We keep hearing that Manchester United’s early-season struggles are partly due to a limited pre-season that resulted in a lack of match fitness. It is true, Palace, Brighton & Spurs had longer holiday breaks and preseasons than United, but not by much.
Both had around three weeks of holiday compared to United’s two weeks. During the restart, United’s higher number of matches with their involvement in the Europa League and the FA Cup likely resulted in higher levels of fatigue and the need for an extended break.
United played 14 matches during the restart compared to nine for Palace and Brighton. However, residual fatigue from the previous season is an entirely different argument than the one Ole is giving about a lack of fitness.
After the Palace match, Ole told TalkSports: “You can see on the pitch we can play so much better than we did. That’s the thing. It’s going to be a long season. We are going to catch up fitness-wise, but the main thing is that we improve with the ones that are here, and we’ll see what happens.”
He attributed the result to lacking match fitness, as well as a lack of sharpness, but not residual fatigue from a grueling end to last season.
A few days before the Brighton match, the Norwegian again hinted that match fitness is still ramping up. When asked about his club’s fitness during the pre-match press conference, he said: “Yeah, of course, we’re a week further down the line, it’s been a good week.”
“You Have to Look at the Data”
Further down the line suggests that the club is still not at the levels he would consider as match fit. During the season, sports scientists are always trying to optimize athlete preparedness by managing both fitness levels and fatigue rates.
Typically, when fitness is the highest, preparedness or performance is low because it is also the time when accumulated fatigue is the highest. In other words, when both fitness and fatigue are high, performance suffers. This is known as the Fitness-Fatigue Paradigm and can partially explain why United’s form dipped toward the end of the restart.
Their fitness was probably high, but their performances suffered as a result of accumulated fatigue from a large number of matches in a short period. Adding to the club’s fatigue was Ole’s reliance on the same starting 11, which was necessary since United lacked depth and were fighting for a Champions League spot.
There & Back Again
United began the restart brightly. After a draw with Spurs, they went on to win convincingly against Sheffield, Brighton, Bournemouth, and Villa. Yes, they are all mid-to-bottom table clubs, but the performances were thorough and lively.
In all likelihood, as the season wore on the performances dipped because fatigue was rising at a faster rate than they could control through recovery. Towards the end of the campaign, it felt like United were desperately trying to manage fatigue and hope their performances were good enough for top-four and Europa League.
United finished the season with a Europa League loss to Sevilla on August 16th. This was followed by an offseason break of two weeks. Assuming United players did absolutely no conditioning work during the break, its impact on minimizing fatigue should have helped performance.
The break was short enough to have minimal negative effects on fitness but long enough to dramatically reduce fatigue and thus increase preparedness. Therefore, a lack of fitness should not be an excuse.
If anything, not having a long enough off-season to mentally refresh and recover from little knick-knack injuries is more of a rationale. But it is something shared amongst all clubs.
I’m more worried about what a spell of 14 matches in 8 weeks combined with a short off-season and lack of squad depth will do to the club come November or December. This is when they will feel the consequences of such a short break, which puts extra pressure on them to get results early, especially against lower-level clubs.
Maybe United’s poor performances against Palace, Brighton & Spurs were due to a lack of sharpness, chemistry, or mentality, which is also hard to believe. All I know is that it certainly was not due to a lack of fitness.