A case for a break?
There’s something rather Dickensian about the opening stanza to our Christmas. It consists of both myself and my significant other, encased in woolen winter coats, hauling our first Christmas tree from the local timber yard, up the hill and into our living room. It’s a fine specimen. Fucking huge in fact. But my mind’s elsewhere. My football-centric brain refuses to relent regardless of how loud you play Phil Spector’s Christmas album. This time it’s fixture congestion that’s bothering me and I must admit that there’s an element of bias on my side.
I’m all over Liverpool’s fixture list like a rash. Between the 4th and 29th December, the Reds were scheduled to play nine games, including two games in two days in different continents. In response, Liverpool make the decision to prioritise the Club World Cup over the League Cup. This makes sense given that you have to achieve something particularly special to qualify for the tournament, but ultimately this should really raise further questions over the Premier League and EFL’s scheduling efficacy rather than a debate regarding Liverpool’s priorities. Almost two decades earlier, Manchester United pulled out of the FA Cup to compete in the tournament, something which, while controversial at the time, now seems entirely necessary given the fixture congestion. In short, the powers that be have had ample time to deliver a solution for this ongoing problem. They haven’t delivered.
Fans and pundits alike outline this December as make or break for Liverpool’s burgeoning title challenge. Liverpool haven’t won the football league for 30 years and this is their ultimate priority. A monkey on the back that needs shaking off. Liverpool’s squad is very deep in key areas, perhaps the strongest squad in the league, and it has been built and accumulated gradually over a number of seasons. This hasn’t come from nowhere, the time feels right and all eyes are on them to see if this talented squad can rotate effectively, maintain a level of consistency and avoid dropping any points. Add to this that one of the league's most vocal detractors of the festive fixture list has been Jurgen Klopp and you’ve got quite the saga developing.
The Premier League technically has a winter break schedule, meaning that two weekends in February are free of football. The cheek of it. Two whole weekends. The algorithms must suggest that this period is subject to a particular lull in viewing figures in comparison to other potential options. The Premier League outlined that these two weeks would give the remaining English Champions League participants more well-rested preparation for the knockout stages. A nice helping hand. Interesting that they couldn’t be of more help during the business end of the group stages in November and December. Excluding international breaks, no Champions League qualifier had more than four days between fixtures during this period. The one notable conciliatory fixture break was granted to Liverpool, with the postponement of their fixture with West Ham (scheduled originally for the 21st December) allowing their continued participation in the Club World Cup.
I’m compelled to note at this stage that fixture congestion has impacted on all clubs in the Premier League, not just Liverpool. Rather, the qualification for the Club World Cup, and lack of conciliatory fixture postponements, make the festive fixtures appear even more farcical.
Knocked out of the League Cup in August, no continental qualification and all in all had exclusively Premier League fixtures scheduled for December. Regardless, they still had to play four games in eleven day, winning just one of them. This was compounded further by the Mags losing four first team players to injury during their New Year’s Day fixture with Leicester. A consequence of the congestion? The lack of rest days? Player welfare is well down the priority list were the festive fixture list is concerned.
Consider Crystal Palace.
Knocked out of the FA Cup to Derby at the third round stage, Palace could have given a potential cup run plenty of priority but given the congestion - and perhaps additionally, the lure for the club to potentially qualify for continental football for the first time - were unable to prioritise replicating their 2016 FA Cup Final appearance. (Remember? Alan Pardew prematurely dancing like a twat? Yeah, that one.) The nature of the fixture list combines with the financial clout of the league to further enforce a strict adherence to the Premier League doctrine. Nowadays you can only win a cup if you either a.) have a squad extensive enough to navigate through the trials and tribulations of a full season or b.) prioritise it to the point of risking your league position and Premier League status. Just ask Birmingham (2010-11) and Wigan (2012-13).
Furthermore, consider the fans. December, for obvious reasons, is an expensive month and for the match-attending fan, the period can be nigh-on impossible to budget for. Similarly, for the football fan watching from home, with Amazon now on the scene, the nature of subscription packages ensures that the fixtures are split across a variety of platforms, which in turn sees costs escalate very quickly should you wish to watch all of the games. Indeed, Jurgen Klopp’s comments that too much festive football was “bad for relationships” weren’t entirely tongue in cheek and probably allude to the financial burden as well as the time-consuming nature of them.
Undoubtedly there are benefits to the hectic nature of this schedule and they are largely inherently financial. With the other major leagues in Europe breaking over the festive period, this presents the Premier League with a favourable marketing opportunity, particularly where Trans-Atlantic, domestic and Far Eastern markets are concerned. The German Bundesliga has no fixtures scheduled between 22nd December and 17th January. The Germans are clearly a very festive people. To a lesser extent, both Serie A and La Liga broke for the 22nd and 4th January. Our continental counterparts are all granted a Christmas and New Year break. Hence, if you’re wanting to watch live football over the period, (which many of course are) you will naturally find yourself watching a Premier League fixture. From a corporate perspective, this is the equivalent of the American football Thanksgiving schedule. It’s hectic but profoundly profitable both in the short and long term.
One club in particular performed unprecedentedly well throughout the period. Liverpool finished December having won every league game, won their first Club World Cup and the under 23’s are knocked out of the League Cup at Villa Park. I don’t think Jurgen Klopp in his wildest dreams could have hoped for better. They widened the gap between both Manchester City and Leicester City, added further silverware to an already extensive club cabinet and avoided a two legged semi final in the League Cup. While from Liverpool’s perspective this would have been far from ideal given the fixture run in it raises further questions around the competition’s structure and long term future. Sir Alex Ferguson raised these questions 18 years earlier, albeit by pulling out of England’s other domestic competition, but the issues remain unaddressed. There are simply too many games and not enough days in the year.
Sadly a resolution is not around the corner and this article is just highlighting issues that are now decades old. Ultimately, the financial rewards and marketability that the festive period presents the likes of the Premier League, Amazon, Sky Sports and BT with. Until elements such as player welfare and the overall integrity of the league are prioritised over profits, you can expect this debate to continue... without resolution.
Image credits: Dan Farrimond, Empty Seats, https://www.flickr.com/photos/illarterate/8489392292