Since the new Millennium the Uefa Champions League expanded to include three or four clubs from the top six leagues. As the seasons past, the impact of the fatigue on the players wore on and we began complaining about how top player’s fatigue was spoiling the World Cups.
Watch how football has changed over the decades as a greater factor is the increased intensity of the modern game. In the past it was true that by winning the so-called smaller Cups, you gain psychological advantage where the momentum creates a winning mentality toward glory in the ‘bigger’ Cups. Now I believe it’s impossible to win the English Premier League, FA Cup and UCL treble.
How it works
For me the competition is not as interesting if I knew at the beginning of the English Premier League season, that the two clubs who didn’t even finish in the top six spots for Uefa qualification, were going to challenge for the title, Chelsea and Liverpool. Despite their awful 2015-16 season where they finished 10th, I had Chelsea as clear favourites because of their stronger individual mentality, higher quality across the pitch with higher financial investment, stronger depth and most importantly the experience of winning the league two seasons back. Yes, those are good reasons to win the title any season, but they shouldn’t be walking the title in 2017.
Antonio Conte deserves credit for transforming the team’s organization this season, but it was made much easier for them without a Uefa schedule. When I enjoy football, I don’t want to be thinking about fixture schedules as the decisive factor, but it is. Look at how less total matches aided Leicester City’s energy levels compared to their rivals Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City last season. You’d expect Man City to be the superior outfit there but their UCL run to the semi-finals was one of the distractions (not the only ‘problem’ other than the news of Pep Guardiola’s appointment).
Talking about City, how were they able to wrestle the title from Liverpool in 2013-14? You might site Steven Gerrard’s slip or the Crystal Palace 3-3 draw. No. Manchester City were brilliant all season, but their inconsistency around their Uefa games, gave the Reds an advantage to slightly nose ahead at times. Liverpool was inspired by the brilliance of Luis Suarez, but remember that with their wafer thin squad they competed for the title because they had no Uefa commitments. If you threw in a Europa League campaign, they’d have no way of contending with the added load.
This is why Liverpool didn’t win that title: In late February, Manchester City was knocked out of the UCL Last 16 round. You see, a team wins the title because of defeat in another competition. I clearly noticed that after this defeat, City’s focus on the EPL became sharper, much more motivated and their performances intensified. Without this factor, they’d have no chance of pipping the Reds by two points.
How did Liverpool themselves enjoy such an incredible final run in 2014? The pundits only talk about their awesome attack spearheaded by Suarez with the support of Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge (ahead of the anchor, Gerrard). Yes, Liverpool were brilliant all season and deserve the superlatives, but they were able to step up another gear, THANKS to their FA Cup exit in the fifth round. Look, their squad was so thin that even one change to that attack would bring in the dreaded Iago Aspas. Without the FA Cup and Uefa competitions, this team had enough recovery energy to storm the league, and so they went marching on a magnificent run.
The system's unfair to Manchester United this season
Critics had a go at Jose Mourinho earlier this season, but if he didn’t have the distraction of Europa, they’d be right in the title race now. Furthermore, take a look at how Liverpool were absolutely incredible until January. Playing two (or three) games a week in January then made the Reds schedule similar to what United or UCL clubs (like Spurs) had earlier in the season. Liverpool couldn’t cope and that was a major reason Chelsea left them for dust. If like Chelsea, the Reds had sacrificed the League Cup earlier in the season, their January schedule would’ve been much easier to contend with. The Reds squad was pushed to the limit at Christmas and New Year, spending all their energy up to the 1-0 victory against Manchester City.
Then when it was time to take a breather, rebalance their energy levels in January, they were stacked with having to play two matches a week for the entire month. Liverpool fell flat. Now, the football associations and fan critics would say that Liverpool needed to invest on a better squad. True, but these trends also affect strong squads.
Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham were able to catch up with Liverpool when the Champions League was on a break after the group stage. I’m expecting the Reds to regain their advantage gradually. We shouldn’t be thinking that if Spurs throw the Europa League, then they can stay ahead. There should be a pride to do your best in all competitions. Even though the manager’s tell you that they will give it their all in press conferences. It’s not so.
This fixture cycle is also important to Arsenal even when they haven’t spent enough over the years to win trophies; they’ve always qualified for the Champions League, because they’re usually out of the competition in the Last 16 round. This enables them for the final push, not to win the league, but to barely qualify for the UCL. The model is based not on winning competitions but on financial superiority. If Arsenal timed their seasons to spend their energy in reaching the final or semi-finals of the UCL (a better February and March), they wouldn’t be so assured of squeaking past their rivals for the 4th place trophy.
When were the last two times an English club won the Premier League and UCL double? It was Manchester United for both 1999 and 2008. The treble was before the tournament’s expansion and 2008 was an amazing achievement with the tireless Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez at the top. I use England as the example because their Christmas schedule gives them a further disadvantage to cope. You might say it’s useless to talk about solutions when the English FA themselves seem to care more about television money than running a fair league where clubs get a proper rest. Just look at how Liverpool got less than 48 hours rest between the City and Sunderland games, the turning point that began the slump.
