EPL: In a fix over a pile of fixtures

Groans and complaints greet a packed fixture during the festive season of the English Premier League each year. The calls for the much-vaunted winter break to be introduced to ease congestion come soon behind. After all, what manager would rather muddle through with a bandaged-up and tired side than put out a fresh, prepared one?

A squeal of protest... Jurgen Klopp has already revealed his frustration at the calendar that sees his Liverpool team host Manchester City on New Year's Eve and then play away at Sunderland 45-and-a-half hours later.   -  Getty Images

Pep Guardiola embraces his star striker Sergio Aguero after Chelsea’s victory over Burnley in a Premier League game. While Aguero’s ban — after the altercation in the Chelsea match recently — will certainly hinder City’s title prospects, his absence should not mask the struggles his team-mates are experiencing while trying to consistently play to Guardiola’s requests.   -  Getty Images

Fifty matches in 23 days. Read that again; let it sink in for a moment. Sounds like a lot, right? That’s because it is. However, this is what awaits Premier League players and fans alike, as the jam-packed festive fixture programme kicks in.

It’s enough to make supporters a giddy mess with excitement. Although you can’t blame them when there’s so much football to watch in such a short space of time. The same glee at reading the fixture list cannot be said for the managers, though, especially those battling to be number one.

 

It’s an understandable reaction when you consider that six out of the last seven clubs that have sat atop the table at Christmas went on to win the Premier League. This end-of-year football extravaganza may not secure you the title, but it can certainly break your chances of lifting the trophy. And so, groans and complaints greet the schedule each year at the thought of playing four or five games in a condensed period. The calls for the much-vaunted winter break to be introduced to ease congestion come soon behind. After all, what manager would rather muddle through with a bandaged-up and tired side than put out a fresh, prepared one?

Jurgen Klopp has already revealed his frustration at the calendar that sees his Liverpool team host Manchester City on New Year’s Eve and then play away at Sunderland 45-and-a-half hours later. Klopp has so far benefited from only competing for domestic honours this season, with Liverpool not in either the Champions League or Europa League.

Yet as injuries mount — Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can are all currently out, while Dejan Lovern is also doubtful — the thought of moving ahead of his weary competitors challenging on multiple fronts is fading away. Playing two crucial matches in such close proximity is most likely going to exasperate the issue further.

The other manager helped by competing solely in the Premier League is Antonio Conte. He has rotated his Chelsea side around the least so far in the division, making just nine changes to his starting XI over the first 15 matches.

Manchester City and Pep Guardiola should be so lucky: the Spaniard has recorded the most changes to date, tinkering with his Premier League line-up over 50 times. It’s not hard to see, then, how the ability to deploy well-rested players, who have longer to recover as well as train for each match, possesses a clear advantage. Chelsea, ultimately, does sit three points ahead of its nearest rival in the table.

The rewards for Chelsea and Liverpool are further shown when inspecting the requirements put on teams playing in Europe. Clocking up thousands of air miles travelling throughout the continent, Manchester City, for instance, could feature in as many as 13 extra games across the season if it goes on to reach the final of the Champions League.

 

And the gain for teams not involved in European competitions may be as high as six points, Omar Chaudhuri explained in the British newspaper, The Guardian. Chaudhuri, head of Football Intelligence at 21st Club, a consultancy firm advising numerous football clubs, used a variety of metrics to examine Premier League teams following European midweek matches. While the data only went back to the 2014-15 season, the results still showed a significant correlation.

As the fixtures pile up, this earlier quieter period should stand both Conte and Klopp in good stead. Tactics will have been worked out methodically in the additional training sessions afforded to them, reinforcing the plans throughout the squad and working on any problems that arrive. No such easy task for those busying themselves with jaunts to mainland Europe and back.

Critically for Conte, the capacity to spend more time delivering his message to the Chelsea players and allowing them to rest longer, could prove the difference as he negotiates his tricky first winter in England. Not used to anything quite like it before, the unrelenting three weeks are a testing experience in man- and game-management. From knowing how to win with the minimum amount of exertion to using your best players without burning them out, the balancing act required is as precise as a tightrope walk.

One common misconception, though, contends that British clubs play more games than their continental counterparts do, hence the need for a break. However, the variance in the number of matches up to the end of December between the major teams in top leagues is negligible — Barcelona 18, Juventus 20, Arsenal 19.

What is harder to analyse is the intensity of those matches, in particular how the Premier League compares with the others. In a competition that is claimed to be the most physically demanding from its participants, including former Red star Luis Suarez, a quick run of fixtures places exhausting stress on the body.

As Guardiola alluded to after his side went down 4-2 to reigning champion Leicester recently, there is a penchant in Britain for teams to hurry and retrieve the ball back as fast as possible when it goes loose. Winning the ‘second ball’, as it’s commonly referred to, is an aspect British fans love, observing hard-working players, the type who run incessantly, hustling and harassing opposition players. But this has transformed over the past decade, ironically due to Guardiola, as coaches attempted to replicate the tiki taka football he forged at Barcelona. Then, as sides looked for a way to counter possession tactics, the focus on three-man defences blossomed again, with the intensity coming from short, sharp sprints instead. The growing fascination with ball-playing defenders, use of pacy wing-backs and an emphasis on moving the ball from one end of the pitch to the other rapidly have all contributed.

For Guardiola, he is concentrating on his immediate legacy at Manchester City. He will soon get his first taste of winter in Britain too. With the Champions League on hold until March 2017, he has the opportunity to correct the errors in his system that have proved so costly and dropped his team to third.

While Sergio Aguero’s ban — after the altercation in the Chelsea match recently — will certainly hinder City’s title prospects, his absence should not mask the struggles his team-mates are experiencing while trying to consistently play to Guardiola’s requests.

But it is the wily, experienced Arsene Wenger, who looks best placed to exploit the winter fixtures in his favour, pushing Arsenal as the main challenger against a renewed Chelsea for top spot. The Gunners are unbeaten in 14 league matches, own their strongest squad in a decade and have a manager with over 20 years in the Premier League. It is now or never, and if Wenger’s side is first come the New Year, even he may raise a smile at the fixture list.

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