The Premier League published the 2020-21 schedule earlier today. The specific fixture list is expected next week, likely August 21st. But even without knowing who will be playing who when, we know how the PL match days, international breaks, cup competitions, and European leagues will fit together. And friends, as I already detailed, calling it congested would be an understatement.
CONFIRMED!— Dale Johnson (@DaleJohnsonESPN) August 13, 2020
The Premier League has published its schedule in full, so THIS is your finalised packed schedule for the 2020-21 season. pic.twitter.com/imMzYDDSH6
That schedule is jam-packed, full to the brim, fit to burst, and [insert descriptor here]. Rotation won’t be a option, it will be a necessity. The quality of the football is going to drop. “Schedule losses” will be unavoidable. Most concerning is that there are going to be more injuries, especially fatigue-related ones, which can range from muscle strains to ligament tears. We saw it across the Premier League (and Europe, really) in the five week sprint that was the restart. Imagine what’s going to happen with similar schedule-pacing over an entire season.
I did some schedule congestion napkin math, as I am wont to do. Over the last five years, Arsenal have averaged 55.8 matches a season. In 2018-19, the last uninterrupted season, the Gunners played once every 4.9 days (I did not include the Europa League final nor the additional 10 days rest in that average, for obvious reasons). If Arsenal play 56 matches this season, the average rounded up, that’s a game every 4.77 days. Put differently, it’s an extra match every seven weeks, give or take. There is a good chance that teams in Europe will have at least one Saturday-Tuesday-Thursday stretch of matches.
That may not seem like much, but I promise you, it will add up over the course of the season. There is no two-week winter break in early February this year. When thinking about player fatigue, add-in the additional international matches in the October and November international breaks. Put that on top of players getting the bare-minimum of three weeks off instead of a full summer break and are you starting to catch my drift?
The schedule has four catch-up midweek dates built into the second half of the season. The FA Cup finalists will need all four of those to finish their Premier League schedule on-time. The domestic season has to finish on-time this year because of the European and South American Cups this summer. I’m assuming that’s a hard out, no flexibility.
If a team reaches the Carabao Cup Final, the FA Cup Final, and makes a deep run in Europe, they will be one midweek date short of completing the season. It’s not clear what the Premier League will do should that happen.
There are a couple other quirks to the schedule, already. If Tottenham reach the third round of Europa League qualifying (which they should), they will probably be fielding a U23 squad in the Carabao Cup 3rd Round because those matches are two days apart. They’ve got Arsenal winning the FA Cup to thank for that.
Manchester United and Manchester City still being alive in European competition complicates things. If they progress much further, they will likely be given the first week of the Premier League season off. If that happens, January 18th is the earliest that missed match could be rescheduled without conflict. Of course, the schedule makers could schedule over their Carabao Cup opening matches and force them to field U23 squads (which, to be honest, the bigger clubs will probablY do anyway). If either win their European competition, they’re in the UEFA Super Cup Final, another match to squeeze in. And if Manchester City win the Champions League, the still-scheduled-as-of-right-now Club World Cup becomes an issue. It’s a mess, really.
What I don’t understand is why the Premier League hasn’t front-loaded the schedule to create more flexibility at the back end. The clubs not in Europe are basically playing one match per-week until mid-December. Yes, some of them will have an extra Carabao Cup match or two, but the others will be idle. Create “possible” match days and move things around after each round of the cup. Use those dates to create a bit of a cushion.
Why treat the schedule like it’s sacrosanct, especially in what will be weird season to begin with? Be creative and flexible.
Picking up one extra match day in the fall for the teams in Europe would make the spring much more manageable for the Premier League’s marquee clubs. And while they’re at it, the schedule makers should try to create as much wiggle room for all the clubs as they can.
The Premier League managed to not have a coronavirus outbreak at any club during Project Restart with rigorous testing and a semi-bubbled approach. Can we count on that to continue for an entire eight-month season? That puts a great deal of responsibility on the individual athletes not to mess things up. Putting the onus on the athletes hasn’t worked well for Major League Baseball, who like the Premier League, aren’t confining players to a strict bubble.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway — I hope the Premier League continues its same trajectory. I hope the players stay COVID-free and the Premier League avoids a Miami Marlins / St. Louis Cardinals situation (both teams had significant outbreaks that have led to multiple cancellations). But with epidemiologists predicting an uptick in cases as we move into the fall and winter, it seems naively optimistic of the Premier League not to be banking schedule flexibility while they can.
I’m sure the league has talked about the possibility of an outbreak at a club. There are almost certainly contingency plans ready to be enacted. Perhaps the PL feels that the existing four catch-up dates will be enough. But still, why not prepare for the worst?
Anyway. Arsenal’s preseason begins on August 22nd, a whopping nine days from today. Some players, including those who were out on loan and saw their seasons end early, report tomorrow, August 14th. The Gunners’ first match is the Community Shield on the 29th. The Premier League season opens on September 12th. That’s less than a month, folks.