When I watch the ‘’exciting’’ games over New Year, to me these are not proper contests. I can clearly see a number of players jaded on the pitch, and it’s become much more a case of players randomly taking advantage of opposition’s lapses, than proper organized superiority. Poor quality football is disguised as entertainment. In the modern game the difference is in the small details, so the FA’s need to respect true preparation and notice the loss of concentration throughout the pitch. You can’t blame clubs for failing to buy expensive players to sit on their bench when the fixture schedule is taxing you.
Even though Chelsea boasts superior depth to Liverpool, they made less changes to their starting lineup because they had less Cup games to play. I’ve noticed trends over many seasons, and I don’t like to say that Team X has an advantage now because they exited Cup Y. Horse A is going to slow down because they’re also in Race B, and Favourite Z is not in Race C.
Over the last two years the impact of these factors have uniquely heightened to a severe degree in the English Premier League, because unlike other leagues, the so-called lesser clubs are able to maintain strong teams thanks to the financial strength across the EPL. This results in virtually no gimme games. The top clubs must spend every ounce of their energy to even beat a club in the bottom three of the table. This is an attribute England is proud of, but their toll of fatigue will hurt them in the Champions League. Therefore Liverpool and Chelsea could win the UCL when they were nowhere near their domestic title races.
Next season, Manchester United and Liverpool would be favourites for the EPL title if they both fell outside the top six this season. Unlikely, but that will be their recipe for success in the league. You win a trophy by losing another. That’s what it comes down to these days. Fortunately, there’s so much pride and money at stake in the UCL, that LFC and MUFC won’t want to win domestically this way.
I could write much more on this subject describing the psychological difference, the physiological demands these schedules have on teams, the examples of all clubs in Uefa, modern science’s role in recalculating recovery time, the effect on medication/drugs to legally keep the players up to speed vs. long term setbacks, the effect on footballers private lives/family and stress levels – all of which would make the subject of a book - not an online opinion piece. All these factors and religious holidays should be respected by the football associations.
Without getting too heavy, how do we create equality in a system with unfair scheduling advantages?
Teams in the bottom half won't buy the Solution
The current getaway card of fielding a weakened team is not a respectable solution. It’s the stated problem. Another wrong way is to force all clubs to be equal in the schedule by giving them all two games per week during the busy periods. That might seem absurd to overstress the entire system, but increasing workloads on footballers is reflected in work places outside of sport too as financial objectives outweigh the common good. In football you have to reduce the load across the board to balance all competitions and improve the World Cups.
Solution: Reduce the leagues to 16 clubs. We got 16 clubs in the South African PSL (but we also got one extra Cup competition). The removal of four clubs in the EPL results in eight games less. Then during the Uefa club week, don’t schedule domestic top flight games. They got a week to prepare. It would take effect for the six group games so that the early stage of the season doesn’t build unnecessary fatigue, enabling clubs to reach their peak at the right time.
Then in February, there are two more slots for the Last 16 games. By the time we’re in the quarter-finals, there’s so less teams involved that it would matter less. If you got one or two English clubs in there, it's simple to reschedule their EPL games into an FA Cup week. Then FA Cup replays should be scrapped, going straight into extra time and penalties.
I’ve been watching football from the 80’s where we witnessed even three replays. Times have changed. I’ve seen the league reduced from 22 teams to 20 teams. I do expect them to swallow the bullet and reduce the list to 18 one day, but 16 is the way to go. That means reducing match income for clubs/stadiums and television. It’s a sacrifice worth taking.
In Africa the Afcon is every two years and the Caf Champions League group stage is going to expand from eight to 16 teams, increasing the toll on clubs here. As it is, one of SA’s three glamour clubs, Orlando Pirates were nowhere near the PSL title race in recent seasons, due to extended runs to two Caf finals. This season CafCL champions Mamelodi Sundowns are in the PSL title race, but I believe this could be an exception because they’ve enjoyed a mid-season break during the Afcon. Only two Sundowns players went to Gabon. So, a mid-season break is another solution in England, but we already know the English FA won’t entertain that option.
It’s time that clubs stop sacrificing one or two Cup competitions, and the associations sacrificed the income of a few games. The World Cup’s before the new Millennium showcased star players whom I couldn’t wait to watch at the peak of their powers. After that the likes of Thierry Henry, Leo Messi, Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo have been jaded by intense European competition, while others desperately recover from injuries to limp into the World Cup as a shadow of themselves.
Then if the players are turning into machines and a higher emphasis is placed on strength and fitness, then the values of skill and grace will be impaired. So, I hope that one day that the FA’s can sacrifice a few matches for a superior, quality product all round.