The first EPL winter break is currently taking place, leaving a much truncated fixture calendar last weekend and next.
By Dave Bowler
On the face of it, it seems a sound enough idea, giving players a week off, the Premier League having sent out stentorian instructions that clubs were not to use that time by heading off to China, the Middle East or the USA to play lucrative exhibition games, but should use it as genuine down time. Already though, it has hit the buffers.
First of all, given the first week coincided with the FA Cup fourth round replays, we had the spectacle of Liverpool playing essentially their youth team at Anfield against Shrewsbury Town. They’d done likewise in the League Cup quarter-final against Aston Villa when away on Club World Cup duty in December, going out of that competition.
They must have learnt from that game, progressing against Shrewsbury, but while Liverpool are an innocent party in it all, it can’t help but leave a bitter taste and add to the continuing devaluation of the FA Cup. And then we come to the vagaries of the British weather. Improved pitches, undersoil heating, better equipped stadia and climate change have all conspired to make postponements pretty rare beasts these days, especially at Premier League level.
But that was reckoning without Storm Ciara which blew in from the west and plucked the Manchester City v West Ham game from the schedule. That game can’t be played this coming weekend with both sides set to enjoy their winter break across that period.
For City, that postponement is a problem they could do without. They don’t play again now until February 19th, when the rearranged West Ham game takes place, despite technically eating into the sides’ winter breaks, and from there, will have to fit in a minimum of 16 games in three months. If, however, they were to get to the finals of both the Champions League and FA Cup, to add to the League Cup final that’s coming up, that could add up to as many as 24 more games inside 99 days – aren’t they lucky that this is a leap year?
That contrasts with 41 games – including the Community Shield – in 199 days up to the time they come back to play West Ham. In other words, from playing once every five days, things could ratchet up to playing every four days at the sharp end of the season when the competitions – the cup ones anyway – are won and lost. Of course, they could lose early in the cup competitions and play nothing like that many, but they’re not the only side with such hefty scheduling in front of them – Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, Manchester United could all face similar workloads depending on their level of success.
All of which makes it all the harder to understand why it is that so little football is played in the early part of the season, when players are fresh, pitches are good, it gets dark later and travelling for fans is generally easier. City for instance, played just once a week in the opening six weeks of the season.
Midweek Back Log
Ok, the early rounds of the League Cup for those teams not in Europe does complicate things in terms of scheduling league fixtures, but it should not be beyond the wit of the administrators and the computer to slot in two or three more midweek games then, so taking the pressure off the other end of the season should it? That is where the winter break might even prove counter-productive. The later in the season it gets, the harder it is to play those midweek games.
They’re all already carrying knocks and niggles by this stage and it’s the time resting and getting treatment between games that is crucial, just to be fit enough to go again in the next one. But having an extra blank Saturday means that an additional round of them has been squeezed in.
I suspect the players would have preferred to have done without the break, carried on playing on Saturday and just chalked off one of those midweek matchdays instead. Certainly the fans would prefer it, but who ever listens to them?