Its December, which in my part of the world means that the snow is falling, the roads have iced over and its impossible to open an Airport, a school, or more importantly a football stadium. As a result, countless games have been called off up and down the country in Scotland and England to deal with the ‘danger’ of fans commuting to games and risking their very lives to follow their sides. Such behaviour leaves one to ponder, why can’t we have a winter break?
In the current set up, the Football Associations of England and Scotland are the only of their kind in the whole of Europe that do not abide to a winter break, that varies between leagues, but generally starts the third week of December and ends just after New Year. The debate over such a thing, has rattled on for years now, usually peaking during the aftermath of a World Cup as the English media hunt for excuses, and simmer’s during the Champions League as the Premier League sides pick up their minor European scalps.
An interesting question is whether the debate is ever actually brought up in the interest of the league it will be effecting. If it isn’t a handy foot note for lazy journalists arguing that England’s players are too tired for World Cups, or disgruntled Arsenal fans after the last sixteen tie’s in February, it’s very rarely brought up at all.
Something that must be taken into consideration is what kind of effect a winter break has on a league system and whether the idea is fair in the sense of competition. Football is a sport that capitalizes off the enthusiasm of a clubs form and fortune in the league every week. This entertainment is instantaneous and changes every week, it’s what drives all fans of the beloved game mad yet keeps us excited enough to come back in hope next week. Fans will go through countless mood swings throughout a campaign based on their clubs form, it drives the supporter, it’s why they buy their season ticket.
Now add in a situation where the form of every club in the league is paused for two or three weeks and you lose that excitement of a club helplessly stuck in a rut or gliding on a crest of optimism, as every club is pulled back down(or up) to ground zero and asked to start again. As you can imagine this would have detrimental effects on the outcome of a league as tight as the Premier League or the SPL where the only difference between the potential victors is nothing more than a rut or resurgence in form in the space of two or three matches.
In times like these, when players need very little help finding distraction from their duties, a break can lead to blips in determination and focus as the individual player is removed from the team ethos for a two or three-week period.
This is evident throughout Europe as trail blazers at Christmas rarely end the race in first place, come May. In Germany’s Bundesliga last season, we saw a resurgent Bayer Leverkusen side go the first seventeen matches of the season unbeaten and deservedly sat top of the table with Shalke a point behind. After the winter break, Leverkusen drew two of their first five games of the year and lost a further six to gift Bayern the title as they finished a disappointing fourth. Leverkusens win ratio after the winter break in the second half of the season was 35%, in sharp contrast to their 52% ratio before the turn of the year.
In France, a similar story was unravelling. Bordeaux where looking pretty at the top of Ligue 1 as a young, vibrant Laurent Blanc had his team steam rolling ahead with a cushion of nine points between themselves and the rest of the pack and a six match winning streak to gift as a Christmas present to their fans. Unfortunately 2010 would not be so fortunate to les Girondins as they stumbled into a disastrous rut of only three victories in their next fifteen matches, and eventually finished sixth in the league, fourteen points behind champions Marseille, and no Champions League football the following year.
Looking at the disturbance of a winter break in a different light, you could take Livorno’s journey of survival in the SerieA last season as a good example of how it can affect the bottom half of the table. At Christmas, the club where sitting cosey in fifteenth spot with a solid five points between themselves and the drop thanks to a recent run of three wins in their past five games. So far the team had been performing above expectations with victories over Roma and Sampdoria as well as hard-earned draws against Milan and Cagliari. After the winter break, things began to fall apart, Livorno picked up two points in their first six games and only managed one more victory for the rest of the season as the they plummeted to the bottom of the table, finally finishing dead last on 29 points.
Obviously the same can be said for teams who pick up form after the winter break. With a two-week break, teams can take a step back from the situation they have found themselves in, and have enough time to tend to their wounds while figuring out a new battle plan.
An example of this is Athletico Madrid last season in the Primera División. El Atleti began the season in horrid form, the club immediately dropped nine points in their first five matches, stumbled to one win in eight matches and bombed out of the Champions League without a single win, before manager, Abel Resino was sacked. The club then hired Enrique Sanchez Flores at the end of October, but nothing seemed to of changed as they lost their first three matches under Flores to Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Deportivo before heading into the Winter break. Things began to quickly change after Christmas, the side that performed in the second half of the season looked alien to supporters. Immediately winning their first three games, the club went from strength to strength, increasing their win ratio of 20% and a position of fifteenth before the winter break, to 43% and finished ninth, as well as a Europa League Cup trophy.
Athletico’s resurgence up the league meant that one unlucky side who thought they had caught some luck, had to go down. With Leverkusen’s demise after Christmas, we saw Bayern regain their same old spot on the top. Or with Livorno’s change in form, we witnessed the same small clubs get relegated. It all symbolises a return to normality that stands against the nature of football. Predictability is the last thing that we want to see in this sport.
This season has seen some precarious situations in the Premier League. At the moment of writing we are going into the Christmas weekend with Sunderland and Bolton in Uefa Cup spots, Manchester City in the top four and promoted sides West Brom and Blackpool pushing for Europe. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad we don’t have a break to ruin all the fun.