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Arsenal’s 2020-21 schedule is taking shape

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The pieces are falling into place, but there are still details to iron out.

Arsenal v Chelsea - FA Cup Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

With Arsenal securing Europa League qualification with an FA Cup win over Chelsea, a few more pieces of the Gunners’ 2020-21 season have fallen into place. And things are starting soon — the Community Shield is 27 days away.

Although nothing has been confirmed, the scuttlebutt is that Arsenal will give the players three weeks off. That would have the squad back in training about a week before the Community Shield, finishing preseason training piecemeal around the early September international break, and starting the season the weekend of September 12th.

The transfer window is currently open. It began on July 27th, the day after the Premier League season ended. It will remain open through October 5th (the day before the UEFA CL and EL squad registration deadline) for international transfers. There is an additional EFL-only window that will remain open through October 14th. In it, Premier League teams can conduct loans and sales with EFL teams but not with each other and not internationally.

It’s going to be an extremely congested schedule — basically the “festive fixture” period but for an entire, 8-month season. Here’s what we know so far about Arsenal’s schedule, international fixtures and other key dates included:

  • August 29th: Community Shield vs. Liverpool
  • September 3rd-8th: International Break — 2x UEFA Nations League matches
  • September 12th: Premier League resumes
  • October 2nd: Europa League Group Stage draw
  • October 7th-October 14th: International Break — 1 int’l friendly, 2x UEFA Nations League matches — this is a change from previous seasons. UEFA has extended the break and added a match and done the same for November.
  • October 22nd: EL Matchday 1
  • October 29th: EL Matchday 2
  • November 5th: EL Matchday 3
  • November 11th-18th: International Break — 1 int’l friendly, 2x UEFA Nations League matches
  • November 26th: EL Matchday 4
  • December 3rd: EL Matchday 5
  • December 10th: EL Matchday 6
  • Early January: FA Cup 3rd Round
  • Late January: FA Cup 4th Round
  • Late February: EL Round of 32
  • Early March: FA Cup 5th Round
  • Mid March: EL Round of 16
  • Late March: FA Cup QF
  • Mid April: EL QF, FA Cup SF
  • Late April/Early May: EL SF
  • May ??: FA Cup Final
  • May 23rd: Premier League season ends
  • May 26th: Europa League Final
  • May 29th: Champions League Final
  • June 11th: Euro 2020, Copa America 2020 (*2021) begin
  • July 11th: Euro and Copa America Final
  • Early August: 2021-22 Premier League season begins

Interspersed among all those dates, they’ve got to play a 38-match Premier League season. We’ll breakdown the schedule once it is officially announced. There is no set date for the release as of yet.

The international competitions scheduled for Summer 2021 create basically a hard out at the end of the season. There really isn’t room to reschedule matches beyond that May 23rd end date. Based on my personal schedule scribbling, it looks as if the Premier League will need to pick up between 5 and 7 midweek matches at a minimum per team to make the season work. Usually, the midweek league matches are stacked towards the end of the season, but with so little flexibility late in the schedule already and the need to keep a few midweek dates open for FA Cup-forced PL match rescheduling, I wouldn’t be surprised to see midweek matches starting as soon as the schedule-makers can squeeze them in.

The playoff stage of the UEFA Nations League does not yet have a set date but will likely be sometime in the spring. It will only include 4 teams — the winners of each group in League A of the UNL. There will also be Play Out (relegation) matches for the bottom teams in League C to determine who falls to D. Presumably the non-participating countries will at least have the option to schedule friendlies in the same window as those competitive matches. That will take another chunk of days out of the Premier League calendar, presumably sometime in March.

There will not be FA Cup replays this season. Instead, the teams will play 30 minutes of extra-time followed by a penalty shootout.

The Carabao Cup is still in flux. Normally, as a Premier League Europe-qualified team, Arsenal would enter the competition in the third round. Last year, that took place in the last week of September. But understandably, Premier League teams have expressed concern about the additional matches and the fixture congestion. They have proposed using U23 sides in the competition, which has been met with some hostility from EFL clubs concerned about the impact such a move would have on sponsorship and broadcast revenue. Negotiations are ongoing between the EFL and the FA.

