In this tight, cramped, congested, condensed, frenzied, slog of a season, Jurgen Klopp can take heart in this: Liverpool’s schedule looks relatively light compared to other title challengers.
The injuries sustained to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, among others, have proven to be a great leveller in the title race thus far. But as the season moves from January to February, from March to April, as the race comes into focus, the Klopp’s grandest concern, that his team would run out of steam, that the packed fixture list would catch up with his side, will be eased.
Now is not the time to-rehash the current COVID-inflicted calendar. Playing a bunch of games in a short amount of time is not a good thing. It weakens the flow of matches, damages the (ugh) product, restricts the style of play (something that dings certain teams more than others), and increases the chances of injury.
One team playing a bunch of games in a short amount of time is a competitive disadvantage. But as Liverpool stare down the end of the season, everyone is playing a bunch of games in a condensed window.
When Klopp looks around at his Premier League title rivals, he will be delighted to note the outlooks ahead for both Tottenham and Man City, two direct rivals.
As things are slated, the English domestic season must be completed by 23rd May. There is no more wriggle room in the calendar — not for COVID reschedulings or a delay to the season or anything. The time must be kept open for continental competitions, the shortest of shortest breaks, and then the players must be released for international duty.
May 23 is the date. The Europa League final is slated for May 26. The Champions League final is dated for May 29. If Tottenham were to put together a Europa League run, if José Mourinho’s team ran the table all the way to the final (and based on this season’s evidence, it’s certainly possible), they would be forced to squeeze 38 games into 123 days.
Think about that! That constitutes a game every three days. It also includes two four-match weeks. And that doesn’t include a three-game, 14-day international break that has been snuck into the calendar at the end of March.
With Europe on the docket (and Spurs ownership will want the club to continue in the Europa League in order to offset losses via the pandemic), the footballing authorities are asking Spurs to squeeze in a full season within 123-days.
That’s objectively mad. It will be taxing on the squad. And it’s a squad that only has around 16 quality players that Mourinho can rely on, that might lose Dele Ali this window, and that is overly reliant on two players: Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. Mourinho will look to juggle the pieces, but maintaining form and fitness and rhythm (his own staff will be exhausted) will be a mighty challenge.
Pep Guardiola faces a similar issue at Man City. Guardiola’s team has reached another Carabao Cup final. Given the FA Cup draw this week, they should comfortably advance another two rounds (first Crawley in the fourth round and then a guaranteed Championship club in the fifth-round). If City advance all the way to the FA Cup final, which is eminently reasonable, and, say, make it to the Champions League quarter-finals, they will be due to play 33-games between now and the end of the season. In fact, City’s season is so congested due to the club’s COVID issues that if they reach the FA Cup final and make it to the Champions League semi-finals, they will be at their absolute limit in terms of being able to squeeze the season in — there is no more room for further delays. Add to that: They would play every midweek between now and the end of the season.
It’s an unenviable position. A punishment, really, for being competitive across the board (plus those aforementioned COVID concerns). Few teams, if any, can sustain that pace. Even City, with all their riches, are not quite as deep as in recent seasons. Whereas once Guardiola’s second string looked like it could compete for a top-four spot in the Premier League, now it’s made up of ageing players, oft-injured former-stars and players bursting with potential but lacking consistency.
City’s depth still blows most out of the league out of water. And if any team could (or should) be able to cope with the demands, it’s that squad. But it’s still a wait-and-see situation. Injuries will mount. Fatigue will set in. And once the legs start to burn, where will Guardiola push his chips? Europe or the league title? Probably the former.
The more you evaluate the terrain, the clearer the questions about the title race become:
Can Liverpool avoid further injuries? Can they find consistency? Can they figure out a tweak to stop the lack of senior centre-backs triggering a chain-reaction on the team’s attacking play?
Is United’s form sustainable? Are the top-line numbers or the underlying numbers for real? Can a team that flows as one individual flows (Bruno Fernandes) win the title anymore?
Can Man City weather a fixture pile-up? When it gets to the meaty end of the season, will Guardiola prioritise the Champions League?
As you read those questions, something becomes clear: The first three seem like the easiest ones to answer.
Sunday’s match is a giant one whichever way you slice it. But once you start looking at the sort of schedules staring down the Tottenham and Man City squads, you start to get the sense that a Liverpool-Manchester United title race could be a real thing. And in that world, a commanding, authoritative win at this stage of the season would mean much more than three points.