For managers like Ancelotti, Guardiola and Mourinho, training time is limited
It was in Doha in January, and as Carlo Ancelotti took a sip of his espresso, he pursed his lips and leaned back.
"Guess how many full weeks of normal training we had between the time the season started and Christmas," he told a visitor. "Go on, just guess."
His interlocutor didn't have time to respond before the Bayern Munich manager waved a solitary index finger in the air.
"One," Ancelotti said with a sigh. "Just one."
You'd imagine the situation is similar at most top European clubs. Indeed, as Ancelotti admits, he's actually better off at Bayern because there are only 18 teams in the Bundesliga, a league that also has a month-long winter break.
Ancelotti, as well as others like Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and anybody else, who has taken over a top club, gets paid an enormous money to instill a philosophy, build a team and get it to play in the way he wants, all while settling into an environment that is new and unfamiliar. And it's not just fixture congestion, it's also international breaks and the timing thereof.
Bayern held their first preseason training session on July 11, the day after Euro 2016 ended. That meant eight of Ancelotti's senior squad weren't present and, in fact, he wouldn't actually see them for another three-and-a-half weeks.
Minus Jerome Boateng, Manuel Neuer, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Muller, Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandowski, Kingsley Coman and Renato Sanches, Bayern trained for two weeks and then flew to the United States, where they played games in Chicago (July 27), Charlotte (July 30) and East Rutherford, New Jersey (Aug. 3).
They flew back home the following day and began their competitive season on Aug. 14 in the German Super Cup. From that point forward, until the winter holiday, Bayern endured three separate international breaks -- September, August, October and November -- and, each time, lost the bulk of their squad for a full 10 days.
"So it's September, we're just getting going and I'm sitting there running training sessions with, literally, four players," said Ancelotti. "Some session, eh? You can really do a lot there... Not to mention the number of guys who come back injured after going away, sometimes halfway around the world."
Add the breaks together and it equals a full month out of the four-and-a-half in the first half of Bayern's season, counting from the moment in preseason that Ancelotti had his full squad available.
To put it another way, there are 138 days between Aug. 5 and Dec. 21, when the winter break began. Take away 30 days of guys on international duty, then omit 25 days on which Bayern played competitive games and also subtract days off -- say, 13, one for each week that the players were around.
That leaves 70 days of training, but still includes the day before matches, when it's all about light training and walkthroughs and, in the case of away games, travel. So remove another 25 days for each of Bayern's matches.
You're down to forty-five proper training sessions with a full squad. And that's a maximum, really, because you'll also have recovery days, players getting injured or suspended, training on their own and whatever else.
Most clubs train for an hour and a half a day -- some practice for longer and some have double sessions, but even then, given the risks of over-training, the sports science folks tend to put a cap on things -- and that includes warm-ups and warm-downs.
"So basically, the most important part, the one where you're actually on the pitch working with your team at full capacity is maybe 45 minutes," said Ancelotti.
Forty-five minutes of proper training multiplied by 45 proper training sessions is 2,025 minutes, or 33 hours and 45 minutes, spread over four-and-a-half months. Broken down further, that's seven-and-a-half hours per month which, most likely, is less time than what players spend sitting on the team bus over the same period of time.
And, remember, that's at Bayern, with their cushy one-domestic-cup-and-34-game-league-game schedule. For Premier League clubs the issue is even worse.
To those saying everybody is in the same boat and that, because they get paid handsomely, they should shut up and get on with things then, sure, except all of this comes at a cost.
One is fatigue, the risk of injury and health issues down the road. (Hang out with enough ex-pros and, between bad knees and bad backs, you may develop a new-found appreciation for the old Gianluca Vialli quote: "Sport is good for your health. Professional sport can often be bad for your health.")
The other is that you're not getting the benefit of practice. It might not "make perfect" like we were taught as kids but, if done properly, it makes you better. And yet here we have this incredible contradiction, whereby top managers are seen as gurus and paid millions and millions a year, largely on the strength of what they can do on the training pitch, only to be severely limited from actually doing it.
It's like handing the best ingredients to the finest chef in the world and then giving him or her 10 minutes to make a gourmet meal.
The knock-on effect is huge. You're not getting the full benefit -- in terms of tactics and style of play -- of the Guardiola or the Klopp in which you invested so heavily. (And, by the way, the investment in a manager goes well-beyond his salary, right down to the signings -- would Ragnar Klavan would be at Anfield if not for Klopp? -- and the impact he has on the club brand, which in turn affects commercial revenue.)
Managers have to make do with what little time they have and that means making tough choices. For example, between one quarter and one third of goals are scored from set pieces and yet many clubs will spend no more than 15 minutes per week working on them.
Moreover, there's little room for experimentation which, when it comes, often has to be done in games. That makes teams more conservative and affects everything from chemistry to team-building.
Down the road, there's a broader risk: Teams who don't train together enough tend not to play well. And players who play too much get weary and fatigued, which means they play worse. Other team sports -- the NBA, for example -- have even more intense schedules, but they also have much longer off-seasons.
Euro 2016, in terms of quality of play, was largely slated. Many cited the expansion from 16 to 24 competing nations but, for Ancelotti, there's a simpler answer: "It wasn't a good tournament from that perspective because so many of the top players were tired or carrying injuries. I know many of them, they were simply exhausted, physically and mentally."
"I get it, plenty have invested enormous amounts in the game and they need to see a return on their investment and that means playing more and more games," added Ancelotti. "But if it starts affecting the quality of the product, the entertainment on the pitch, then the extra games become counterproductive. The casual fan will switch off when there's too much supply. Less can be more, if it means maintaining the audience and the spectacle."
Earlier this season, Ancelotti met with FIFA's Marco Van Basten, who is tasked with brainstorming the future of the game from the players and coaches' perspective and seeing how things can be improved.
"I told him how it affects clubs, especially those monthly international breaks in the first part of the season," said Ancelotti. "It's not just about fewer games; it's about rethinking the schedule. I think we need an entirely separate international season, reserved purely for the national teams."
It's something that has been talked about for a long time and, while it presents all sorts of logistical challenges, it's worth considering. The well-being of players might not get the powers-that-be to make a change but economic factors -- if there is a slide in quality and viewership -- just might.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.