Also on the docket for upcoming meetings is the five substitute rule. FIFA and the IFAB have extended the option to use five substitutions in all competitions through the end of August 2021. It is up to the individual leagues and competitions to decide whether they will take advantage. For the Premier League, those meetings won’t take place until after the final promotion spot is determined in the $125-million dollar match on August 4th, where Fulham play Brentford to determine who will be promoted alongside Leeds and West Brom. The clubs are also expected to discuss possible changes to VAR and the handball rule.

Even though the five substitution rule gives the bigger, wealthier, deeper clubs a leg up, I expect the Premier League owners to vote to keep it in place this season. It’s a player safety thing. Look at all the injuries that piled up during the restart. That’s only going to get worse as we move into another congested season after a curtailed summer break. The water breaks, however, are not expected to continue.

The Premier League is talking about trying to bring back a limited number of fans, somewhere between 30% and 50% capacity, sometime after October 1st. That is, if things continue apace. That will bring an entirely new set of challenges.

In a way, Arsenal are fortunate not to still be in the Europa League because it gives the club and the players some much needed time off. The teams still alive in Europe have more matches starting in a few days. The Europa League and the Champions League will finish up their remaining matches beginning on August 5th and 7th, respectively. There are four Champions League Round of 16 second leg ties to be played, and six Europa League Round of 16 matches to be played. The Champions League will then move to Portugal for a final eight, straight knock out tournament starting August 12th with an August 23rd final. The Europa League will do the same in Germany starting August 10th ending on the 21st.

Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Wolves are still alive in Europe. The Premier League is expected to give those clubs time off, likely three to four weeks, between the end of their respective European campaigns and 2020-21 league kickoffs. If all four drop out of Europe immediately, they should be able to open the season with the rest of the league, otherwise they’ll be starting late.

That’s definitely the right move for player health and safety, by the way. But it kicks the problem down the road. At some point, whatever matches they don’t play to start the season are going to create congestion.

All the clubs with national team regulars are going to have to give their stars time off, especially with three international matches during both the October and November breaks. Squad rotation and depth will be even more important this season because there will be games that some guys simply aren’t rested enough to play. And that’s to say nothing of the inevitable uptick in injury frequency we’ve already seen during the restart — that’s not going to go away just because of a few weeks off.

With Pablo Mari, Shkodran Mustafi, Calum Chambers, Gabriel Martinelli all starting the season on the shelf injured, no indication that Mesut Özil is coming back into favor, and Matteo Guendouzi being shopped, squad depth is not exactly a strength for Arsenal heading into next season. Heck, Matt Smith, a 19-year old without a senior team appearance to his name, just made the bench for the FA Cup Final. I wouldn’t call it an “emergency” quite yet because the Gunners have some new (William Saliba) and returning (Emile Smith Rowe) faces available, but the club needs more bodies for the churn that next season will be, and they have limited funds with which to make that happen (but all that is another post for another time).

All this assumes the matches can and will be played on-time, as they are scheduled. In the middle of a worldwide pandemic, that is absolutely not a given. There will be more travel next season because seven (or possibly eight) Premier League clubs will be in Europe and players will be periodically heading off for international duty. Put aside the increased risk of getting COVID the additional travel brings, the logistics alone are a nightmare. Players, clubs, national teams, and governments are going to have to navigate differing travel restrictions, quarantine requirements, safety rules etc. from country to country.

England and other countries will continue to reopen. Players will get tired of living in whatever level of isolation they have created for themselves for the short sprint of Project Restart. 2.5 months is one thing, 9 months is another. Hopefully things will get progressively safer, but that’s not necessarily a given. The risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at a club is still very real. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few matches postponed. And the Premier League doesn’t have much time-wiggle room to play with.

I’m particularly concerned about those early September European dates from a COVID perspective, from a fitness and fatigue perspective, and on and on. Although I guess there’s not much reason to speculate and worry about it.

There’s going to be an extremely congested season in a few weeks. The Project Restart experiment went well enough, but a full season with international travel is a much bigger ask. Let’s hope it comes off alright.