European football has been through a lot this season in a shorter timeframe than ever.
Usually an August event, things didn’t kick off until mid-September in England, Spain, Italy and Germany. Of the “big five”, only France’s Ligue 1 got going in a timely manner. No one gave up any important games of course. So it’s reasonable to ask: are Europe’s biggest stars just exhausted? Are the European Championships going to be less about talent, mentality or tactics than fitness? Is it going to be a big advantage to have fewer miles on the clock? Looking at the six sides the bookmakers most fancy, it seems this could be an underappreciated factor.
Favourites France aren’t in terrible shape. Those in their 26-man squad have played, on average, 3082 minutes of club football this season, which isn’t atrocious (per FBRef). The only outfield player to really go through it and clock more than 4000 minutes is Jules Koundé, who probably isn’t going to start anyway. Of the attacking core aiming to propel Les Bleus to Euro glory, Karim Benzema (3875 mins) and Kylian Mbappé (3703 mins) have slogged it out the most, though Benzema has taken international breaks off for the last five years, while Mbappé isn’t exactly a veteran. Otherwise things don’t look too bad, and Didier Deschamps’ direct style might not be as physically demanding as other approaches.
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France's forward Karim Benzema (R) and France's coach Didier Deschamps take part in a - France will play a friendly match against Wales on June 2 and against Bulgaria on June 8 as part of the team's Euro 2020 preparation

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England’s players, on the other hand, have been through the wars this season. The average player in Gareth Southgate’s squad has gone through 3294 minutes this campaign, over 200 mins more than France. England tended to press quite aggressively in the 2018 World Cup, and that’s unlikely to work with this level of player tiredness. Worst placed are Harry Maguire (4653), Mason Mount (4230) and Marcus Rashford (4144). While Mount hasn’t shown any signs of fatigue recently, Rashford has been playing through the pain barrier for some time, and only three goals in his last 18 games suggests he’s not quite able to play the way we’ve seen him at his best. On the other side, if you’re looking for someone to make a surprisingly big impact for the Three Lions, Jude Bellingham with only 2816 mins on the clock might have the fitness to really excite.
If you want a side that might really be fresh enough to do something big, you might want to take a look at Belgium. Roberto Martínez’s players have averaged just 2360 mins of club football this season, and plenty have done a lot less than that. Plenty of Belgians just weren’t in favour at their clubs this campaign. Youri Tielemans (4434) is the only outfield player with any major excuse to be tired. Now would be a wonderful time for Eden Hazard (895) to “wake up” after a season where few could argue he really exerted himself. Of the six favourites for the tournament, Belgium could be most likely to surprise in either direction based on how little football they have played.
Germany’s usual fitness advantage has been the 18-team Bundesliga’s shorter season than other top leagues. With only eight players in the squad plying their trade abroad, they’ve once again been able to keep the toll down. It’s not quite Belgium’s luck, but an average of 2989 mins is still better than France or England. Matthias Ginter (4140) and Mats Hummels (4084) are the outfield players to worry about, but otherwise everything looks fine. Jogi Löw hasn’t got much right in the last few years, but he has a real chance to make amends here. Germany might just have the fitness as well as the ability to have a real run at the trophy.

Mats Hummels

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Spain don’t look too different at an average 3001 mins, and they could benefit from players out of favour at club level, not unlike Belgium. Eric García (860) seemed to be uninvolved at Manchester City due to a contract standoff more than anything else, so he should be raring to go here. His club teammate Ferran Torres (2110) took a while to settle in the Premier League but might be coming into this tournament in very good condition, not unlike Thiago Alcântara (2201) who only really started showing his best work in the past two months. At the end of the day, it could be worse for La Roja.
Last but by no means least, Portugal have a squad of extremes in this regard. The average of 2975 mins looks good, but that’s not a clear indicator of what’s happening. Key players Bruno Fernandes (4573) and Rúben Dias (4330) have played as much as just about anyone this season and could certainly feel it. The obvious star man Cristiano Ronaldo (3750) isn’t quite as bad, but it’s still a lot for a 36-year-old, even one as superhuman as him. At the other end of the scale you have João Félix (2351) and Diogo Jota (1760) who could absolutely make a big impact here. The key for Portugal might be in making use of substitutes. Perhaps Ronaldo might not always make it for the full 90 minutes, but a fresh Jota can certainly come on and wreak havoc for the last half-hour.

Bruno Fernandes looks dejected

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Can we really be confident this will be a decisive factor? Certainly not. But with the amount of football these players have been through in a condensed period, fatigue seems to play a bigger factor than ever. We have no real idea on the outside of these players’ actual fitness levels, but we know they’ve been pushed and tested in ways they’ve never been challenged previously with the Covid-era calendar. Any chance these footballers have had to catch a break is probably going to help a lot, and could tip the Euros in a certain direction.
Five substitutes could definitely be more important in this context than previously. The ability to rotate on fresh legs in attack is something that will never be more valuable than in a competition of exhausted players, and enough of these sides have the squads to do it really well if they choose to. They’re not for the purists, but these kinds of things – more aggressive substitutions, a less physically demanding tactical style – could be the difference between winning or losing at the European Championships.
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