Liverpool fixture congestion talk is self-interest but sound

Ian King
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp

Liverpool are leading the complaints against fixture congestion, but the fact that they may be self-interested doesn’t mean they’re wrong.


Such have been the twists and turns of the last two years that it can feel difficult to believe that football was once the canary in the coalmine for Covid-19. Football started to lock down before most of the rest of society after a small number of positive tests within the game, and it might even be suggested that the proactive decisions taken by the Premier League had a significant influence on the government’s decision to introduce such measures when, as has been repeatedly demonstrated since, their instinct is to keep everything open as long as possible and leave people to deal with the consequences for themselves.

But the machinery of football business has to keep on turning, and as we reach the end of 2021 it seems that there is now nothing short of legislative change that will stop this show from going on. The Premier League’s decision to play on, and the inconsistent way in which the early stages of the latest wave of the pandemic have been handled, has sparked an intense debate about what actions should now be taken. The cancellation of matches, often at very short notice, was a feature of the last weekend before the Christmas break, and attention is now turning to the matches that are due to be played in this famously busy period of the season.

Of course, Covid-19 isn’t the only thing that can go wrong with a professional footballer, and there have been signs of fatigue across the board over the last few months as a result of a schedule which has been running players ragged as the sport plays catch-up after its enforced break, of large numbers of injuries and unexpectedly poor form. The delayed start to last season and the delayed European Championship have meant that fixtures have been coming thick and fast for the last few months, with no sign of a break for most until the end of this season.

Following the Leicester win, Liverpool have two matches in 48 hours on December 26 and 28, completing three games in six days before a four-day break and then a trip to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea on January 2. It seems difficult to believe that they will be anywhere near peak condition by the time of this match, and this match is the most difficult and most potentially consequential of all the matches that they play over this spell.

Jurgen Klopp has a reputation for pushing hard on this subject primarily when it benefits him. And even if we accept this as being true – and it’s worth pointing out that all managers do this; he’s not unusual in this respect – then it’s probably just as true that the Premier League and the game’s other governing bodies are doing the same.

But despite the previous complaints about there being too many fixtures and the realities of the pandemic, the Premier League scheduled an utterly nonsensical round of midweek fixtures for the midweek between Christmas and the New Year, with these fixtures all due to be screened live by Amazon. Considering the huge increases in Covid cases over December, it’s not difficult to believe that the Premier League has prioritised its television contract over the wellbeing of its players. Even if you believe that Jurgen Klopp’s opinions did come entirely from a place of cynical self-interest (and that’s not a given; it’s possible for this to be in his self-interest and simultaneously be the right thing to do), the Premier League’s attitude isn’t any more ethical.

Ironically, Klopp doesn’t even particularly seem to support the idea of stopping right now. When asked after the Premier League confirmed that they would not having any sort of ‘fire-break’, he said, “Stopping the league is probably not the right thing but with the schedule we have to be more flexible.” So, in other words, he doesn’t see the value in pausing for a couple of weeks if the congestion is still there when they return.

And he isn’t the only person from within Liverpool to have been speaking out. Assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders has described the decision to press on with the Premier League’s festive schedule as ‘absurd’ and warned it will increase the risk to players’ health, while captain Jordan Henderson has stated that he is ‘concerned’ that ‘nobody really takes player welfare seriously’. And it’s not just Liverpool. Thomas Tuchel has said he is having to take ‘huge risks’ with his players’ fitness, while Brendan Rodgers and Steven Gerrard have both commented on their belief that players coming out of self-isolation are not match-fit, and therefore at greater risk of injury themselves.

The matter may yet be taken out of the Premier League’s hands. Scotland and Wales have already announced tighter restrictions against Covid. In Scotland, they’re limiting crowds at matches to 500, whilst in Wales all supporters were initially banned from attending matches. A subsequent review and a lifting to a limit of 50 spectators per match was insufficient to prevent the Football Association of Wales having to suspend their season too. Similar limitations may well be imposed in England after Christmas. New reported infections have just passed 100,000 per day for the first time.

Ironically, the one good thing about the 2022 World Cup being played in Qatar in December is that at least the players have a decent chance of a proper rest come the end of this season. Had the weather there not been completely intemperate to playing football in June, many Liverpool players would have been jetting straight off to the Middle East as soon as their club season was over.

It’s easy to take pot-shots at managers who make points about such subjects – and they’re only likely to do that when it directly affects them – but in this case Klopp, Lijnders and Henderson should be heard. We’re already seeing brilliant players like N’Golo Kante spending as much time injured than not, and the risk is that unless someone lightens the workload on the players, one or more of them might end up permanently damaged.

You may not agree with Covid lockdowns at this point or at all, but the case for giving the players a breather rather than just throwing more matches at them is about more than that. It’s about their welfare, which should be paramount for everybody involved in the game. That the Premier League is keeping those Amazon matches on come hell or high water doesn’t say very much for their attitude towards that.