Naturally it will be the leading clubs that will have the largest number of returning World Cup players, with Chelsea’s stars having amassed around 4,000 minutes of World Cup football, although this headline number will change with transfer activity.
The conclusion of the World Cup coincided with the start of pre-season training for many Premiership teams, causing disruption, as players were given more time to rest both physically and mentally from their summer exertions.
Transfer activity is also hectic in the summer window so newly signed players, fresh from the World Cup, will also have a shorter timeframe to adjust to their new surroundings and team mates.
Therefore, we have all the ingredients to create a narrative, whereby poorer than usual early season results can be attributed to burnout. Examples of such enticing cause and effects, should they occur, are difficult to resist. However, the complex interactions that go towards deciding the result of a football match are rarely determined by a single cause.
A World Cup campaign may have hindered the preparation of England’s best club teams or, alternatively, a positive experience for their most talented players may spur them on to greater deeds. But attempting to extract the size and direction of an effect is likely to be hidden by more universal causes of fluctuating fortunes in small runs of results.
The 2010 World Cup as an example
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa had the same 34-day gap between final and opening day in the Premiership, so in lieu of mere speculation we can at least use data from the 2010/11 season as a pointer towards 2014/15.
Virtually every Premiership team during the 2010/11 season had players returning from the World Cup in South Africa, although there was also a certain amount of player movement during the summer break.
Manchester City saw nine of their registered players travel to South Africa, but that number was supplemented when they acquired such players as Yaya Toure, David Silva and James Milner in the summer window.
Liverpool also boosted their overall number of World Cup participants by signing Raul Meireles, Poulson, Joe Cole and Jovanovic, with Mascherano departing for Barcelona after a single appearance. As a consequence, Liverpool’s players experienced the largest accumulation of playing time at the tournament of the big five clubs, followed by Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and finally Manchester United.
One of the simplest ways to attempt to track player performance is to look at playing time. If a player is performing well and is injury free, then he will likely be a regular choice and so his playing time will increase.
Chelsea’s returning World Cup stars participated in 70% of the total Premiership playing minutes available to them during August and September of 2010. So they were regular and presumably productive members of a club that often operates a squad rotation policy.
Both Manchester clubs and Liverpool were repaid with 60% of available playing time and only Arsenal dipped below 45%, primarily due to an injury sustained in South Africa by Bendtner and a subsequent injury to van Persie in late August at Blackburn.
These figures remained broadly similar over the course of the 2010/11 season, once movement in the January window is allowed for. Manchester United and Arsenal benefitted from their World Cup players being slightly more involved over the season as a whole compared to their participation levels over the opening six matches.
The number of shots attempted at the World Cup by each side’s group of players and over the opening months of the Premiership may not be directly comparable. The levels of competition, quality of team mates and tactical requirement will differ. However, it seems likely that the players were performing at least at similar levels on their return to Premiership duty.
Manchester City’s newly assembled group of World Cup participants attempted a shot once every 99 playing minutes at the finals, but threatened the goal once every 55 minutes once they were back in early Premiership action.
Four of the highlighted teams recorded higher shooting rates in August and September compared to their players efforts for their countries a month earlier in South Africa. Only Arsenal saw a decline, mainly due to van Persie’s absence through injury.
World Cup players, as a group, also tackled more frequently back in the Premiership and while this may be because of the different demands of international football, it may also indicate high levels of physical effort, even after a challenging World Cup tournament.
The bottom line for performance for many will be a side’s points total. After six matches in 2010/11, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City occupied the top four spots. Positions they would sustain, although not in that order, to the end of the season.
Liverpool, alone of the traditional big five was becalmed in 16th spot with just six points from the same number of games, although they had faced both Manchester teams and Arsenal. There had been a recent managerial change, along with an influx of new additions and the side had also started a Europa League campaign that included six matches before the end of September. Each of these factors could also contribute toward a slow start.
However, a much more common experience is a side merely producing atypical results in a short period of time simply through random chance. Liverpool could still be a top five team and yet expect to gain just a point a game from their opening six matches over 14% of the time.
Sixteenth spot was slightly less likely, occurring in 8% of simulations using actual match day odds from 2010/11, but Liverpool were placed just a point below 10th at the end of September. So the table in late September was still relatively fluid from halfway downwards.
We may be using imprecise tools and results from a single league, but 2010 provides little, if any evidence that a team may suffer early season disruption or longer term decline in a season immediately following a World Cup tournament.
Four of the most heavily involved club sides at the 2010 World Cup dominated the early season, enjoyed good use of their stars and maintained their form over 38 games. Returning players were both productive and physically involved in matches.
Some sides, most notably Arsenal, lost important attacking options, but coped well and early season injury is not unique to post World Cup domestic campaigns. The poor start by Liverpool could have had multiple causes or simply been an expected, if relatively uncommon consequence of judging a team over a handful of games.
In addition, teams can rotate their squad with little loss of quality and increasingly appear able to balance the needs of pre-season fitness and rest. So betting on a dip in performance from the stars of Brazil 2014 or their clubs appears to have little substance.