As we enter 2022 and reflect on the past month we look back on Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year (well, according to the song). A time for festive joy, family and friends. A time for the smell of mince pies, the scent of mistletoe, and the shrieks of moaning managers.
As night follows day and summer follows spring, with the festive period comes once more the perennial debate over English football’s hectic festive schedule. Football’s very own Ebenezer Scrooge, Jurgen Klopp, reared his head once more to vent his frustration at the close grouping of fixtures faced by English clubs over the Christmas period.
Klopp warned that his players “need help”, taking particular umbrage with teams having to play consecutive games on the 26th and 28th December.
The Liverpool boss’ comments offer a doorway into one of English football’s most vocal and polarising debates, a front on which Klopp has received support from a fellow bespectacled German import, Ralf Rangnick.
The current interim Manchester United manager bemoaned the lack of preparation time between matches, an inconvenience aggravated by Manchester’s typically inclement weather, leading to just “45 minutes” of training time ahead of their eventual 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace in early December. You may have to get used to that one, Ralf.
On the opposing side of the debate, inevitably, lies Sean Dyche. In his quintessentially macho, old-school, man-up-and-get-on-with-it style, the Burnley manager clamoured in favour of the traditionally tight schedule, rejecting recent consensus over concerns about player welfare.
Dyche claimed that player welfare is “off the scale” and managers should “get on with the challenge” in lieu of complaining in the press.
As in most cases, the solution lies somewhere in the middle between the two extremes. Player welfare is, without doubt, of paramount importance. The game is inherently more physical than ever – players run further and sprint more – and thus the footballing authorities must endeavour to protect them from unnecessary injury or long-term harm, as Klopp and Co. ask.
A winter break, a staple of many of our continental neighbours, however, is not the solution. English football’s rich tradition of festive football should not be easily dismissed.
The Boxing Day fixtures, for example, are not just integral elements of the English footballing calendar, but of society as a whole.
Furthermore, given football’s modern status as a hotbed for commercialism and ultra-capitalism, we must consider the financial viability of a winter break.
The festive calendar is the most popular time of the season for fans and consequently of extreme commercial importance to broadcasters such as Sky, BT and Amazon Prime. A winter break, modelled on its European equivalents, would significantly devalue the broadcasting contracts held by the aforementioned companies.
Would Premier League clubs be willing to take a significant hit to their back pockets in the quest for a lighter schedule? One only has to look at the greed of the leading clubs, exemplified by last year’s European Super League farce, to lend a guess at an answer.
What can be done then, if a break is not viable in the context of modern English football? The festive schedule, while crucial, is malleable, and elements of it could be subtly altered to alleviate pressures on current players.
To raise one point, playing on 28th December, so soon after Boxing Day, seems particularly unnecessary and lacks traditional foundations.
More midweek games could also be played throughout the rest of the season, akin to the schedules seen in the lower leagues, thus reducing the bottleneck-like squeeze of games seen over the winter months.
Unnecessary quirks, such as the two-legged League Cup semi-final, could be scrapped. Footballing authorities could be more aware when selecting countries with climates unsuitable for hosting major international competitions, thus requiring scheduling that further constricts and congests domestic calendars which have already been exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19. Yes, FIFA, don’t think that we’ve forgotten about that one.
Yet, it is not solely down to the footballing authorities to safeguard players. Managers and staff hold a responsibility, too. As Dyche bluntly alluded, the festive schedule is a challenge, and should be embraced as such.
It is an opportunity for squad players to play their part, youth players to stake a claim for a first-team spot, and managers to show their tactical and strategic nous. Whilst changes should be made to prevent injuries, the festive period should remain intense and frenetic. Only then can we see the best managers and teams truly rise above the rest.
Image: Darren-brown via flickr