Paradoxically, the Western Sydney Wanderers have done very poorly in the A-League this season because they did so well in the Asian Champions League.
The addition of extra games to their schedule as they progressed through the knockout stage of the tournament meant they barely had an off-season, and were behind in terms of games played in the A-League after round four. In what is unusual for the domestic competition, they have had to play many midweek A-League games to catch up, resulting in the quite ludicrous situation where they will play something close to every three days – including a period in March where they will have to play twice in the space of three days.
With such a heavy playing load, therefore, it was not difficult to see why the side has struggled so much in the A-League, with just one win all season. A major component of the issue has clearly been physical, with the players visibly tired from their demanding fixture list.
Multiple mid-week matches, for example, have meant that the Wanderers have not had the benefit of a full weeks preparation for games that the non-ACL sides enjoy. The quicker turnaround between games means less recovery time for players, which in turn means an accumulation of fatigue in the squad. It also translates to reduced time to tactically prepare for opponents, as well as less opportunities for Tony Popovic to work with the squad at training.
While it is impossible to quantify this without specific physical data from the club, there have been multiple studies that evidence the impact of a congested fixture list on a team’s performance.
For example, sports scientist Raymond Verheijen, who worked closely with the FFA to design their Football Periodisation Model, analysed 27,000 matches across seven major European leagues as well as the Champions League and Europa League. His results found that teams that had two days recovery compared to at least three were 42% less likely to win.
Another study, by former Prozone scientist Omar Chaudhuri, looked at the impact of Christmas – a period in the Premier League where all teams play three games in one week – on physical performance. Chaudhuri concluded…
“Physical data can be noisy and affected by a wide range of factors – the scoreline, whether a team is playing home or away, position, level of possession and so on – but players who had more rest and played fewer games had a significantly higher physical output. And while the sample is not huge, most of these results are statistically significant.”
With this in mind, it is not difficult to see why the Wanderers have struggled this season, especially as it also explains why Popovic has had to rotate frequently as well as introduce many youth players into the first team squad this season.
Fatigue is a natural outcome of physical activity, and is more pronounced at the professional level where players perform a number of high-intensity explosive actions over 90 minutes. FIFA recommends, but doesn’t enforce, a two-day recovery period.
Often, clubs schedule recovery sessions the day following matches, with the second day post-match traditionally a ‘day off’ for players to recuperate from the match demands. However, in a cycle where teams play midweek matches, this ‘second day’, the traditional rest day, becomes a training day, as teams must prepare for the upcoming match. Therefore, the body is not undertaking the full recovery period, and thus fatigue remains in the body. That, inevitably, has an impact on physical performance, and accumulated fatigue becomes a high risk factor for injury.
Worryingly, in the 2014 Asian Champions League season, only six games were played by A-League clubs where they had at least three days between matches. It is simply near impossible for clubs and players to deal with the physical demands of such a high-intensity period.
Of great concern is the injury risk that this scheduling can expose players to. A study by Jan Ekstrand found that 60% of players who played more than one match a week before and during the 2002 World Cup suffered injuries, while in another study Bengtsson concluded that “total injury rates and muscle injury rates were increased in league matches when the recovery time was less than or equal to 4 days compared with matches where the recovery time was more than or equal to 6 days.”
It is not surprising that the Wanderers have reported a number of injuries this season – an extensive list including Shannon Cole, Antony Golec, Mark Bridge, Brendan Hamill, Matthew Spiranovic, Brendon Santalab, Mateo Poljak and Tomi Juric. While the congested fixture list cannot be the sole explanation for all these injuries, it seems fair to conclude there is a link between the two.
Jet lag is another crucial consideration of physical performance that has affected the Wanderers this season. A study by Goumas specifically on 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
…so, for example, Sydney FC immediately had a relative 20% advantage over the Wanderers when the two sides faced each other three days after Popovic’s side played in Japan against Kashima Antlers in the Asian Champions League. Travel over eight hours or more can have an enormous physical impact on players, before one even factors in the various logistical difficulties of travelling to Asian countries, where direct flights are often not possible and multiple connections are required.
From this viewpoint, it’s not difficult to understand why the Wanderers have underperformed so much in the A-League this season. Obviously, however, some of these issues are not exclusive to Western Sydney, and factors affecting physical performance cannot be given as a sole explanation for their poor record.
However, their struggles should be an indicator to the FFA that alternate methods may need to be considered in the future to accommodate the extra demands that ACL-competing sides face. While some will argue that teams should be equipped enough to deal with the extra workload, the reality is in a developing, salary-capped league it is unrealistic to expect squads to be deep enough for a coach to be able to rotate and remain competitive in both the A-League and the Asian Champions League.
The sad reality is that the Wanderers will in all likelihood be an exception rather than a rule in terms of the success Australia will have in Asia, given the incredible logistical changes A-League teams face.