Injury Time

What time is it? Time for more fitness problems on Mourinho’s hands.

They cannot do it anymore; the process of chasing the two, lone Premier League leaders hardly even exists at the moment. Manchester United drew yet another game and took their tally of points dropped in April to six. Manchester City went exactly the same route and now they’ll look back at the same month regretting the loss of seven. Arsenal shed eight and secured the first cancelled St Totteringham’s day in 22 years. Liverpool, a bit happier than everyone else, botched five but they still had to make a blood-sweat-and-tears type of a comeback at Stoke. The top seven teams do outrun everyone else by at least fourteen (!) points, but they’re unable to demolish the cannon fodder they way they should be. Which is also the reason why Spurs and Chelsea are both on a double-digit lead over the field.

This weekend’s results and the performances that produced them have proven, once again, that Premier League is facing a serious dilemma: how to provide it’s fans with top-quality entertainment during the spring, when at least half of the star players are either grounded in the physio rooms with injuries or are so physically and mentally drained that they’re barely able to string two good performances. It is not a surprise that Chelsea and Spurs are cruising; after all, The Blues could rest or prepare when everyone else has been playing in Europe. Tottenham, stronger than ever in the domestic race, owe their current success partly to bottling their continental chance – and, by the way, with the youngest starting XI in the league, they probably have slightly higher resilience to the physical strains of this campaign.

There are several ways to tackle this problem. Employing more strict officials, capable of protecting players’ legs better could be a start. This season, in 343 games, they might have brandished 1261 yellow cards, which already surpasses the 380-game tally from the last season by 73 cautions. However, at the same time, the number of sending offs dropped from 59 to mere 39, suggesting that the referees have serious issues with providing early showers for repeat offenders. Either way: compared to staggering 1767 yellows and 83 reds we’ve had in the current La Liga season, Premier League officials come off as lenient towards the rough challenges. Which would have been fine – except that, coincidentally, it’s La Liga teams, who are stealing the spotlight from EPL in Europe and offering quality football in April.

But, since tightening the rules would go against the aggressive, adrenaline-driven image of EPL – how about reducing the workload of all players instead? Already in November 2015, FA chairman Greg Dyke proposed the reduction of the top-flight and adopting the Bundesliga / Serie A standard of 18 teams and 34 games. His idea has been quickly stomped by league’s chief executive Richard Scudamore and the clubs, as it would significantly decrease the gate and sponsorship revenue of all parties involved. The other, more down-to-Earth solution would be scrapping Capital One Cup – an entirely pointless competition marred by empty seats and high-profile clubs beating mediocre sides with their reserve players and youth prospects. Surely, a tinpot, £100.000 worth of first-prize trophy could be put to sleep?

Of course. Except that… even with the League Cup clogging the calendar, Premier League footballers aren’t nearly as overworked as one would’ve assumed. As of today, Manchester United are the busiest English top side out there, clocking 57 games in all competitions. Their local rivals City are on 52; Arsenal on 49 and Europe-less Liverpool – on 43. Comparing to the likes of Monaco (57 games), Barcelona (55), Atlético (53), Real Madrid (52), Bayern (50) or Juventus (49) – English sides do not seem to be on any significant ‘fatigue disadvantage’ in terms of sheer volume of football being played. Perhaps the difference in number of games would have been more significant had EPL teams gone further in Europe – but then, again, they tend to get eliminated in the stages when heavy legs aren’t much of an issue yet…

That leaves the third, probably the least acceptable option: making the field less competitive by distributing the money less evenly. We live in a world where English top-flight tail-enders are making roughly 60 percent of the money picked up from the pitch by the domestic champions. The same ratio for Bundesliga is about 40 percent; in Serie A – about 25 percent; in La Liga – only slightly above 10 percent. Coincidentally – the higher those percentages are, the more exciting a competition becomes for a neutral fan. Alas: what’s a blessing to a viewer becomes a curse to the major clubs, interested in having as many comfortable fixtures as possible. In times when Watford, West Bromwich and Bournemouth can easily afford to break their transfer records, ‘an easy ride’ becomes a thing of the past.

