Figure 1. Points per domestic league match gained by Champions League (CL) and Europa League (EL) teams when playing following or not a mid-week European match within two days over the past two decades.
Do mid-week European matches influence European teams’ performance in their domestic league? A 20-year study
By Martin Buchheit, Head of Performance Research at Kitman Labs and Maxime Settembre, Data Scientist at Kitman Labs
Fixture congestion ranks as a top concern in elite European football. But contrary to popular belief, congested fixtures may not necessarily lead to poorer performance in players. Our new study sheds light on this specific performance dynamic and offers practical tips to help teams—both European and non-European—maximise their chance of winning during congested periods.
When I (Martin B.) was with PSG back in 2015, ever since our surprising loss (3-2) in Ligue 1 vs. Bordeaux—one of only three matches lost of the season—the possibility that congested fixtures may have been a factor in our loss has plagued me: did the fact that we only had four days rest between our preceding winning game against Chelsea affect our performance in our match against Bordeaux? In a normal context, PSG would not have lost against Bordeaux.
It is therefore not surprising that the topic of congested fixtures in elite football is constantly front of mind (6), with managers complaining that it is an issue football’s leaders have not acted upon. Higher rates of injuries are sometimes reported when teams have to play with only 2 or 3 days of recovery (1-4), and the need for player rotations to maintain their health is often a challenge to maintain teams’ competitiveness.
But contrary to popular belief, congested fixtures may not necessarily lead to poorer results. Instead, other factors such as match location may influence this performance dynamic.
A new research paper (M. Buchheit, M. Settembre, K. Hader, A. Tarascon, D. McHugh, R. Verheijen) published in SPSR examines this topic in-depth by looking at the Champions League’s (CL) and the Europa League’s (EL) performance in their domestic league and assesses whether the congestion imposed by the European competitions (i.e., mid-week matches) affects their results.
Why is this research important? The study results may help European clubs understand which match(es) may require advanced recovery protocols/enhanced travel logistics to maintain their chance of winning during congested periods. In addition, the findings may also help non-European clubs make their programming wishes ahead of the season in order to maximise their chance of winning against European teams. Read more about the Practical Applications below.
Teams playing in European competitions such as the Champions League (CL) or the Europa League (EL) are the most exposed teams to congested fixtures (i.e., need to add at least 6 matches to the calendar in between league matches for a team only playing the first stage). However, given the depth of their squad and the quality of their players, whether those teams actually suffer from the congestion at the level of their domestic leagues needs to be examined in detail.
In fact, it could be hypothesised that contrary to common beliefs—and noting that the top clubs are performing better over the past years—European teams are managing to maintain their level of competitiveness in their league and that congested fixtures are not necessarily associated with poorer results. In addition, match location may influence this performance dynamic; playing two away matches congested is obviously a much greater challenge than two home matches or non-congested matches. On the other hand, these well-funded teams often fly Business Class so travel may not be an issue.
- The study focuses on the fixtures data of the teams competing in the top 7 European leagues, i.e., Spain, England, Germany, Holland, Italy, France and Portugal.
- It includes 20 seasons from 2001/02 to 2020/21.
- The fixtures from all in-season competitions were considered, i.e., leagues and domestic, European and international cups. This data was scraped from Transfermarkt.
- Across the 20 seasons, this represents 43 competitions, 269 teams and more than 61,000 fixtures.
- Teams classified as CL and EL teams participated in European competitions during the season of interest and kept their status during the whole season (whether they qualified or not for the final stages).
We first analysed European teams’ results vs. their domestic league opponents as a whole (excluding the other CL teams when looking at CL teams’ results, and excluding EL teams when looking at EL teams’ performance), irrespective of fixtures.
We then focused on extreme levels of congestion, i.e., when European teams played with only two days of recovery. This analysis was repeated for every season between 2001/2002 and 2020/2021.
Finally, to examine the effect of match locations on the above performance dynamics when teams played in congested fixtures, we considered the 4 following scenarios:
- European match at home, followed by a league match at home within the next 3 days.
- European match at home, followed by a league match away within the next 3 days.
- European match away, followed by a league match at home within the next 3 days.
European match away, followed by a league match away within the next 3 days.
While we encourage you to read the full research study , below are the highlights of our main findings:
- The gap between European and non-European clubs has been increasing progressively. European teams (i.e., both CL and EL) have won more and more matches in their domestic leagues over the past two decades, with +0.3 and +0.2 points gained per game or a total of 8 to 12 points (over a full season) for CL and EL teams, respectively.
- CL teams do not seem to suffer much from congestion at their domestic levels. Despite the fact that their percentage of wins is lower when they play away, the drop in percentage of wins is similar to that of generic away vs. home matches (i.e., -0.1 points/match), suggesting that congestion and travels are not substantially worsening the effect of match location per see.
- CL teams’ winning rates during congested away/away matches are still largely greater than the average winning percentage of the rest of the non-European teams during non-congested fixtures (i.e., up to +0.5 points/match for CL teams).
Figure 2. Points per domestic match gained for Champions League (CL) and Europa League (EL) teams when playing a mid-week European match, for all four location scenarios over the past two decades: Home->Home; Away->Home; Home->Away; Away->Away.
- For top clubs, travel does not appear to impact performance when playing in their domestic league. The fact that European teams’ performance was similar for the congested home/home vs. away/home fixtures and between home/away and away/away fixtures shows that travelling is not that challenging for the top clubs to maintain their performance.
- EL teams win fewer domestic matches than their CL counterparts. However, all the trends over time (over the two decades) and effects of congestion and match location are similar to that of the CL teams.
Table 1. European teams’ performance when playing against non-CL or non-EL teams following a mid-week European game within only two days, or not (i.e., either the previous game was not a European game, or they had >3 rest days) as a function of the different combination of match location. Note that the non-CL pool of teams includes EL teams, and that of non-EL includes CL teams.
The full results of the study can be used by coaches and staff of European teams to motivate players while showing them how high their winning chances remain, even in the context of congested fixtures with European mid-week matches.
- To slightly increase their chances of winning against EL teams, non-EL teams should request to play EL teams following an away mid-week European match. Note that it may be even more advantageous to play the EL teams at home (i.e., 1-4% less chance to lose than when EL teams don’t have a mid-week European match, but with similar points/match gained).
- When playing CL teams, non-European teams should avoid the home/home congested fixture for the CL teams. This scenario is associated with the highest percentage of success and points/match for the CL teams during the last decade (77% of wins and >2.2 points/match).
For continuing research on this topic and other challenges our industry faces, please visit the Kitman Labs Performance Intelligence Research Initiative (PIRI).