Monday, June 27, 2022

England are limited by a busy schedule that shows no sign of slowing down

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Good news for those of you worried about missing out on summer football. It will be back before you know it. On Tuesday night, the final whistle will sound for the final of England’s four summer games against Hungary in Molineux, bringing the 2021/22 season to a close, only for the 2022/23 Premier League fixtures to be released on Thursday morning. It will no doubt be a long, wasted and lonely 36 hours or so on the borderline between one seemingly never-ending campaign and the next, but somehow I think we’re getting through it.

A season that started with some of Gareth Southgate’s players still on holiday after their exertions at the European Championships will end with those same players again in need of a long break.

That was certainly the impression conveyed by Saturday’s goalless draw in Molineux against Italy, which started as an open, engaged battle with chances at both ends but deteriorated sharply. A carefree mood was slowly turning into a question of why we should care about these games at all.

Whilst there would be little option but to play the Nations League now due to a Covid affected calendar, a Winter World Cup and the need for the revenue it generates for the national associations, few would argue that its scheduling on The end of a long season is definitely an advantage. However, it is worth noting that there have been few complaints from the England players themselves, who have called it a challenge to be faced.

James Ward-Prowse spoke this week about the pride and honor of playing for England, even after clocking nearly 3,800 minutes for his club this season alone. Kalvin Phillips’ past year has been a long history of injury frustration – he even picked up a new one this week – but he has had no complaints during his post-game media work. “I think if you could watch us train with the intensity every day, you wouldn’t look at us and say we’re tired,” he said.

That may be the case, but when the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Gareth Bale have openly questioned the strain that busy schedules are putting on their bodies, they’ve generally sounded more convincing. Southgate has also been careful not to criticize the schedule, instead welcoming the rare opportunity he has to work with his players at length and in detail, but the England manager admitted on Saturday night that the calendar is taking its toll.

In his press conference after the game, he again spoke of “protocol management”. He had previously admitted that he was practically forced to play a back three in the opening defeat to Hungary in Budapest due to the circumstances of the player’s condition and load management. If this is the prep time Southgate has been longing for, it feels fraught with compromise and far from ideal.

“I think it’s manageable, but the demands on the players are enormous and I think we’re all aware that we can’t keep expanding the calendar,” he said when asked about the schedule, pointing to the implications of the pandemic are still being felt. “Everything is compressed, competitions are added, but nothing is taken out. In the end, I’m sure players will get more and understandably a voice in this, and they should have a voice.”

It’s not just a problem in international football. None of the club game’s various stakeholders were willing to sacrifice their part of the calendar. Both sides must reckon with the consequences. Southgate and his contemporaries in international management are the ones feeling the pressure right now. After Hungary, England has only two games left before the World Cup. With a packed weekday schedule in the autumn, the England manager doesn’t anticipate that there won’t even be an opportunity to meet his side remotely in the period between camp in September and the trip to Qatar.

“That’s why we’ve had to see certain players in the last couple of games because there’s no way to gauge them later,” he said. Playing in a largely empty Molineux due to a stadium ban didn’t help either, as did meeting a decidedly second-tier Italian team who don’t have World Cup worries to worry about, having failed to qualify.

At Christmas, however, it will be the turn of the clubs. Those players who reach the World Cup final on December 18 return from duty and have a round of league games to play on Boxing Day. Notably, the Carabao Cup round of 16 is scheduled for December 21st. The sheer volume of games to be packed by either side of Qatar means club managers will have to make difficult selection decisions well before the tournament begins and likely well after.

And so the concern watching Saturday’s goalless draw at Molineux was that it was a window into the coming season, which will be planned and fleshed out in just a few days. It’s going to be one where compromises have to be constantly made just to keep everything working.

The Football Association has called for no Big Six matches to be played the weekend before the World Cup, although even Southgate admits the benefits would be “marginal” in an already compressed schedule. The intensity alone this weekend in November will be interesting.

Hopefully 2022-23 will be the final season before a welcome return to something akin to the pre-pandemic and pre-Qatar World Cup calendar. But with Euro 2024 in sight, a new, expanded Champions League format set to begin the following season and an unrelenting thirst for eyeballs from organizers, anything that once seemed normal seems a long way off and the last few weeks of a season pushing its limits feels like a glimpse into the near future.

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