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Fixture congestion: it’s not just for the holidays anymore

Arsenal prepare to enter a brutal stretch of their schedule.

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Every year at schedule-release time, and again in about late November, there is always a lot of hand-wringing done about the holiday period in English football, and how congested that stretch of time is. England, as we all know, doesn’t really take much of a winter break - they go the opposite direction. While most European leagues shut down for a few weeks after Christmas, England ramps up the calendar.

This year, for instance, between December 1 and January 1, Arsenal play nine games, including a stretch of three in the seven days between 12/26 and 1/1. That’s a lot, particularly right there at the end, where Arsenal play Chelsea on 12/29 and then play Manchester United on 1/1. The relative strengths of the opponent don’t matter so much there as the fact there’s two games in three days, after the congested stretch of seven games before that.

You think that’s bad? Well, this year, late October takes a look at the “festive period” and says “hold my beer”. Between now and November 9, a span of 19 days, Arsenal have seven matches across three competitions. Every match is followed three days later by another match, with the exception of the luxurious four-day break between Wolves in the league on 11/2 and the away leg of the Vitória SC Europa league group game on 11/6.

I don’t know what the breaking point of all this is, but I do know this - there are human beings doing all this maximum-effort exertion multiple times a week, and with the way the soccer calendar works now, they’re doing it more or less year-round, with players involved in their national teams only getting small breaks between club season and summer qualifying/tournament/preseason friendly matches.

I’m not a doctor, nor do I know anything about training and recovery, but this all seems...unsustainable? There’s only so many times you can push a human body before it stops being able to be pushed, and while I know these are all young people who are quite well compensated for their work, it does make me wonder, for the athlete’s sake, how much is too much. I’ve long been a proponent of having less soccer, and seeing this stretch of time on Arsenal’s calendar only firms that up for me.

Problem is, I don’t have a magical solution here. I have lots of unpopular ideas (I’d eliminate or greatly reduce international soccer, I’d also eliminate those preseason world tours, and I’d remove PL teams from the Carabao Cup entirely, and make the FA Cup an U23 tournament for Premier League teams while allowing lower leagues to field their senior squads), but I haven’t really sat down and thought through what those ideas would look like in practice.

I just know that, for my tastes, there’s too much soccer. I love the game, watching it is fun, but, and again I know I’m probably in the minority here, there’s too much of what I love right now, and it’s getting to the point where it’s proving one of my long-held beliefs: if everything is important, nothing is. If we’re to believe that things like the Carabao Cup and the International Champions Cup are as important as anything else on the fixture list (and given the way the media hypes them, that’s clearly what we are to believe), do any of these tournaments really take precedence over the others?

At some point, the game’s going to have to course-correct and understand that it’s not as important to cram in as many games as possible as it is to make sure the games that do exist are as good as they possibly can be. Those two can’t coexist for long, so a choice will need to be made. Does the game want more, or does it want better? I’m not sure it’s physically possible for the people actually playing the games to have both.