Until now: Premier League's relentlessness has offered no chance to think

The punishing run of matches up to this international break meant managers had no time to adjust when results soured.

Monday was the 81st day of the year, and just the 10th on which none of the 20 English top-flight clubs played a game.
The previous day without any fixtures in the Premier League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup, Champions League or Europa League was 5 March, 16 consecutive football-filled days earlier. Other than Fridays, of which six out of 12 have so far been clear of top-level football, the total number of days off in 2021 has been two. Essentially, if you are the type of football fan who likes to stay on top of the sport at the highest level, both domestically and in Europe, it is just as well that you have been in effect banned from leaving your house since Christmas because you would have been tethered to your television anyway.

If this season has always felt like a constant stream of soccer, the sense that we were dealing with an unusual quantity of matches was illusory at first. Between 1 October and 1 January there were 127 Premier League games, slightly down from 129 in the same period of 2019-20 and 130 in 2018-19, but they were unusually spread out to allow every top-flight fixture to be televised domestically, giving the impression that there were always scores to check, highlights to watch, fantasy league lineups to tweak.

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Since then, though, we have endured a footballing feast of truly Roman proportions, the kind that at some point has to be interrupted by a trip to the vomitorium. Between 1 January and 22 March 2019, the last year unaffected by Covid, 101 Premier League games were contested; this year there have been 131. Breaking that down to illustrate the increased workloads of individual teams, Manchester City have already played 16 Premier League games this calendar year when in 2019 they had played 10, and only three top-flight sides have played fewer than 13 matches when in 2019 none had played more than 11.

Rúben Dias has played 1,335 minutes of Premier League football in 2021, nine hours and 31 minutes more than Manchester City’s most hard-working outfield player of the equivalent period in 2019, Sergio Agüero. By 25 March, when England play their first fixture of 2021, there will have been 12 days this year when no Premier League side has been in action; by the time England played their first game of 2016, on 26 March, there had been 30.

It is hard to establish how much this has affected the football that is being played, particularly because Opta changed their definitions of both sprints and high turnovers for this season. It is certainly possible to argue, based on vaguely comparable fixtures, that there has been no drop of intensity.

For example, Everton played Chelsea at home on 17 March 2019, and away on 8 March 2021. During the two years between the games both teams changed managers, and with them styles and patterns of play, instructions both on the ball and without it, as well as playing personnel, but parsing the statistics what is surprising is how similar they seem. For example, Chelsea made 91 passes under pressure in 2019, and 91 passes under pressure in 2021; Everton’s total number of tackles and interceptions was 27 in 2019, and still 27 in 2021; Chelsea made 590 carries for a total distance of 3,265 yards in 2019, and 592 carries for a total distance of 3,151 yards in 2021.

But perhaps it is not in the matches themselves that the impact of all this football is felt, but between them. With players having hardly enough time between games to work on anything except their fitness there is little room in the schedule for tactics, leaving managers marginalised. If this is to be the first time that serial relegation-dodger Sam Allardyce has been unable to arrest the decline he has been expensively parachuted in to solve it is perhaps because of his antediluvian ways, potentially because West Brom’s squad is irredeemably hopeless, but surely at least partly because in this of all years – and accepting the impact that Thomas Tuchel has made at Chelsea – the mid-seasonal managerial switch is unusually likely to fail. Allardyce is a firefighter who is given only brief and very occasional access to the fire, which unsurprisingly continues to burn out of control.

There seem to have been unusually few momentum shifts in 2021. Manchester City have been riding the crest of a wave that never breaks, while around the turn of the year Liverpool, Southampton and Newcastle started losing and found they couldn’t stop.

This year’s schedule has prevented many managers from using the techniques that have served them so well in the past. Most obviously, in 2019 Liverpool’s third-round elimination from the FA Cup cleared enough space in their schedule for Jürgen Klopp to take the team to Dubai in January and then to Marbella the following month. That was the eighth mid‑season warm-weather training camp Klopp had taken his players on in his first three and a half years in charge of the club; there has been one in two years since. “It’s a long year, a long season for the players, and they need the change a little bit,” Klopp said from the Canary Islands in 2016, but this has been a year with no let-up.

The international break has forced the Premier League to pause. May this be the end of the madness. Manchester City have now played 30 league games this season, precisely as many as they had played on the same date in 2019, a season that had started 40 days earlier (and also the same as in 2018, 2016 and 2015). They have caught up. Premier League stadiums will continue to be empty of supporters, sound and spirit, but perhaps when domestic action resumes it might start to feel vaguely normal once again.




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