As Bukayo Saka trudged off the pitch at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis on Tuesday evening, a third consecutive appearance cut short by injury, the mind drifted back to something Mikel Arteta said when concerns were first raised about the Arsenal forward’s workload.
It was last October and Saka, in his 16th appearance in the two and a half months since that season began, had just limped off in the closing stages of a Europa League group match at home to PSV Eindhoven. With Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge gathering pace and a winter World Cup just around the corner, Arteta was asked whether the youngster needed a break.
“He got a kick,” the Arsenal manager said. “He was limping a bit, but hopefully he will be fine.”
Then Arteta said something more surprising. “Look at the top players in the world,” he said. “They play 70 matches, and every three days, and they make the difference and win the game. You want to be at the top, you have to be able to do that. There is not a fitness coach in the world who is going to tell me they cannot do that. I’ve seen it. Seventy-two games, score 50 goals. The players don’t score 50 goals if they play 38 games in a season. It’s impossible.”
Why surprising? Because it flew against the conventional coaching wisdom that players should not be playing 70 matches — or anything like as many — in a season.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger spent years talking about the problems created by an ever more congested fixture schedule. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have been outspoken critics of the constant drive for more matches at elite level. Arteta too, has, said the schedule is “too much for the players”, but he also feels a 70-game season was something a top-level player should be willing and able to embrace.
Saka played 58 games in all competitions last season: 48 for Arsenal, 10 for England. Fifty-one of those 58 appearances had him in the starting line-up. He was rested for one Arsenal game (the Carabao Cup last-32 tie against Brighton) and three for England, but didn’t miss a single match through injury.
Since making his Arsenal debut as a 17-year-old in November 2018, he has missed just three games through injury: the most recent when a dead leg forced him to sit out England’s European Championship quarter-final against Ukraine in July 2021.
So the possibility of Saka missing the meeting with Manchester City on Sunday, after feeling “something muscular” during that Champions League defeat by Lens, is a rarity. The thought of Arteta’s Arsenal lining up without their brilliant young winger is… if not unthinkable, then unfamiliar.
And yet, if Saka is to miss out on the City game, it will feel as if this had been coming. For weeks, Arsenal Twitter has been flooded with messages pleading with Arteta to rest him. The opening Champions League group game against PSV, the Carabao Cup tie against Brentford, Saturday away to Bournemouth in the Premier League, the trip to Lens: “Please rest Saka.”
Arteta rejects the idea that Saka has been at risk of a wear-and-tear injury. “It was a knock that he picked up the other day (at Bournemouth) and he was perfectly fine,” Arteta said post-match on Tuesday. “It (the injury at Lens) wasn’t an action. It was a backheel that can produce this type of injury. They (his injuries) were more knocks than any other thing. The last few he had, he hasn’t really missed games.”
He hasn’t. And this being Saka, and this being such a big game, the last before an international break, you wouldn’t bet against him lining up against City at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
But it feels worth questioning Arteta’s assertion last October that Saka could and should be capable of playing 70 matches a season. Maybe it was a throwaway comment, but 70 seems extreme.
FIFPro, the global players’ union, have proposed a limit of 55 competitive matches for players each season — spanning club and international football — warning that an ever more congested schedule for elite-level footballers “puts not only their health and therefore career prospects at risk but threatens to diminish their peak sporting performance and, as a result, the quality of competitions”.
For most Premier League teams, those not involved in European competition, fixture congestion is not an issue. On top of the 38 league matches, there might be a handful more in one or both domestic cups.
Some players will be involved in international football too, but many will not. Everton defender James Tarkowski has barely missed a game in the past five seasons but his busiest campaign, 2018-19, amounted to 42 appearances for Burnley and one for England.
Players at the very highest level are faced with a far higher workload.
FIFPro released a report on Wednesday saying that, over a 12-month period from September 15 last year, Manchester United’s Portugal international midfielder Bruno Fernandes had made 72 appearances for club and country, more than any player in world football.
Then came Real Madrid forward Rodrygo (70), Manchester City midfielder Rodri, Inter Milan forward Lautaro Martinez and Real Madrid midfielders Luka Modric and Eduardo Camavinga (all 68) and Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva, Palmeiras defender Gustavo Gomez and Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford (all 67).
Fernandes has shrugged off concerns, telling Sky Sports last season: “I can do it. I’m physically able to do it.” He has not missed a single United match through injury (just one through illness) since his arrival in January 2020.
But even his biggest fan might wonder whether he is playing too many games. There was a period last spring, as United’s fixture congestion intensified, when his productivity levels dropped significantly. Injury-free he might be, but the 29-year-old can often look like a player who would benefit from a rest.
This kind of extreme workload is something Fernandes has adjusted to over the course of his career. In his first five seasons at first-team level, at Italian clubs Novara, Udinese and Sampdoria, he never made more than 35 appearances in all competitions at club level.
He was 23 before he made his full international debut, though he did play regularly for Portugal at youth level. Like England’s Harry Kane, he was only gradually introduced to the relentless schedule of elite-level football.
Hypothetical of course, but it is worth wondering whether Fernandes would have flourished into the best form of his career in his late twenties, injury-free and able to withstand such a heavy workload, had he been playing 50-game and 60-game seasons in his late teens and early twenties.
