Is exhaustion to blame for Real Madrid’s poor performances this season?

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 20: Daniel Carvajal (R) of Real Madrid exercises with physical trainer Antonio Pintus during a training session at Valdebebas training ground on May 20, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 20: Daniel Carvajal (R) of Real Madrid exercises with physical trainer Antonio Pintus during a training session at Valdebebas training ground on May 20, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images) /

Real Madrid are enjoying a historically bad season in La Liga, and nobody seems to know what has gone wrong. Could exhaustion explain Real Madrid’s poor performances this season?

The life of a professional football player is already an exhausting one. On average, teams in European football play about fifty matches a season.

However, the physical and mental demands placed on the top-of-the-top of world football are even more excessive. For a team like Real Madrid, whose players regularly compete in the late elimination rounds of UEFA tournaments and are consistently called up for participation in their National Team, the already strenuous demands of the football schedule are only compounded.

Real Madrid’s players have looked downtrodden at the end of matches; their faces betray both a deep physical and mental exhaustion. Being back-to-back Champions League winners comes with a uniquely demanding schedule. Just getting to the Champions League final means the season doesn’t end for Madrid until early June, cutting into the rest and recovery time many footballers would get over the summer.

Additionally, winning the Champions League means an inevitable trip to the Club World Cup, often hosted in distant locales, jammed into an already action-packed winter fixture schedule. That typically adds two more fixtures (semifinals and finals), and once again reduces the rest and recovery time that the players could otherwise enjoy.

Not to mention, Real Madrid’s players, the cream of the crop in world football, are consistently involved in their National Team selections. This year was a World Cup qualifier year, meaning most of Real Madrid’s players were involved in serious, competitive fixtures, along with the usual friendlies which are the bane of existence of club football fans the world around.

These compounded scheduling difficulties can put immense strain on players who depend on this crucial rest period for their physical recovery. Jamie Trecker, in a New York Times article on exhaustion in football, writes, “Players who persevere through a full cycle of games are susceptible to what is increasingly known as a tournament hangover, the fatigue that carries over from the summer into a player’s league season.”

Sports scientists have been working in recent years to try to document the exact toll exhaustion takes on professional football players at the elite level. Studies have found that football players at the very top level of performance are more likely to suffer from sprint fatigue due to the sheer physiological demands of elite competition.

For the past two seasons, Zidane has been praised for bringing Antonio Pintus, his trainer at Juventus, onto the staff at Real Madrid. Pintus is known for his exhausting training regimens, and for getting players into peak physical condition. The effects of Pintus’ training were evident to anyone who watched Real Madrid last season. Madrid’s ability to chase down late goals and terrorize the tired legs of their opponents in the last twenty minutes of a match was unprecedented.

However, the same training regimen which has proven so effective for Madrid in the past may be causing them some problems now. Dr. Mark Jenkins has described the effects of over-training without adequate rest, arguing that failing to provide athletes with sufficient time off of training can actually diminish the effects of physical training and reduce overall performance:

"It is no secret among athletes that in order to improve performance you’ve got to work hard. However, hard training breaks you down and makes you weaker. It is rest that makes you stronger. Physiologic improvement in sports only occurs during the rest period following hard training… If sufficient rest is not included in a training program then regeneration cannot occur and performance plateaus. If this imbalance between excess training and inadequate rest persists then performance will decline."

Real Madrid’s players are no strangers to exhaustion. Toni Kroos spoke extensively with the German press about his exhaustion during Real Madrid’s 2014-2015 campaign. Exhaustion played a huge role in Madrid’s on-pitch problems that season.

It seems like Real Madrid might be experiencing a bit of Deja Vu.  Madrid have dominated the past two seasons in part through their sheer physical prowess. Pintus’ training gave Madrid the capacity to to find an extra gear in the late minutes of matches to run teams down. But exhaustion  can take its toll. It can impact a player’s ability to track back, win 50-50 balls, and avoid sloppy mental mistakes. Anybody who has watched Real Madrid this season knows this are precisely the kinds of on-pitch events that have hindered Madrid both in attack and defense.

Next: Marcos Llorente suffers the same injury as his father

Zidane was praised last season for his liberal rotation policy. Perhaps he’s going to have to rely much more heavily on his B Squad in the coming months. That is, assuming he still has his job.

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