Someone with a lot of time on their hands once worked out that the maximum amount of games a Premier League team could play in one season – without cup replays – was 79. This requires taking the longest route into the Europa League, reaching the final of every competition and playing the Community Shield game too.
Now that would be a lot of games for any one player to play, but a squad of 24 could manage it without any player playing more than 40 games. If they were so minded.
The nearest to achieving this was Manchester United in 1998-99. The treble-winning side played 63 games that season. Five players played over 50 games and 26 different players started matches. It didn’t seem to do them any harm, what with Manchester United being rather bloody good. Three big trophies later, I didn’t hear them complaining that they were playing too much football. Liverpool also played 63 in the 2000-2001 season and also won a treble of sorts. Arsenal in 1979-80 played a total of 70, Ipswich the following year, 66. But that was back when Everything Was Wrong.
My point here is that you can play loads of games and be successful. Indeed, to be successful you have to. Moaning about it is weak and proves a lack of ambition. You just have to manage your squad properly and invest in the right way. But you’d never think that on any cup weekend, when ‘avoiding’ a replay seems to be more important than winning.
Football clubs have never had more income to invest in a big, strong squad and yet, season after season we hear that familiar refrain as a cup game goes to a replay: “The last thing they want is another game.” Like playing football is a problem. Time and again, we hear complaints from managers and media that the Europa League is “an unwelcome distraction” which involves too many games, as though games of football are an undesirable interruption to…err…what? Some want cup replays outlawed, some want games to not have extra time, and the number of teams in the league reduced to further cut down on matches. The Europa League is ridiculously decried by some, as though it is beneath them to take part at all.
I’m fairly certain that many managers have fielded a poor side to deliberately get beaten, in order to not have to take part in a competition, even though without competitions, there is no reason to play football. Complaining that you have to play in them is – in effect – complaining that you have to work for a living.
This seems such a common mindset, and yet it is not as though a club does not have prior warning about how many games it could play in a season. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a surprise. United had 31 players in that Treble-winning squad and played 63 games with 26. They did pretty well. Yet you’d think, the way some go on, that you couldn’t prepare for it, or that more games automatically mean worse football.
Of course, it’s only successful sides that end up playing a lot of games. The majority don’t. If you’re already out of the cup, you had your feet up this weekend and only have 15 or 16 games left to play in four months. The inability of clubs to compete in the cups or the Europa League – whilst maintaining league form – is the fault of their preparation, not of the competition.
I realise the argument against playing more games is that it exhausts players and thus makes the games worse, but this would only hold water if the games in the first half of the season were all brilliant and in the second half, they were awful. But they’re not. To take United as an example again, if anything, they got better and better as the season went on.
There’s also an important point to make: football is a sport, not an exhibition. It is a blend of talent and physicality, skill and endurance. As such, it relies on variables to make the outcome unpredictable. And it is that unpredictability which has made it such a compulsive sport for so long. Tiredness, injury and depth of quality in the squad are just such potential variables.
Thankfully football isn’t yet so predictable as to tell you the winner based on how many games each member of the team has played, or how many kilojoules of energy he’s expended in the last five months. Indeed, there are those who say complaining about how much football you have to play is a loser’s mindset, that you’re constantly trying to get your excuses in early.
And anyway, how much is too much? Where is the equation to calculate this? If you believe in this nonsense, you get into a crazy circular argument where playing more games because you’re successful means you’ll get worse, lose games and thus not be successful, which in turn means you’d play less games and would thus become more successful, which in turn would mean you would get tired and lose more games and…see, it’s an utterly unsustainable notion.
Anyone would think players being rubbed with a bar of hot soap by a man with powerful hands was the full extent of physio training these days, or that the same 14 players turned out every week because the club was too skint to employ any others. Russell Osman, in that Ipswich side of 1980-81, played all 66 games and managed to find time to appear in Escape To Victory. Elite clubs are massively resourced and should be able to cope with 60 games in a season, easily.
If the number of games is reduced in any competition, it should only be to make the competition more exciting. I’d love to see all European competitions be two-legged knock-out games from the start. But I know the clubs in the Champions League would hate not having a league stage because you risk playing a couple of poor game, going out in round one and suffering a consequent loss of wonga. So really, clubs want the revenue, but complain of the effort it takes to compete in order to get it. We should be rightly cynical of that. And if you give footballers an excuse for feeling tired, or being rubbish, they’ll take it. Why should we do that?
Playing football is what you’re supposed to do. You’re a football club. So let’s kick this whole “the last thing they want is another game” philosophy into touch. Maybe they’d just like to be paid for not turning up?