How much football is too much football?

An already stacked footballing calendar is now at breaking point with Liverpool potentially now having to forfeit a Carabao Cup game because of a fixture pile-up

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 31 October 2019 15:30
Klopp: 'I don't remember the last time I had that much fun in a football game'

It might well prove the point at which the football calendar - rather, mercifully, than one of the players - finally broke under the weight of so many fixtures. That it came after an otherwise low-profile midweek cup match that was so packed with incident and still went right to the limit is in itself fitting.

Liverpool’s raucous 5-5 Carabao Cup draw with Arsenal could literally be “too much football”, as it now means the European champions are actually struggling to fulfil their fixtures. They have become victims of their own success, as well as victims of the authorities' attempts to absolutely maximise the very success of the sport.

Since the Carabao Cup semi-finals are scheduled to start on January 6, it means that Liverpool must play their quarter-final away to Aston Villa in a midweek before then… but there is simply no space in the calendar. Their victory in the Champions League, and qualification for an expanded Club World Cup, means they do not have an available date.

Even though it should not really be a problem Klopp has to think about, it gives him extra mental stress as regards planning, to go with the extra physical stress on his players. We may well end up with the farce of Villa just getting a bye, properly exposing the problem for all to see.

“I’m not concerned, somebody else has to be concerned, because we didn’t make the schedule,” Klopp argued. “But you have to think about these things, if you have a fixture list where one team cannot be part of all the games, then you have to think about the fixture list.”

And yet the current thoughts are to just throw more on, because everyone wants their piece. There are ongoing discussions about the structure of the Champions League, and more continental competitions. December's Club World Cup will in 2021 be expanded to 24 teams, further curtailing the summer break, because Fifa has been so envious of the Champions League. The international federations want to develop the relative success of the Uefa Nations League idea.

That they are considering all this is all the more remarkable given how much creativity is required to make the current calendar work.

At the recent Club Advisory Platform held at the Landmark Hotel in London to specifically discuss this post-2024 European calendar, one high-level English football source explained the extent of the challenge involved.

“The calendar itself is a delicate instrument,” the source said. “Anything new in it has an impact. The Premier League is against something that disrupts the balance, because any change has to be lined up against seven or eight changes. We’ve had to become experts in European competition design.”

The last line alone says enough. On top of all that, then, there is the ongoing challenge of reshaping the calendar to accommodate a winter World Cup in 2022 - yet another grand decision by the game’s powers that seems to have been taken without any regard for the actual sport, let alone so many workers in Qatar.

The Premier League can usually just present any season calendar to the clubs, without consultation, confident it will be the same. For 2021-22 and 2022-23, they have to discuss it with them, and seek compromises.

This is where we’re at. It’s now a sport where there’s barely space to breathe, let alone run properly. And the grand dilemma is that this does have an effect on the product they’re all trying to sell - or, as you'd describe it if you’re normal like the rest of us, the welfare of the game itself.

Many of the top clubs already stress about the effect of so many fixtures on their players, and how to navigate that. It means these players are rarely at 100% fitness, and their teams are rarely at 100% strength.

This is one reason why this League Cup quarter-final date poses such a challenge. The authorities mercifully finally realised relatively recently that players need at least 72 hours post-game recovery time. That at least prevents the type of fixture congestion Manchester United suffered at the end of the 1991-92 season, but opens up other problems.

Liverpool won a thrilling game at Anfield on Wednesday night

Compare all of this to NFL, or international rugby. It feels like all of their prime competition fixtures are proper events in their own right, with everything built up towards them, in a way that football just can’t allow. It means we’re not quite seeing the highest possible quality, even in matches of the highest importance.

The latter stages of the Champions League have recently been the highest-quality sport in the world, but it’s remarkable to think even that is someway constrained by the very rigours of the game. It certainly isn't top players at the peak of their fitness.

And this does have an effect on the fan - or, “consumer” - as well as the sport. You can now watch football any night of the week, and at many hours of the day. It means more and more of the game is more and more forgettable, just diluting the whole thing.

The Liverpool-Arsenal match was a case in point, almost football in fast-food form.

It was hugely enjoyable, of course, but that was partly because of the inherent lack of quality to the ingredients: both the line-ups and thereby the football.

Nor is it actually going to be all that well remembered - like Arsenal’s 7-4 win over Reading in the same competition, and in contrast to 2009’s Liverpool 4-4 Arsenal - because it doesn’t actually mean that much.

A lot of fixtures don’t mean that much, and yet they want to add more on.

The irony is that any more changes to the calendar could endanger this very competition.

Klopp has been vocal on the condensed calendar

“If there are more European dates in the calendar, it would put the League Cup under threat,” one source says.

It does feel like something is going to have to give in the cup competitions. The major clubs have already been pushing for the scrapping of two-legged semi-finals and the moving of FA Cup games to midweek.

There have similarly been debates at Fifa level about changing the international dates, and bringing in rugby-style triple and quadruple-match breaks, rather than the current double. The argument would be to improve the quality of international football through greater cohesion, and lessen the disruption of club football.

Klopp’s season has already been greatly disrupted.

“If they don’t find a proper date for us, then we cannot play the next round and whoever is our opponent will go through, or Arsenal plays - I cannot change that.”

It does feel like something is going to have to really change about the football calendar as a whole.

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