Euro 2024: Does England have enough energy to succeed?

Opinion Monday 08/July/2024 17:44 PM
By: Ricardo Guerra
Euro 2024: Does England have enough energy to succeed?

In recent decades, the discipline of exercise physiology has made significant progress. As a result, many international football clubs have started incorporating its principles in their training methods, aligning with other sports like track and field, cycling, and weightlifting, which have always been influenced by exercise science.

During the second phase of the European Cup, where matches are played back-to-back, squads hoping to advance in the competition may need to apply this scientific research more than ever.

The Dutch are coming off a 2-1 victory against Turkiye. By contrast, England fought a grueling battle against Switzerland in the quarterfinals. This match went into overtime, and penalty kicks decided the outcome. The Netherlands take on England in the second semi-final on Wednesday.

In the first semifinal, Spain will play against France on Tuesday. Both of these teams played challenging games that went to overtime.

Nevertheless, England was the most physically challenged team during the second phase of the competition since both games they played in the second stage took extra time.

They are going into their match against the Dutch with a disadvantage. Their attempt to recover and start the game on an equal footing will be a considerable challenge.

During the second phase of an international competition, such as the European Cup, players are sometimes given only three days of recovery before the next match. Therefore, implementing recovery strategies and controlling the players' workload becomes paramount. This year's European Cup semi-finals pose an incredible opportunity to apply the findings of exercise physiology to accelerate players' recovery.

A squad may get by without physiological recovery strategies when only one match is played, with plenty of rest time beforehand. But these strategies become essential when back-to-back matches significantly curtail recuperation time, and they are more important still when one of the teams in question plays overtime while their opponent does not - precisely the situation that England faces when they meet the Dutch on Wednesday for the semifinal of the European Cup.

Many lay people erroneously assume two days is enough time for players to recover between matches. However, detrimental alterations to musculoskeletal systems and subsystems can be significant following a highly stressful physical exertion such as a football match. Some of these physiological subsystems may take weeks to be fully reconstituted.

Nevertheless, implementing specific nutritional and supplementation strategies that precisely target certain physiological systems can help speed recovery. For instance, the hours following an exhausting football match are critical for replenishing glycogen, a fuel stored in the muscle vital for its function. Think of glycogen as the gasoline that fuels skeletal muscles. Even an F1 McLaren will only be rendered functional with enough gas to finish a race. Likewise, even a team made up entirely of superstars will sputter on the field if their glycogen reserves are depleted before the day of the match.

Recovery schemes should be chosen carefully depending on the phase of match play and other circumstances. For example, they can be used immediately before the start, at halftime, and during a football match's last half of overtime. They should be methodically and continuously used when players are resting in between games. In tandem with supplementation, during the days following a hard-fought match, players' training load needs to be reassessed entirely and strictly controlled according to exercise physiology principles.

What teams should avoid at all costs is to keep players in a state of perpetual fuel depletion. Therefore, managers should apply a tandem strategy: carefully controlling the workload between matches while using all proper recovery protocols.

However, knowledge of this dual dynamic - load control and supplementation strategies - is not universal in the field, and even in countries with access to this knowledge, a given manager may impede the implementation of these tools. One would be shocked at what some management teams subject their players to during the 48 hours before a match. This has been a problem for a long time: anecdotes about absurd training loads before historic matches date back to World Cups played during the 1980s.

England is going into this match at a disadvantage. The Netherlands will be a difficult opponent since they have played fewer grueling matches and have more intact physiological reserves. Nevertheless, England is a tactically sound squad that plays a communal football style, and they possess enough individual talent that could make a difference.

To overcome these challenges, England might need to draw on the wealth of knowledge from their universities regarding exercise science.

When they play the Netherlands, England should conserve their energy. This means they should not deviate from the more cautious style they have been playing in this competition by attempting high-tempo football - characterised by complex and deep pressing for extended periods.

Any squad that uses such tactics may be in for a long night, as we saw during the last World Cup, when Croatia, exhausted from their hard-fought victory against Brazil, met Argentina in the semi-finals. Even though the Croatian squad's high pace was exhilarating to watch, their failure to adhere to a more economical energy-related tactical scheme led to a devastating loss.

During the current Copa America played alongside the Euro a few days ago, Marcelo Bielsa cleverly adjusted his high-tempo pressing tactics when Uruguay faced Brazil in the quarter-finals.

He was much more conservative in his approach against the Brazilians compared to the match his squad played against the Americans in his previous game. The Uruguayans against Brazil pressed sporadically but were very efficient within their tactical schemes. They physically challenged the Brazilians, who seemed to have a more timid predisposition.

On Wednesday, England should implement Systemic Economic Cohesive Play (SECP) strategies that slow down the game and conserve energy. SECP's critical characteristics include controlling pace and managing the intensity of play during the game, and specific tactical systems of play are more conducive to such a strategy. Morocco and the Netherlands successfully adopted some SECP schemes during the last World Cup.

That said, football does not always follow a predictable script. The history of sports, in general, is full of black swan events. Who among us does not remember the "Hand of God" goal of 1986?

On Wednesday, we will find out if England has a wizard on their staff or an ace up their sleeve that will allow them to speed up their recovery processes. Regardless, the coming match will be an uphill battle for England.

But the English are a gritty bunch with sufficient individual talent at least for this match to make things happen. English fans should hope this match will not go to a third extra time for their national team. If that happens, it may be a long and disappointing day in Dortmund.

(Ricardo Guerra is a sports physiologist with a Master of Science degree from Liverpool John Moores University. He has worked with professional football teams in the Middle East and Europe, including the Egyptian and Qatari national teams. In 2015, he was the exercise physiologist of Olympique de Marseille when they reached the final of the French Cup against PSG. Ricardo holds coaching licenses from the Football Association (England) and UEFA, and he is a Ph.D. candidate and the author of an upcoming book about Brazilian soccer. He has published articles in multiple languages across various news organisations. Contact him at [email protected].)