For soccer fans, the next seven days are going to be pure bliss. Every Premier League club will play three games starting with Boxing Day (Dec.26th) and ending on New Year’s Day (Jan.1st); Arsenal and Chelsea will actually play four games between December 23 and January 1. The schedule of games provides BPL fans with the chance to escape from their holiday madness and plop down in front of their televisions to watch some spectacular footballing action.
But this logjam of matches also puts a real strain on Premier League players and managers.
At a time when they could be recuperating from a rigorous first half of the season and relaxing by a fireplace with some good food, players and managers are still braving the icy English elements in full preparation for three important league fixtures over a condensed period of time.
Football cynics will say they don’t care whether the scheduling is suitable to the players or managers because most are paid six figure salaries, live extravagant lifestyles and are treated like Gods throughout the year. But the fact is human beings need a break from work, and athletes are no exception to that.
Serie A, Ligue 1, the SPL and La Liga all give their clubs a few weeks off, while the Bundesliga shuts down its fixtures for nearly a month. The officials in charge of those leagues understand the amount of energy that it takes to compete on the sport’s highest level. They recognize how much damage can be done to a squad of players by pushing them to their physical limits over the course of a long season.
Every year around this time the argument for an English winter break is renewed and each year it is pushed to the side. The debate ends up being shelved by league officials because the bottom line for them is the Premiership is the most valuable league in the world; and the people in charge know that there is money to be made over the holidays. With every other major football league shut down the Premier League can take center stage on the world scene. And that’s an opportunity BPL officials aren’t going to pass up.
But the cost of playing matches in such rapid succession has proven to be really damaging for the majority of Premier League clubs. In eight out of the past ten seasons, BPL clubs that ended the season between seventh and twentieth place performed worse during the holiday schedule. More often than not these teams do not have the roster sizes that the ‘bigger’ Premier League clubs have. These ‘smaller’ clubs really have to navigate the holiday fixtures cautiously because if they exhaust their players to win one match, it will more than likely affect the result of their subsequent fixtures.
Take for example Steve Bruce and Hull City. On Boxing Day they will be hosting the defending champions of England, Manchester United. This is the type of match Hull City supporters have been waiting for since their club won promotion to the Premier League. The stadium will be filled to its capacity and the noise level will be deafening inside the KC Stadium for nearly three hours. It’s a chance for Hull City players to prove that they can compete with one of the most storied clubs in world football. They will be jacked up for this matchup from the time their bus pulls up to the stadium.
Under any other circumstance manager Steve Bruce (a legendary Manchester United defender) would be throwing everything in his arsenal in order to pick up the points against United. But with Hull City hosting Fulham two days later, and Liverpool another three days after that, does Bruce deplete his squad by going for the jugular against Manchester United ?Or play it cautious? Hull City are sitting on twenty points after seventeen matches, seven points above the relegation zone. But any slip up could see the teams below Hull City catch up to them with three games being played in only seven days.
The face of the Premier League table will be undergoing some drastic changes in the coming days.
Logic would suggest that Hull City will pack it in, absorb United’s pressure and wait for a mistake; or for a chance to hit the Red Devils on the counter attack. If the result is a draw, Bruce will take it. Then he can focus his team on beating Fulham in a match they statistically have a higher probability of winning; because three days later Hull City travel to Anfield to face the league leaders, Liverpool. And the odds of taking a point away from that game aren’t in Hull City’s favor.
Regardless of the outcomes, the bodies of Hull City’s players are going to take a beating during this time. It is never a surprise to see a player go down with an injury before New Year’s. The hope is that the injury isn’t too severe or extensive, because if it is, it would leave a club (such as Hull City) extremely shorthanded during the final stretch of the season.
Even ‘bigger’ clubs will be stressing over the holiday fixtures.
Liverpool are on top of the league table for the first time in five years. The last four Christmas Day leaders went on to lift the Premier League trophy in May (The bad news is the last not to was Liverpool in the 2008-09 season under Rafa Benitez).
Liverpool are ahead of Arsenal on goal difference, one point ahead of Manchester City, and two points ahead of Chelsea/Everton. In fact, the gap between the top spot in the league and seventh place is only six points.
Most experts would confirm that out of the ‘top’ Premier League clubs, Liverpool (and likely Arsenal) are ‘weak’ in regards to their squad’s depth. Liverpool’s early season success could be attributed to the fact that other BPL teams (Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United…even Swansea) have been competing in domestic and/or European competitions, while Liverpool have only had to focus their efforts on the Premier League.
To this point, Liverpool’s squad hasn’t been tested with a heavy fixture list.
But now Liverpool face the daunting task of travelling to Manchester City on Boxing Day; where City have won all seven games and outscored their opponents 35-5 this season.
With Liverpool also scoring at a high rate (two goals a game), some are predicting the highest scoring game in Premier League history. The only issue is Liverpool have to travel to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea three days later; before rounding off the holiday at home to Hull City on January 1.
How does Brendan Rodgers manage his team over this period of time? Liverpool are not a club that will “park the bus” and play for a draw. They are a high-pressing, attacking unit.
But if they exhaust themselves against Manchester City, how much will they have left in the tank against Chelsea? Sure, the players will be amped up for the encounters. But there is a point when the euphoria wears off and actual physical fatigue sets in.
Rodgers and his players (as well as other Premier League clubs) need to find the perfect balance between game effort, recuperation and game preparation during the holiday schedule. These are the issues which concern Premier League managers and players over the festive period.
Try to remember this while you are home and digesting your holiday dinners in front of the television: The Premiership has given us all something to enjoy, but it comes at a great expense to their clubs.
Premier League players and managers will be pushed to their limits in the coming days. Let’s see how they stand (literally) come January 2.