That is becoming the norm for the very best young players.
A recent FIFPro report outlined how players such as Vinicius Junior, Jude Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe had played far more at younger ages than those of equivalent profile in previous generations.
One statistic was that, by his 20th birthday in June, Bellingham had played 30 per cent more competitive minutes (14,445) than Wayne Rooney (10,989) did. And that was Rooney, who, for all his achievements with Manchester United and England, could be not said to have stayed at the peak of his powers far beyond his mid-twenties.
There are some very significant differences between Vinicius Jr, Bellingham, Mbappe and Saka on one hand and Rooney on the other. Physical profile would be one. Lifestyle, by Rooney’s own admission, would be another.
Beyond that, the modern-day player is exposed to a level of conditioning and sports-science expertise far superior to what was offered in Rooney’s day, which in turn was far superior to the minimal insight of a generation earlier.
But all that sports-science knowledge spells out the importance of managing a player’s workload. FIFPro’s report, validated by various experts in sports-science and performance analysis, recommends a minimum of 28 days’ rest between seasons, ideally up to 42, as well as frequent breaks of five days between matches.
At the highest level, football’s schedule simply doesn’t allow that.
Four-week rest between seasons? Saka’s 2022-23 campaign, which included that winter World Cup with nothing like the usual rest before or after a major tournament, ended with a European Championship qualifier against North Macedonia on June 19. He was back at Arsenal for pre-season training 19 days later, on July 8.
If all goes to plan, he will be playing this season until the later stages of Euro 2024, which finishes on July 14.
And next season? It will be worse than ever. Reforms to the Champions League format will mean two extra games in the first stage — and potentially another two-leg play-off to qualify for the last 16. That means potentially 10 matches to progress to the knockout stages, up from the current six. For any club hoping to defy the odds and the seeding system by making it all the way from the qualifying rounds, it will be even more than that.
How the new Champions League format works
If it isn’t the expansion of competitions (a 36-team Champions League with a convoluted ‘Swiss model’ format, a 24-team European Championship) it’s new competitions: the Nations League in various confederations, the “Finalissima”, the ever-present threat of a European Super League.
The proposed 32-team Club World Cup, slated to be played for the first time in the summer of 2025, will be so unrecognisable it is effectively a new competition. It is a perfectly good idea in theory, like the Nations League, but not if it is simply to add to an already bulging fixture calendar.
It stems, inevitably, from football’s desperation — FIFA’s desperation, UEFA’s desperation, the richest clubs’ owners’ desperation — for more, more, more. More matches, more television revenue. They won’t care if the quality suffers. They won’t care if the players suffer. They won’t care if smaller domestic competitions and clubs suffer and are marginalised even further by the desperation to clear the calendar for more elite-level football.
Please stop trying to grow men’s football – there’s too much already
Managers are going to have to find a different way to work around it. Manchester City played 61 games in all competitions last season and, even with Guardiola rotating his squad on a near-constant basis, that meant 56 appearances in all competitions for Rodri and 55 for Bernardo.
International appearances, including the World Cup, took Bernardo to 71 and Rodri to 68. This season, which includes the UEFA Super Cup (one game) and the Club World Cup (likely two games) and culminates in the European Championship and Copa America, could see more for City’s players.
More than ever, players are going to have to be rotated — partly to reduce the threat of injury and partly to ensure they continue to perform to the best of their ability. But in many cases, there is a hesitancy to do so.
Outside of the early rounds of the Carabao Cup and FA Cup, the stakes are deemed too high; even with such a depth of high-class attacking options, there has been a reluctance from Arteta to rest Saka, from Klopp to rest Mohamed Salah, even from Erik ten Hag to rest an out-of-sorts Rashford.
Some players develop the kind of durability that almost makes them immune to injury or fatigue. Some, indeed, seem to thrive on the rhythm of the relentless football treadmill. But the majority need to be handled with extreme care.
Managers, with all the data and expertise at their disposal, should be trusted to know which players need rest and which can comfortably play two games a week for a whole season without any perceptible drop in their output or any threat to their long-term prospects.
Arteta’s words and actions over Saka suggest he is one of those rare players who is equipped to keep going and going. But it is just a little uncomfortable to revisit that line from last October when the Arsenal manager said “there is not a fitness coach in the world who is going to tell me” top players can’t play 70 games in a season. Some players can, clearly. Some can’t. And some players can do so for a period of their career, but only the very precious few will do so year after year without a drop in their performance level.
And it is more uncomfortable to think that the demands of the fixture calendar are only going to become more intense in the years ahead.
For players now in their early twenties, the likes of Vinicius Jr, Bellingham, Mbappe and Saka, the physical demands — not just across every season, but across every game they play — will far exceed those placed on previous generations: more sprints in more games played at higher intensity with smaller gaps between matches and between seasons. It does not sound like a recipe for longevity.
Those players were also early starters, performing at elite level from a very early stage of their careers.
Yes, they have sports-science on their side, but they and their managers have to be willing to listen to it and to know when a player needs a rest.
That is sometimes easier said than done.
(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)