Not too long ago I had a minor disagreement with a fellow Sunderland fan regarding whether or not players being tired at this stage of the season was a story worth buying. 'How can a professional athlete be tired?', was a question that I was asked. 'They get paid a fortune and shouldn't need to be rested', is often an argument you'll hear from doubters.
Yann M'Vila spoke recently of his need to take a break, and it was something that stirred up a modicum of controversy around the Sunderland supporting online community, with many finding the notion that M'Vila could actually be feeling the effects of playing and training on a frequent basis rather ridiculous.
As great as M'Vila has been for our club this season, he's played almost every minute of every game he's started. Is it absurd to suggest that exhaustion could creep in and effect an athlete of his calibre?
Sam Allardyce certainly believes that in order to get the best from his players, we have to sometimes take a step back and allow the players a rest period. Sam is often labeled a footballing dinosaur but it can't be denied that when it comes to the analytical aspect of the sport, our manager is as clued up as anyone, often viewed as a pioneer for sports science within the English game.
Sam was quizzed regarding the subject back in January, and was fairly clear with regards to his stance on the subject.
Why can the whole of Europe have a break and we can't?
We have to follow Europe in everything we do - we have to follow their transfer system and their fixtures. We had our own transfer system a few years ago and we've been told we can't do that. We've been told to scrap the emergency loan system next year and no one wants to do that. So why can't we have the break if we follow Europe all the time?
I'm thinking about it from the welfare of players, which is a great risk at this stage of the season.
You can see that from the amount of injuries that have occurred over this period. The minimum recovery for a player is four days. It promotes more criticism of players performances as players can't perform to the level they should do, as they're running on empty.
That means you don't get the entertainment value you'd usually expect and want from this level of football as players are psychically and mentally drained. You all say, 'They get that much money, it shouldn't bother them', but that's rubbish.
All the performance data, statistical analysis and physiological evidence you can collect on the subject points to the fact that our players certainly do need a recuperation period, so why is it something scoffed at by pockets of fans who follow the game?
The English Premier League is perhaps the only elite league in world football that doesn't have a recognised winter break. In fact, the congestion of fixtures in the winter period is borne out of tradition, and whilst many years ago it was fully accepted that playing three fixtures in the space of a week was completely normal, the overall improvement of the athletic nature of football has brought whether or not playing so much sport in such a short space of time is a good thing for the English game.
Injuries can happen in any situation, but I can't help wondering whether or not our growing list of casualties has anything to do with the amount of games and traveling the Sunderland players had to do over the winter period.
In order to take something resembling a 'winter break', Sunderland had to go without a game this weekend having lost out in the last round of the FA Cup at Arsenal. With Allardyce's side out of the competition, it allowed him the time to arrange a trip abroad to warmer climes for his squad, and you have to wonder just how bothered he was that we were eliminated from the competition at a relatively early stage.
Think about it - with no real 'winter break' enforced for Premier League sides, what incentive is there for the likes of ourselves to take the FA Cup seriously? If you do well in the competition you're effectively harming your chances of survival - playing the extra games, combined with the added travel and lessening of time on the training pitch makes it an even harder job for managers in the same predicament as Sam to keep the club in the Premier League, which has to be viewed as his top priority as manager.
Through elimination from the competition, Sam has been able to do what other clubs have not and take his players away for a break that he clearly views as imperative if we are to survive. You have to wonder, would other clubs take the cup competitions more seriously if we had an enforced break over the winter period?
Don't get me wrong, I love the Christmas fixtures and the amount of the games broadcasted on television is great, but it wouldn't particularly bother me if those matches didn't happen.
It's all well and good playing three games in the space of a week, but the fact of the matter is that all it tends to do is harm the weaker squads who have less strength in depth. You pick up injuries on a more frequent basis and the players are asked to perform at a high level without the correct period of rest. Long term, it harms other aspects of their game and also leads to struggling clubs deprioritising the cup competitions that they are expected to take seriously in the eyes of the Football Association and the fans.
Whether or not this jaunt abroad will be a good thing or not totally depends upon just how well we perform next weekend against West Ham. If we get battered I'm sure people will doubt whether or not going to Dubai and training in the warmer weather was a good idea or not, but to me it's time the English Premier League looked at the way they structure their games across the winter, getting in line with the other major European leagues and introducing an enforced break period.
Tradition is all well and good, but for me we're asking too much of players. Clubs like ours are the worst affected - unlike the top sides, we don't have strength in depth, and asking our best players to play more than their bodies can handle could lead to injuries that cost us points in games we need to win in order to survive.