LONDON -- A lot has been said recently about the overloading of players at the higher end of the women's game, especially in Europe. After all, those players on teams that go deep into the UEFA Women's Champions League are likely to be the same players who will have longer summers representing their nations at major tournaments. And as they get through more minutes in Europe as well as domestic competitions, they get less recovery time, with more games also meaning more travel and tighter turnarounds between matches.
Too much football almost seems like a dream problem to have, but the increased risk of injury through overwork and a lack of an adequate time to rehab between games presents a very serious issue. Even if you accept that injuries are part of the game, especially with a contact sport like football, you can still take steps to prevent injuries where possible. Yet with the expanding calendar and in the thick of five successive summers with a major tournament -- 2021 Olympics, 2022 Euros, 2023 World Cup, 2024 Olympics and 2025 Euros -- it's hard to know where players at the top of the game will get a break before they break.
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Just last month, Arsenal striker Vivianne Miedema was given a reprieve from both domestic and international commitments, having asked for time off as she tries to cope with the flood of games, not least as she continues to recover from the case of COVID she contracted over the Euros. The Dutch international spoke candidly on the BBC's Behind the Goals podcast about the injuries in the game and her own empowerment to ask for time out so she could get back to her best. As one of the most notable players in the European game, the striker is aware on the fortunate position she's in to be able to ask for some time out, with many others either fearing for their position in the team or stubbornly playing through injuries and minor complaints.
As Miedema said, "A lot of players probably don't feel the freedom to say 'OK, I do need a break'. I've been in a fortunate position to ask for it, to feel confident enough to ask for it, which looking back I should have done way earlier." The timing of that recent interview seemed bitterly ironic as the 26-year-old was forced off with a serious knee injury against Lyon during Arsenal's loss to the European champions on Thursday night.
The injury -- Arsenal have yet to confirm its severity -- could be the second season-ending one for the Gunners in quick succession, following Beth Mead rupturing her ACL last month. But they are far from the only issues the team has faced this season, with defenders Leah Williamson and Rafaelle only having just returned to the team following injuries suffered earlier in the season. Thursday also saw Kim Little named on the bench: the Scottish dynamo has yet to feature for the Gunners after injuring her knee at the end of October.
With a revolving door of casualties at Arsenal almost becoming the norm for the North London club, they're consistently the team that has to tax its squad depth over the course of the season. Indeed, when the [short-term] injuries began to mount in October and November, this season began to resemble the 2018-19 campaign, which was of course the last time the Gunners won the Women's Super League title. That year, Arsenal stormed out of the blocks in the early going, taking control at the top of the table before simple knocks and niggles began to pile up. What originally seemed like a stroll to the title then became a stagger over the finish line.
Speaking to ESPN after the Lyon loss, midfielder Lia Walti gave a nod to that title-winning season, talking about how rash of injuries only made the team more resolute. "I think it can even make a team stronger, holding together and that's what we want to do now as well, no matter how many injuries we have just stick together." The midfielder also praised the current depth of the squad as well as the overall strength of her teammates.
"We know we have such a strong squad and no matter who is injured we know we can cover it and I said that moments like that can be really important for our team, we grow together so much more, we get to know each other even better on an emotional side and it brings us closer."
The good news for Arsenal is there was a review in practices off of the pitch in the interim and indeed, Jonas Eidevall has not lost as many of his squad to muscular and loading injuries as his predecessor, Joe Montemurro. However, against Manchester United last month, it became palpably obvious that not having a player like Little available impacts the entire flow of the team. While there are players that can offset the goals Miedema would provide or the crosses from Mead, there are few who have an impact quite like Little. That then raises the question of who there is in line to replace the 32-year-old midfielder, either temporarily while she's recovering, or more permanently when the time comes.
This season we've already seen how injuries can mount and quickly derail teams -- indeed, Arsenal's 5-1 dismantling of Lyon at the Parc OL earlier in the Women's Champions League group stage will always carry the caveat that the French champions were without nine potential starters. For Arsenal, things do not look that bleak right now, but in their quest for silverware, it's paramount that those on the pitch for the Gunners find their best form in games, regardless of who is or isn't available. In the end, they won't be given many second chances domestically or in the Champions League.