For most clubs, that is a lofty dream. With the presence and commonality of injuries and the simply unpredictable nature of cup competitions, that is a challenge. Regardless, the best bet to at least remain a contender in everything a club puts its name into is to have depth.
Top clubs shell out millions of their respective currency to pull in as many great names as possible. Consequently, the benches for these teams could very well compete in any domestic competition in the world. For instance, Manchester City’s season opener against West Ham featured Kalvin Phillips, John Stones, Julian Alvarez, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez on the bench. That set of six starts for virtually any club in the Premier League, but Manchester City has more to offer.
On one hand, Manchester City prevents rivals from having these players. However, in 2022/23 in particular, clubs like City need options off the reserves and bench more than ever. The jam-packed schedule as a result of past successes and a mid-season World Cup throw wrenches into the common plans of a season. Rest, form and morale will play more of a role this season than any over the last five years.
The significance of 2022 and more competitions
While the COVID-19 pandemic now takes a back seat in terms of affecting players, the 2022 World Cup puts a strain on the season.
Domestic and European competitions have tighter schedules before the World Cup before they resume following Christmas. Each of the domestic leagues started roughly a week before their traditional beginnings. For instance, the Premier League opened play in 2022/23 on August 5. LaLiga started on August 12, which is no different from the last season.
The true difference maker is European play. The Champions League, which usually spaces out games for each team by a fortnight, now completes all six fixtures for all 32 teams in less than two months. Therefore, teams do not have European games midweek in just three of nine weeks from September 6/7 to November 1/2.
|Matchday||UEFA Champions League||Europa/Conference League|
|1||Sep 6-7||Sep 8|
|2||Sep 13-14||Sep 15|
|3||Oct 4-5||Oct 6|
|4||Oct 11-12||Oct 13|
|5||Oct 25-26||Oct 27|
|6||Nov 1-2||Nov 3|
Eric Dier, centerback for Tottenham Hotspur, is likely to feature in each of his club’s Premier League and Champions League fixtures. Despite the midweek games not starting yet, he already has complaints about the loaded schedule.
Talking to Standard Sport, Dier talked about the struggles of nonstop midweek games on the season.
“We’ve improved the squad, we have a squad with a lot of depth. We knew the last three weeks wouldn’t represent what the season is going to be like but now it really starts. There are a lot of games. I think it’s strange that we’ve had one game a week for three or four weeks, and then suddenly you’re playing midweek games until November. It doesn’t make much sense to me. But it is what it is.”
Plus, the only reason there is a larger break from matchday two to matchday three is because of the September international break. That spans from Sep. 19 to Sep. 27. Yes, the players step away from their individual clubs. However, this is a time when these athletes compete for spots on the final World Cup roster, it is hard from a ‘break’ as the name may suggest. Most countries have at least two games scheduled in that time frame as tune-ups to the November World Cup.
The 2022 World Cup
The World Cup itself plays a role. Usually, players are at maximum fitness after a few weeks or a month away from their club to prepare for the greatest sporting event. This year is, unfortunately, different. Qatar 2022 starts less than two weeks after the last game in the club calendar. That means less than two weeks of hard training and adapting to different systems before at least three of the most important games in each of these players’ careers.
Based on results at the World Cup, some players qualify for a break. However, those players on contenders like France, Germany, Argentina and Brazil may see seven games in a monthlong competition. Combined with the club season, some players, including Eric Dier, could see 28 games from the beginning of September to the end of the calendar year, not including international duty.
Therefore, depth plays a key role in ensuring that these European top clubs do not lose players to injury. In that case, any ambitions on the season could be derailed unexpectedly.
Depth in European clubs
There is reason to believe top clubs do not need depth. If clubs cash out on players solely there for the starting lineup, they can consistently use them and get results.
When Liverpool won the 2019/20 Premier League, only 12 players played more than 1,000 minutes in league play. Virgil van Dijk did not miss a minute. Almost five players played more than 3,000 minutes, or the equivalent of over 33 games. With the talent across the board, Liverpool hummed along to its first Premier League title, and first top flight title in 30 years. Lack of change allowed the players to take advantage. It made Jürgen Klopp’s job easy. Pick the same team, get the same result. That Liverpool side won the title by 18 points.
That is, unfortunately, theoretical more often than not. The ever-existent potential of injuries is a threat the consumes players young and old, talented and not.
Last season, Pedri’s injury for Barcelona cost the Catalan club one of its most promising players in a generation. A hamstring injury sustained towards the end of the 2020/21 campaign reappeared in the summer of 2021. Then, early on under Ronald Koeman, Pedri reaggravated the injury. That injury, sustained officially on September 30, sidelined Pedri until the new year. By that time, Barcelona sacked its manager, reshaped its roster via transfers and suffered relegation to the Europa League while Real Madrid ran away with LaLiga. All that happened as a result of a top European club lacking crucial depth in the event of a crisis.
Even that Liverpool side that breezed through the Premier League realized the importance of depth in the coming years. While no key players departed contractually, players did miss time. Virgil Van Dijk, who did not miss a minute in that record-setting campaign, tore his ACL in October of the following season. Eventually, lack of options came back to haunt the Reds, who struggled into a third-place finish in the league.
In 2022, those struggles are more likely to occur. With the transfer window now passed, rotation and fitness are at a premium for clubs with the highest ambitions.
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