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Football’s schedule is nonsensical—but likely to become the new normal

Intense fixture congestion is here to stay.

Soccer - Pre-season Friendly - Reading v Swansea City Photo by AMA/Corbis via Getty Images

Since Project Restart, Bukayo Saka has played 3,464 minutes in 9 and a half months. That equates to 38.5 full 90 minutes—essentially, half a game more than a full Premier League campaign worth of minutes. Saka is Arsenal’s future, and this amount of football is surely concerning those at Arsenal, especially given how many times Saka is subjected to fouls, pull backs and tackles over the course of 90 minutes. On the other end of things, Granit Xhaka has played 4046 minutes in the same time period, which equates to 45 full matches. Xhaka, at 27, may not be Arsenal’s long-term future, and he has shown that he can handle a high amount of minutes.

Saka and Xhaka, though, are just two examples of what is happening at the elite level of European football. Another example is the injury crisis at Leicester City. And while the calendar congestion of this campaign is very much due to the pandemic, it shows no signs of easing: many players, Saka and Xhaka included, will have the European Championships this summer, and the World Cup in November and December 2022.

There will be one difference between this season, and the 2021-22 season: at least football won’t go about trying to fit the same amount of games into a season that’s a month shorter. The Champions League and Europa League kicked off in October and finished the group stage by the time they always do; English clubs had the League Cup to contend with as well. International football continued, making up friendlies and postponed UEFA Nations League games by playing three games in an international break when they usually have two. All this, too, after not really having a pre-season, a concern that, Mikel Arteta said, all the managers in the Premier League spoke about.

There are other differences, as well. Using Arsenal as an example, the team didn’t get home from Greece until Friday night. They had training on Saturday, and then an early kickoff on Sunday. This, unlike many other scheduling factors, is not something that everyone has to deal with. For Arsenal’s game in Greece was a “home” game, rescheduled because the UK won’t allow people into the country from Portugal without quarantining for 10 days. Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City all had to play elsewhere in central Europe than otherwise scheduled; Molde’s home leg against Hoffenheim couldn’t happen in Norway, but could happen in Spain, while the return leg was played in Germany. Yes, it is easier to move matches when there aren’t fans involved, but the pandemic is not magically going to get better before the next round of European fixtures—something which UEFA seems blind to, without having any other possible solution other than moving games around because the Euros, which by the way are still definitely happening in twelve different venues across Europe, have to kick off by June 11th.

All of this is largely because of the same attitude: football’s desire to play on normally, even through absurdities like Arsenal’s home leg against Benfica being in Athens, and Chelsea’s away leg against Atlético Madrid being in Bucharest. And this attitude is probably financially driven: there are contracts to fulfill, part of which, as we learned last year when football was suspended, is that competitions must be finished by certain dates. But now that the health and safety of footballers has been well and truly shown to be secondary to fulfilling television contracts, the scheduling congestion is unlikely to get better.

Beyond teams losing money, a lot of federations have lost money. That’s why we’ve seen friendlies in empty stadiums. But once fans are allowed back into stadiums, especially at a closer to full capacity, it’s easy to see that more friendlies will happen, as federations seek to recoup lost funds. Indeed, now that the precedent for a 3-match international break has been set, it’s hard to see it going back, as there’s a benefit for national team coaches, who get more game time with their players and more possibilities to try new systems and players. The congestion problem, then, isn’t going away. Indeed, it’ll drive new tactical developments and squad-building strategies, but like almost everything else we’ve seen with the pandemic, the solution will hardly be equitable—we just need to look at the difference between Leicester City’s squad and Manchester City’s squad to see who is going to deal better with football’s post-pandemic new normal.