Steve Cook and his Cherries have managed to steal 4 points from Liverpool.

Last but not least, there’s also the currently implemented solution. Namely: ‘let the bodies hit the floor’ solution. It’s been only two days since José Mourinho, half-jokingly suggested that he might play as a MU’s centre-back himself. As for his alternatives: Chris Smalling has injured Phil Jones during the England’s national team training and picked up a muscle problem himself soon afterwards; Marcos Rojo, normally a back-up option, went down with a knee damage 19 minutes into the Europa League quarterfinal against Anderlecht. Yesterday, against Swansea, it was Eric Bailly (already been injured this season, just made a comeback) and Daley Blind (#4 or #5 in The Special One’s pecking order), who had to step up. And, boom! Bailly left the pitch limping, prompting a social media meltdown:

That’s only the tip of the iceberg for United. Last weekend, Red Devils went in there without Paul Pogba (picked up a knock against Burnley; should be back in a matter of days), Zlatan Ibrahimović (suffered a potential career-ended against Anderlecht) and Juan Mata (sidelined with a groin problem since March; on a brink of full-time return now). Another defensive option, Timothy Fosu-Mensah has dislocated his shoulder in a heroic 0-0 draw in the prestigious Manchester derby. What is going to happen on Thursday, when this troubled team arrives at Vigo to face Celta? This seasons’ on-fire forward, Liverpool’s former employee Iago Aspas might face ‘the wall’ formed by Daley Blind and out-of-position Michael Carrick. The last time the latter played in that slot was back in February 2016…

This is by no means the first huge crisis a big EPL side is suffering this season. Liverpool, looking like a genuine title challengers back in September, have been going from woe to woe with their attacking powerhouse, Philippe Coutinho, getting his ankle messed up against Sunderland. In 2017, Jürgen Klopp had to watch his other key player, Sadio Mané, working his socks off in Africa Cup of Nations while back in Merseyside, his other top lads, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge, also missed out on many games due to fitness problems. Adam Lallana’s thigh problem brought back to Liverpool from England’s international duty further amplified the catastrophe; without their driving, attacking force, The Reds registered a winless January and effectively adjusted their goals towards just a top-three finish.

Arsenal, the poor Arsenal that’s been calling for a managerial change even more than in the previous couple of years, also had to live with several blows. Until October, Santi Cazorla led Gunners to nine wins in eleven games he’s appeared in – until his Achilles tendon gave in a Champions League match against Ludgorets. A week later, the weakened North London team was unable to open Middlesbrough’s defenses at home and that problem continued to haunt them through the entire season. And just when it seemed that this exhausted the club’s capacity for misfortune: Laurent Koscielny (knee) and Shkodran Mustafi (hamstring) both went down, forcing Arsène Wenger to switch into a 3-4-2-1 system. The damage has already been done, though: six league defeats in eleven matches and 2-10 crash against Bayern.

As this was going on, Pep Guardiola attempted to outsmart the fate and play around the elephant in the room by extensively rotating his starters. Apart from a long-term case of İlkay Gündoğan’s knee, it worked out fairly well in terms of fitness – but at the same time, it became more and more problematic in terms of performance. Played on and off, his players struggled with productivity at both ends, suffering a handful of embarrassing results, such as 0-4 to Everton, 2-4 to Leicester and two draws with Middlesbrough. Manchester City are surely going to start the next season with several new players and very strong odds for winning it all – but they’ll also come to a sad realization that a team with a fluid lineup can never be as flawless as a team that can afford to play a consistent eleven.

Which, by the way, is why Premier League has an issue. Because, at the end of the day, after all this monumental job is being done in training, the margin between success and failure is drawn heavily by the presence or absence of the injuries. Last year, Leicester had barely any; this season, Chelsea and Spurs follow the same path. Who’s set to get his lucky break next?

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