The Premier League returns with a bang this weekend, headlined by Manchester City and Liverpool clashing in what is a top-two showdown and the latest instalment in English football’s biggest on-field rivalry of the last decade. So, why on earth is the game in the dreaded Saturday lunchtime 12.30 kick-off snooze-fest slot?
The early kick-off is perhaps the only rival to Pep Guardiola as Jurgen Klopp’s greatest nemesis in his time in English football, with his words on the subject and the broadcasting companies who televise these games far less complimentary than anything he has said on the Catalonian (in truth, they’re too pally for this writer’s liking).
Speaking after his side’s 3-0 home win against Brentford prior to the international break, the Reds’ boss had the following to say:
“Now they (the players) are all gone, and we can train once before Manchester City. How can you put a game like this on Saturday at 12.30pm? Honestly, the people making these decisions, they cannot feel football, it is just not possible. And it is the moment where the world pays the most to see a football game.
“These two teams could have, all together, about 30 international players. They all come back on the same plane by the way, all the South American players. They all fly back together, we put them on the plane from Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia. One game, one plane, they all come back. We just have to make sure we are ready for this game.”
It’s hard to argue with any of that. Both clubs have a tranche of international footballers who have travelled and played all over the world in the last two weeks, and many will not touch back down in Manchester and Merseyside until Thursday.
Alisson, Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez all started in Argentina’s 1-0 win against Brazil in the Maracana late on Tuesday night – the home side’s first ever home loss in a World Cup qualifier – in a game marred by violent clashes between fans and police in the stands.
How match-fit they will be for Premier League football is anyone’s guess given the nature of the game, the travel and the time difference.
Klopp’s blood pressure likely only rose when he saw Virgil van Dijk named in the Netherlands’ side to face lowly Gibraltar with qualification wrapped up. Ex-Everton boss Ronald Koeman is probably even more unpopular on the red side of Merseyside now.
The South American players will undoubtedly be flying in style, but it just points once again to the lack of any interest in player welfare in the sport. They are simply pieces of meat with dollar/euro/pound signs attached.
The police will again have an important role on Saturday in a game deemed high-risk due to simmering tensions between the clubs, as well as their close geographical proximity, but most significantly a series of incidents between supporters in recent meetings.
A young City fan was injured by a pot weighed with coins in last year’s Carabao Cup clash, while the Premier League champions also claimed their bus was vandalised as they departed Merseyside following their 1-0 loss last October.
As a result, it has been reported that the Greater Manchester Police prevented the game from being played in its original 5.30pm slot and moved it to the apparently ‘safer’ early afternoon kick-off.
Firstly, shouldn’t bigger and better policing be the solution as opposed to disrupting everything else? And secondly, if fans want to drink alcohol, get rowdy and fight, having an early kick-off won’t stop them.
They will just start their day earlier and might be even further emboldened to cause trouble given the police’s attempts to prevent it.
The reasoning makes little sense when you consider Manchester United’s trip to Anfield is a 4.30pm kick-off on Sunday December 17. That is a far more intense and hate-fuelled rivalry. It’s about consistent as the Red Devils this season.
Klopp has often blamed broadcasters for these early kick-off slots, with his most infamous ‘rant’ being at then-BT Sports (now TNT) interviewer Des Kelly after a draw with Brighton during the early part of the Covid 2020/21 season in which Liverpool suffered multiple injuries, which the Liverpool manager attributed to the overly taxing schedule.
Speaking after the game and in relation to James Milner’s hamstring injury, Klopp aimed fire at Kelly’s employers, to which he was met with a strong and sensible response from the interviewer, who said:
“Maybe you’re firing at the wrong target. We are broadcasters, we work within Premier League rules, and the Premier League makes the rules, that’s the Premier League clubs, so shouldn’t you be talking to Premier League clubs? Shouldn’t you be talking to chief executives…”
He went on to say that every pick is agreed by the league with all executives around the table/on a Zoom, which is where the true issue lies. The majority of Klopp and other managers’ anger should be with their bosses and owners, who agree to these slots in exchange for eye-watering sums of money.
The current broadcasting deals with Sky, TNT and Amazon Prime are estimated to be worth £5bn, and with a new round of bidding set for next year, that total will only increase.
FSG and other owners are only too happy to pocket that money, even if it at comes at the expense of their own manager, players and team’s success. Again, player welfare is not a true area of concern.
There really should be no 12.30 kick-offs after international breaks – they are rarely spectacles anyway. But, as we all know, cash is king.
On the flip side, that broadcast deal is why the Premier League have a near-monopoly of the European transfer and wage market, which you do not see managers complain about.
Pep Guardiola has had less to say about the early kick-offs, but he usually finds other ways to present City as some sort of underdog. John Stones being out means he might have to play the world’s most expensive defender in Josko Gvardiol again this weekend; whip out the world’s smallest violin.
In fairness, he and every other manager have had far, far fewer 12.30 kick-offs after international breaks than Klopp. The Reds are set for their 14th in the German’s eight-year tenure, eight more than second-placed Spurs. It is strange and unfair.
Two of these games have already come this season, both of which Liverpool won – 3-1 at Wolves and 2-0 at home to Everton, but in neither did they play anywhere near their best.
This continues a theme of early kick-offs for the club under Klopp. While they struggled last season, not winning any of the six handed to them and finishing in a disappointing fifth position, the season in which Liverpool won the title (2019/20) and two in which they pushed City all the way (2018/19 and 2021/22), their record stood at Played 11 Won 11.
If Liverpool are to mount another challenge this year, avoiding defeat this Saturday is possibly a must, given teams cannot let City go ahead this early in the season and expect to claw their way back. There is just a point between the sides heading into the summit meeting.
A win would put the Reds top, but they will need to do something they have not done in the Guardiola Premier League era: win at the Etihad.
There was a famous win in the 2017/18 Champions League quarter-finals and draws elsewhere, but Klopp’s only league win at the ground came weeks into his reign while Manuel Pellegrini was in charge. That 4-1 win acted as a warning that Liverpool could be on the rise again, with Roberto Firmino’s starring role in the false nine role a sign of things to come.
He did defeat Pep on his home turf while in the Bundesliga but in England, it remains the one ground outside of Kenilworth Road where he has not won a Premier League game.
Their Premier League rivalry is very much one of home rule, with Anfield being a bogey ground for City in general: one win under Pep (behind closed doors), two wins in the post-1992 era (the other came in 2002/03). Those are their only wins there since 1981.
The last of their 28 meetings came at the same ground but under very different circumstances. City were on the march to the treble while the Reds looked like a side at the end of the road, succumbing to a 4-1 hammering. The time of that game, you guessed it, was 12.30 on a Saturday, but that could not be an excuse for the gulf between the sides.
It’s different this time around and Klopp and his side have a true chance to lay down a marker and signify a new era for the club.
Anything could happen in the latest instalment between the two best managers in the world, but one thing is for certain: the 12.30 kick off will be a talking point before, during and after the game (VAR too, let’s be honest), in what is another example of off-field issues affecting the thing that actually matters in English football.