It’s that time of year when professional footballers go the extra mile so relaxing fans can be entertained, but not without consequences. Therefore former Blue Pat Nevin reckons playing it clever is essential, but not always straightforward…
What day is it? Doesn’t everyone get that feeling around this time of the year? Until I look at my phone or a newspaper I can be as much as three days out, thinking Wednesday is Saturday. It is the lack of a normal weekly structure with Christmas Day and work all over the place, as well as all the football games being spaced out day after day. We should be used to the last bit, as the idea of a full Saturday afternoon fixture list is so last century.As a player however, you have little chance around about now of knowing what day it is. They all merge. When you open your eyes in the morning you briefly have no idea of which city, which hotel, or indeed which bed your aching limbs are slowly waking up in. Many of us feel this way around about now, but for footballers these days it is nothing got to do with overindulging in food and alcohol but overindulging in playing football.There are worse things to do to excess, but there is a cost to be paid as Thomas Tuchel has been pointing out this week. The argument tends to go round in circles after a while though.
Players will get injured; well you should rotate them more. The quality of the ‘product’ will suffer; well maybe it will not if a few more youngsters get a chance. Being able to use five subs helps the bigger clubs with bigger squads; that is undoubtedly the case but then the big teams play more games in Champions League and domestic cups and on top of that, their players generally play more and further-flung internationals around the globe. The ‘big club’ players are also more likely to play through the summer in international tournaments right to the bitter end, so maybe it all evens itself out.Last week I wrote the following after a couple of less-than-enthralling games...
Twenty-eight goals in six games on Boxing Day underlined this point. It might be hard work for the players, but it has undoubtedly led to a whole bunch of goals flying in.There is no doubt we are watching some tired players on the field who are playing at a good deal less than 100 per cent. There are tell-tale signs, which I really shouldn’t give away, mostly because I am not mad keen on giving the opposition a leg-up here.Sometimes it isn’t hidden, the manager will say he reckons a player only has 45 or 60 minutes in him. That has always been the case but it is worse now because of the ever-lengthening season.I did however have a little look back to see when I had some busy festive times. I didn’t have to look too far! Checking out my first season at Chelsea we played four games in eight days around Christmas. That is pushing it! This included a game on the 26th and another on the 27th. There were seven games in December, but now Chelsea are expected to play nine, and even if there is far more rotation, it is still a push considering the pace of the games. Then the inner voice in my head whispers, ‘What about playing on freezing pitches or the mudheaps that were common back then?’
To be fair, I can never really be bothered with the (puts on Yorkshire accent) ‘We ‘ad it tough wi’ mud, defenders assaultin’ ye, just the two subs, playin’ wi’ a broken leg, only a magic sponge for medical help and we didn’t dive, we pretended not to be hurt, not t’other way around…and try tellin’ the kids o’ today that, and they won’t believe you.’ ‘Nope.’Nobody is demanding the game should be totally changed just now and everything ripped up. It is just that in the current extreme circumstances with Covid rife, maybe it would be an idea to be a bit more considerate towards the players health now and again.
One of the best ways to have a rest is to play the game slightly differently. There are many reasons why keeping possession is such a big part of the modern game, not least the opposition don’t generally score very often if you have the ball.The other big point is that it is much easier to rest when you have the ball as a team. Closing down defensively without the ball is much harder and this is certainly not a new phenomenon designed in the modern game. Anyone who played against Liverpool at Anfield in their 1980s pomp will know that when you lost the ball to them, you didn’t get to see it again for a while, and all that while you were chasing world-class players around the pitch to get it back.The modern Liverpool with Jurgen Klopp did change their style a bit after their initial success with the constant high-energy, high-pressure game. It is just common sense, and it is about game management. There was a recent game between Man Utd and Man City when City, though only 2-0 up, took their collective feet right off the gas. They weren’t being polite to the neighbours; they were sensibly conserving energy when they needed to and when they could.It is hard to know exactly when you can do it in the Premier League however. City tried it again at the weekend when they were 4-0 up against Leicester and it nearly cost them dearly. When the score reached 4-3 at one point there was a collective short-lived panic in the stadium.Grabbing rests and breaks when you can is now imperative, whether it is during or after a game, but you have to be very careful, it is far from an exact science.
As it is, the Blues got it right at the weekend against Aston Villa. Was it the weekend or was it a Wednesday? I have lost track again! The biggest problem was not getting the third and decisive goal until the 93rd minute, which meant there was no real chance to take the sting out of the game and cruise to the end, other than for about 25 seconds.Whatever the stresses and however many games there are, they have to be dealt with and that is precisely what happens tomorrow, whatever day it is, when we welcome Brighton.