Throughout his Chelsea tenure, Thomas Tuchel has always played it straight with the media. Of course, he will protect his players when required and not reveal every detail of the day-to-day happenings at Cobham, but when a subject is broached in a press conference, the German never shies away from giving an honest answer.
That approach served the Chelsea head coach incredibly well during the latter half of the season in which the club was put up for sale by Roman Abramovich and forced to operate under the strict sanctions imposed upon the Russian oligarch by the UK government and EU.
Tuchel became a statesman-like figure, a trusted, empathic and reassuring voice amid the chaos. It won him the hearts of many Chelsea supporters and strengthened his position at the club to such an extent the new ownership group led by Todd Boehly views the 48-year-old as an indispensable figure.
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So when Tuchel talks, it is worth listening. And that brings us back to comments made by the 48-year-old back in October. The discussion point that day was the football calendar and the increasing demands placed upon top players. The German’s position was clear.
“I think there are too many games and too many competitions for the top players in the clubs,” Tuchel said. “The game is for the players and for the spectators – and the spectators want to have the top players on the pitch. They want them fit, healthy, hungry and you cannot always provide it if you play so many games in so many different competitions.”
Tuchel’s viewpoint was almost certainly reinforced by what happened at Chelsea over the remainder of the campaign. In December, injuries and a spate of Covid cases impacted the Blues’ squad. Still, they played on as players were rushed back and pushed to breaking point.
By January, Chelsea’s Premier League title bid was over and Tuchel admitted his squad was mentally and physically fried. “We play since November,” he said. “We are the team that plays and plays and plays. We need to recharge the batteries and disconnect. This is my feeling.”
Chelsea would go on to play 63 games in all competitions during the 2021/22 campaign. Yet that was far from an anomaly across Premier League clubs. Liverpool, who beat the Blues in the Carabao Cup and FA Cup finals, also hit that total. Man City reached 58. West Ham United 56.
And let’s not forget, this was off the back of a condensed 2020/21 campaign due to the Covid-19 pandemic, at the end of which the European Championship and Copa America were also played. It’s little wonder that Tuchel was highlighting the issue of players suffering from burnout.
This summer – with the first-ever winter World Cup to come at the end of the year – should have been an opportunity for players to gain much-needed rest. Yes, they are paid huge salaries but they are not robots. Periods of rest, both mentally and physically are required, as is time with their families, something that is sparse during the campaign.
Instead, there is more football: the Nations League to be exact. England, for example, are playing four games this month, the first of which was the 1-0 defeat to Hungary yesterday (Saturday). Gareth Southgate’s side didn’t play well and didn’t deserve anything from the game, but the fact the performance was lacklustre should have come as no surprise.
Of those who started for the Three Lions in Budapest, seven had played more than 3,700 minutes – the equivalent of 41 full matches – for their club sides during the 2021/22 season. Four had gone above the 4,000-minute mark, which is 44 full games. And that isn’t even taking into account training and travelling. It’s simply too much.
“As players, we can talk about vacation or rest, but we have no say,” said Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne earlier this week. “We follow what we need to do and that’s it. We have a little more than three weeks of vacation every twelve months. The outsiders don’t understand how a player feels after a season.”
De Bruyne is correct; it’s impossible to comprehend how top-level players feel after an arduous season. But what spectators do and can appreciate is the quality of a game, the performance of their side. It’s what they pay for after all, and there has to be some value for money.
As Tuchel highlighted, fans want to see the world’s best perform at their peak level. They want players “fit, healthy and hungry” on the pitch, they want them ready to produce awe-inspiring moments, and they want them able to create memories that last for decades.
But that can only continue to happen if those at the top of the sport take into consideration the warnings heeded by coaches and players alike. Tuchel has said his piece, De Bruyne too, as have many others across the Premier League and European game. It’s time they are listened to.