Premier League Gameweek 25 (18th-19th February) saw a remarkable set of results where the bottom three clubs in the table all pulled off victories: Southampton recorded one of the shocks of the season by beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, whereas Everton and Bournemouth nicked important wins against Leeds United and Wolverhampton respectively. Such occurrences are rare in football, and we can only find a handful of weekends in Premier League history when all the basement clubs recorded a win.
But, in truth, these should not be viewed as surprising results. The late winter period has seen plenty of matches with strange outcomes, including league leaders Arsenal losing to struggling Everton, Manchester City drawing with Nottingham Forest and Wolves hammering Liverpool in recent weeks. Shocks are common in the division, something that is factored into Premier League betting strategies. But one wonders whether there is a pattern emerging as clubs face up to the relentless scheduling of the club season.
World Cup has surely added to fatigue levels
In short, we are talking about fatigue. The unprecedented winter World Cup in Qatar has meant that club football has had to factor in a six-week break during the season. A case in point is Manchester United, a team forced to play 20 fixtures from 27th December to 26th February. That’s almost a rate of a game every three days for a period of two months. Of course, you can argue that United are a victim of their own success, as they progressed in four different competitions. But the Red Devils are certainly not alone in feeling the pinch as the fixture list piles up.
Our point, as such, is that many experts predicted that the fixture pile-up would impact teams’ performances. Importantly, this factor may not become apparent until later in the season. United, for example, have been in scintillating form since the World Cup, but you have to wonder whether the relentless scheduling will soon catch up with them. Players like Bruno Fernandes will likely approach 50-55 club games by the end of the season, and that’s not to mention the fixtures they have played – and will play – for their country.
Schedule will not slow down anytime soon
Indeed, it perhaps seems ill-advised that there is an international break in March. That time could have been used for players to recuperate after the rigours of playing a full season with a World Cup sandwiched in the middle of it. Of course, UEFA and FIFA have their own priorities, but it does seem a shame that players were rushed back so quickly after the World Cup. Remember this is not only about the impact on results: Accumulated game time leads to more injuries, and you could easily see some players pay the price later down the line.
Of course, we can argue that all teams across Europe are in the same position. But there are particular idiosyncrasies that make the Premier League more demanding on players. For a start, English clubs resumed action before other leagues, including La Liga and the Bundesliga. Secondly, the depth of quality in the Premier League means that more players went from there to Qatar than any other division. Remarkably, almost 20% of the 831 players who went to the World Cup played for clubs in England.
In the end, it might not matter in the record books if teams in the lower half of the division are taking points off punch-drunk sides at the top, but it could be telling in the latter stages of the Champions League and Europa League. There might be some very tired legs among English teams come April and May, and they may just pay the price for this heavy fixture list. It’s undeniable that some players will be waiting for the summer break, when they can finally get a rest.