It’s tough to know who had the bigger workload during a Premier League festive period perhaps like no other – the players or the clubs’ medical departments.
Newcastle manager Steve Bruce lost four of his players to injury – and was forced to keep on the field a player, American DeAndre Yedlin, with a suspected broken hand – in a 20-minute spell around halftime during a game against Leicester on Wednesday.
Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe fielded already-injured players in his team’s loss at Brighton days earlier, while Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson acknowledged starting star player Wilfried Zaha against Norwich despite knowing he was carrying a problem.
Across a period where some teams were forced to play four games in an 11-day span, a website that compiles injuries in English soccer’s top flight – Premier Injuries – has calculated that there were 53 reported injuries sustained by players.
“Like all things in life, it’s about quality over quantity,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who has been one of the most vocal critics about the workload asked of a modern-day player.
“If you have a good friend and you see him twice a year, it’s brilliant, the best time of your life. If you see him every day, you’ll think after five days, ‘What the heck?’”
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, the owner of one of the best and deepest squads in world soccer, also spoke out Friday about the crammed nature of the festive period in England.
“Like I’ve said before, nobody cares,” Guardiola said, referring to soccer’s authorities. “And next season there will be more than 50 injuries in this period again.”
While most leagues in Europe take a break over Christmas and New Year, the Premier League plows on regardless, continuing a tradition in England that saw – at its most extreme – top-flight teams playing on both Christmas Day and Dec. 26 until the late 1950s.
It’s a dream for soccer-mad TV viewers – in England and around the world – less so for Premier League managers who are left to pick up the pieces as their squads are left in tatters at the heavy workload that often impacts on the quality of the games.
“The boys last night ran 13 kilometers (8 miles),” Klopp said, the day after his team beat Sheffield United 2-0 at Anfield on Thursday to restore its 13-point lead. “I can’t tell them, ‘Come on, try to run only 11 km so you’ll be ready for the next game.’ It doesn’t work like this.
“It’s more, it’s quicker, it’s more physical, it’s more demanding in more departments. But the schedule is the schedule. That’s the truth.”
Klopp called on all parties – football authorities, broadcasters, managers – to come together and discuss a solution, though he is not holding his breath.
“Try to think at one time in all these negotiations about the players,” he said. “Without the money, it doesn’t work. But without the players, it doesn’t work, as well.”
Wolverhampton and Manchester City played two games in less than a 48-hour period (on Dec. 27 and Dec. 29).
City, especially, has the capacity to rotate its lineup to keep players slightly fresher but there was no such luxury for the likes of Palace, Newcastle and Bournemouth, who already had a long lost of injuries to players.
“We have 10 out of 22 outfield players injured. It’s horrendous,” said Bruce, who added that he had never seen such an extreme situation in 40 years in professional football.
Hodgson said his players had done “extremely well during this period to actually get on the field and play.”
“Do you say we need to play what we think is near to our best team, and we put players on the field and risk that they are going to pick up an injury, or do we say we can’t afford to risk it with all the games we have coming up?” said the 72-year-old former England manager.
“It is a dilemma and I am still waiting for some bolt from the blue which will tell me what I need to do to solve the dilemma – but it hasn’t happened yet.”
FIFPro, an organization that represents more than 65,000 professional players, made a series of recommendations in a report – called “At The Limit” – it published last year.
They include introducing mandatory periods of rest, of four weeks in the offseason and two weeks midseason, and limiting the amount of times per season when players have back-to-back competitive games with less than five days of recovery time in between. FIFPro also wants soccer authorities to consider imposing an annual cap on matches for each player “to protect his health and performance.”
For the first time in English soccer, the top flight will have a midseason break this season. It will see one round of Premier League games played across two weekends – five games on one, five on the other – in February to give clubs a two-week break.
The then-chief executive of the Football Association, Martin Glenn, said when the new schedule was announced last year that it would keep the “much-loved Christmas schedule in place” and prove to be a “valuable addition for our players” who will be going into end-of-season international tournaments.
Try telling that to England captain Harry Kane, who came off after tearing his left hamstring muscle while playing for Tottenham against Southampton on Wednesday, or Tom Heaton, an England goalkeeper who is out for the rest of the season with knee-ligament damage sustained while playing for Aston Villa the same day.
Expect managers to roll out largely reserve teams as the English soccer calendar continues this weekend with the third round of the FA Cup.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80