Fatigue is one of the most commonly reported symptoms to physicians worldwide. It is also one of the least specific symptoms out there, often offering no guidance to what the underlying problem is.
So, when we are concerned that Bayern Munich’s players are playing like they are tired or are suffering from fatigue, what are we really talking about? Is it just that they have not fully recovered from the last match? That the heavy schedule that they have undergone for the several months has worn the down? Or is it something else entirely? And perhaps more importantly, other than simple rest and importing a pile of new bodies to eat minutes, what can the team do about it?
There is no doubt that the schedule has been much tougher on all of the teams competing in the Champions League this season. The domestic season has been condensed as has the Champions League calendar. Normally in the group stages, teams would be playing matches about fifteen days apart, and that has been cut in half down to approximately seven days. Bayern, in particular, played as late as possible last year, much to our delight. But is the current flattening in form of the team due to simple fatigue, or is something else going on?
Training a team to perform is not as simple as building up a base level of fitness and skill in the off season and then adopting a program to maintain it over the course of the long season, rather it is about planning for the peaks and valleys of human fitness very carefully over the season, and timing them to your maximum advantage. The science of training your athletes to peak at the right times in the right way is known as “periodization” and was pioneered by Tudor Bompa. His ideas, and their modern variations have been adopted by physicians, trainers, physiotherapists, kinesiologists and just about everyone involved in modern sport science.
What the science tells us is that an elite athlete simply cannot maintain peak fitness over the many months that make up a professional soccer season. While there is some disagreement there seems to be a scientific consensus that an elite footballer can perhaps hit two peak periods of eight weeks of maximum ability over a calendar year. And this does not happen by accident, it has to be carefully built, by creating an offseason foundation through micro- and mezo-cycles of training through several phases followed by precise variation of training intensity and volume during the season and it short breaks. It is easy to get in wrong. Throw in some injuries, national team interruptions, and a pandemic — and the scientific fitness pyramid can get more than a little precarious.
The training and sport science teams protect their plans and programs like they are gold. Because they are. They are supported by top notch, nearly up to the minute data on each player’s physical condition. In a recent report in the New York Times, Ralf Rangnick reported how players at Leipzig reported ninety minutes early for training sessions to have their blood and salvia tested, and within twenty minutes he and his staff would know exactly how to adjust each individual’s player’s training to make sure they stay on program. Former Bayern coach Nico Kovac instituted a similar program under his tenure at the club and there is no reason to believe that it has been discarded.
When these programs are designed, hard choices must be made. What periods of the year will be used for which phase? Which players will be programmed to peak at which time? How do you plan for the peaks of bench players; do you keep them on a lower but tolerable boil, or do you plan for them to peak to give your starters rest during the most congested part of the schedule? Do you want all of your stars to peak at the same time, or is there value in having them peak at offset, or overlapping periods? For instance, do you want to have your two top wingers, say Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry, peaking at the same time, or do you offset or overlap their peaks to deliver maximum points on the domestic schedule? It is part art, part science and part philosophy, and in order to deliver a treble, you need to get it just right.
As goes the body, so goes the mind
The mental fitness and health of the players is also tied into effective physical training. Bompa originally proposed “that athletes’ psychological behavior depends on their physiological wellbeing.” This has now been followed up with many studies that confirm this connection. As the common wisdom at West Point holds “Problems of mood, motivation, or concentration, or the onset of depression, melancholy or desire to quit, are symptoms of your PT not being adjusted properly. If your PT schedule is right everything else will fall into place” (PT being Physical Training).
This means that when we see players that appear to be struggling mentally, some of the issue may be that their training is not as well-adjusted as it should be, or that they are in a phase of their training that is not producing maximum psycho-emotional performance.
Understanding periodization helps us understand the team’s performance on the field, and gives us opportunities to speculate about just how Bayern is preparing to meet their goals. When the squad seems to “flat” or “unenergetic” over a period of weeks, it might well be that they are tired from recent matches, or that there is a morale problem. It could also mean that they are simply in a phase of their annual training plan that does not allow them to perform the way we love to see them play. Based on the limitations of each player there are times of the season that have to be lower priority, or “sacrificed” to create the best chance to meet the team’s ultimate goals.
Based on the performance Bayern displayed last year in Lisbon, it appears that the club’s sports science team got everything just about perfect. This is quite an achievement considering that their entire annual plan must have been annihilated by the pandemic shut down. Based on that kind of result in chaotic conditions, it would be unwise to bet against Bayern peaking when they need to this season, in a more crowded, but predictable schedule.