herbstmeister – the autumn champions. This is not an official accolade, but reflects the severed nature of the competition.
Whether or not a winter break is beneficial to the clubs and the respective national teams is not really up for discussion. Football is one of only a few competitive outdoor sports played almost all year round, and it takes a lot for a game to be called off. The sport is designed in such a way that it can be played in all but the most extreme conditions. Whereas a tennis match or a golf tournament may be called off due to gale force winds and torrential rain, football teams are forced to adapt their tactics accordingly.
Not only does the FA not entertain the idea of a winter break, but they choose this time to hit clubs with the most demanding schedule of the season. This fixture congestion – which typically involves four league games and a third-round FA Cup tie from the weekend of the 20th December to the first weekend in January – takes its toll on managers and players alike. You may argue that clubs like Bayern Munich have the squads to be able to rotate in such a period, as so the big clubs in England. After all, why register 25 players for the league if you intend to barely use a third of them? Nevertheless, by December clubs have picked up injuries and suspensions and many struggle to put together a fit and competitive match day squad of 18.
For the viewing public and owners, the Christmas period is a highlight. Fans get to see their teams almost every other day, depleted squads and heavy rotation leads to shock results, managers and players come and go. We also get to see pink and yellow balls being blown around on snow-covered pitches, and many clubs often get their highest attendances of the year. In short, as a spectacle it’s wonderful – but to what detriment?
The fixture congestion brings with it extreme physical demands. Clubs with smaller budgets and squads invariably suffer. For example, Burnley, among the lowest spenders in the Premier League this season, fielded an unchanged starting XI for most of the Christmas period. When questioned on this, their manager, Sean Dyche, spoke more of momentum than a threadbare squad. Despite his rationale, it is arguable that Dyche didn’t see many ways of rotating his team without compromising on quality. In terms of how successful this method was, back-to-back defeats against Spurs and Liverpool were followed by creditable away points at Man City and Newcastle. However, against Newcastle, three players limped off to due to injury in the first half, possibly a sign of physical over exertion. This poses the question as to whether the two points gained – although maybe unexpected – were worth the consequences.
And what about the implications for the national side? It is no consequence that England’s last two foreign managers, Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello were both advocates of the winter break. Having managed in Italy and Spain they had seen firsthand the benefits of downtime in winter. As previously mentioned, Serie A and La Liga don’t break for nearly as long as the Bundesliga, but even two weeks off in the middle of the season can make a difference. And are the winters really more extreme in the Mediterranean climates enjoyed by the majority of Spain and Italy than in England? Of course not.
No post-mortem of an international tournament is complete without pundits, journalists and irate fans blaming England’s inevitable poor performance and early exit on tiredness and injury. Consequently, the winter break debate rears its ugly head – and rightly so. It is common sense to suggest players wouldn’t be as tired if they had had a decent rest period during the season. After all, Spain and Germany haven’t done too badly recently.
Of course, this is over-simplifying the argument. The fact is that these two countries simply have better footballers than England. But how often have our big hitters gone into a tournament carrying knocks or not fully recovered from injuries sustained in a 60+ game season?
One major argument against having a winter break in England is the fact that there is simply no time for it. As well as having more league fixtures than Germany, English teams also compete in two domestic cups – not to mention European football. Also, the Christmas period is firmly ingrained in English football culture. For one, how would we survive the holidays without Match of the Day being on every other day? Or what would Boxing Day be without the live game?
There is no simple solution to this argument. Roy Hodgson cannot expect club managers to completely disregard the cup competitions in order to give his England players the occasional weekend off. Even the League Cup has increased in importance in recent years. Whereas ‘smaller clubs’ see it as their best chance of silverware, new managers at big clubs often aim to get a trophy under their belt as quickly as possible – recent examples including Mourinho in his first stint at Chelsea, or Manuel Pellegrini last season at Man City. And even when the bigger clubs use the cups to blood younger players or give squad players a run out, this philosophy is often abandoned as the competition progresses.
Whether you like it or not, the winter break is good for players and clubs in general. While the squad rests up, the coaching and managerial staff can take stock, plan and make more calculated choices in the transfer window.
Even so, despite clamoring from continental managers, an extended break in the Premier League is pie-in-the-sky stuff. It is firmly in the interest of the financial muscle behind the game, i.e. the broadcasters, to fill stadiums, living rooms and pubs, to ensure the continued interest in the competition.
And regarding rest and recuperation, how many people would have too much sympathy with millionaire footballers needing a bit of time off? It is this mentality that is holding us back. Footballers may be spoiled, but they are not machines.
It comes down to a simple choice: Do the FA and the fans want a competitive brand, or a competitive national team? Whatever the answer, one fact remains: while the majority of Bundesliga players are putting their feet up or sunning themselves, many of their Premier League counterparts will be dividing their time between the treatment table and the training pitch.