The Premier League is more important than the national side. While these are suspicions long held by many supporters, it's still sad to see it written down. A winter break is the natural way to restore some of the balance that is presently lacking between club and country.
Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore recently spoke to The Daily Telegraph, amid new calls for the implementation of a winter break:
We have tried, but unless somebody is prepared to give something up, it is pretty hard. We are not inclined to reduce the number of clubs in the Premier League—if you were running a theatre and had 380 nights that you wanted to sell, why would you throw 60 or 70 of those nights away?
At the root of the debate is money, of course. The TV rights for the Premier League formed part of a deal worth £3 billion, which begins next year. That's of huge benefit to newly promoted teams, so they will be unwilling to lessen their chances of TV exposure by reducing their calendar, despite being less likely to feature to begin with.
All major European leagues except the Premier League have a winter break, preserving the fitness of players going into the New Year. The Bundesliga, for example, has a break stretching from December 21st to January 20th—the rigidity of the schedule ensures equality each year.
There is a tradition of Boxing Day and New Year games in England, but tradition won’t make the national side more competitive.
Going into a summer tournament after a year in a league calendar that seems to get longer every season isn’t going to get the best out of the players. Recent results have only confirmed this, and the gap between the top national teams and the English national team grows wider every day.
The opening of St. George’s Park is a step in the right direction and a central hub for all England teams can only be of benefit. This sort of facility has proved beneficial to France and Italy over the years, and marks a point where England’s major footballing powers finally worked together to achieve a common goal.
However, it comes back to the same point again. If players—as they routinely attest—are overworked going into a tournament with England, are they going to fare any better? It’s all very well to say that players are paid too much money to complain about being tired, but that doesn’t actually make the problem go away.
England physio Gary Lewin has long supported the winter break, and spoke to The Independent to further affirm his stance:
I'm a strong advocate of the winter break. Even if you didn't cut down on the number of games, it would help, mentally as well as physically. Physical trainers and scientists will tell you that we have a period of deconditioning—that's our summer break—and then a period of conditioning before you're ready.
Then we in England have nine or 10 months before the process is repeated. Even if we had a small break, I believe that the mental relaxation a player enjoyed in that time—without deconditioning much—would have a beneficial effect towards the end of the season.
UEFA have even done studies which indicate that a player is four times more likely to be injured in the last three months in the Premier League than other leagues in Europe.
The relative parity of the EPL compared to, say, La Liga means that every single game has the potential to be a battle for teams with international-calibre players.
It’s true that the stars are often rested for games against lower quality opposition, but it’s common to see their replacements struggle to put those games away, meaning the top players are forced to come on as substitutes to get the points for their team.
It’s a debate that has been circling for years, and the implementation of a winter break would at least put England on level ground with other countries. FIFA already made a concession by scrapping August and February international friendlies, so this acquiescence needs to be built upon in the EPL.
It’s true that the designated international weeks that form part of the new plan remove further weekends when considering a break, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the best option is the one that Scudamore refuses to even consider.
Reducing the number of Premier League clubs is still a viable option, especially since it was already cut down in 1995. Dropping the number of teams to 18 wouldn’t lose the “60-70 nights a year” that Scudamore mentions and the gaps in the calendar can be consolidated into a winter break, lessening the injury risk between March and May.
Barring the weeks set aside for the break, this enables all cup competitions to run as normal, meaning that the lower leagues are not made to suffer for what is essentially a Premier League dilemma.
Losing the FA Cup replays, as suggested by Scudamore, would cost smaller teams money that could potentially save their season and isn’t even worth considering.
The stipulation of the break, however, must be that players do not participate in lucrative winter friendlies that immediately negate the break.
It must be exactly what it suggests, a recuperation period that constitutes time away from football in preparation for the second half of the season and the international calendar beyond. Conditioning training must continue, obviously, but the demands of a game are not there.
It’s time international football is given the attention that it deserves in England. It’s too easy to expect the players to perform in international tournaments and then lambast them for failing to progress past the quarterfinals, but ignoring the root of the problem just perpetuates the issue.
A winter break is the first step towards acknowledging a problem exists, and that the governing bodies are prepared to do something about it.