Games off, managers rage, players knackered as the Premier League gets ready for a chaotic Christmas break - The Warm-Up
'Tis the season of unhappy managers griping about fixture congestion, tired players on their literal last legs as the games come thick and fast... or perhaps not as further postponements across the division wreck havoc with an already disrupted fixture list. Here's to a not-so-Merry Premier League Christmas!
'Maybe we need a strike' - Guardiola on issue of player welfare
Another day, another round of cancellations. If you were planning to take in either Liverpool vs. Leeds or Wolves vs. Watford on Boxing Day, then unfortunately you're going to need new plans. Terrible news for fans of alliteration in elite football. Probably good news, on balance, for fans of sitting on the sofa eating Twiglets.
Those two postponed Premier League games come along with a whole raft of delays in the Football League: in all there will be 22 games missing from the usual Boxing Day festivities. That's the state of play on the morning of Christmas Eve, anyway; we're not ruling out a few more postponements as the day wears on.
One game that is going ahead, at least at the time of writing, is Everton's trip to Burnley. This has come as something of a surprise to Rafa Benítez.
With the injuries and the positives we had we were expecting that the game would be postponed. Now I have to think about if I have 11 players fit and where can I put them, so I am really surprised that we are playing this game. The problem is we have nine outfield players available plus three keepers and after we have to bring in five young players who are not even 21 years old. It seems that they have enough experience to play in the Premier League.
It is certainly true that football managers — and we do not mean to single out Benítez, who seems no better or worse than his contemporaries — are some of the most spectacularly biased human beings in the entire world. Everything's a penalty at one end; nothing's a penalty at the other. Everything's a disaster here; everything's a sun-kissed paradise everywhere else.
It comes with the territory, and with the kind of people bloody-minded enough to carry on in the job for more than five minutes. In fact it's probably a key requirement on the job. Must have own magnetic tactics board. Must have strong opinion on ketchup. Must believe, really and truly believe, that the universe is out to get one club and one club only.
But still, there is something a little jarring about a manager telling administrators "We can't fulfil this game" and the administrators coming back with "Think you'll find you can, mate." It's not just that Benítez, whatever his biases, is probably the world's foremost authority on the particular state of Everton's squad. It's what this says about the league's priorities with respect to their product.
It says: quantity over quality. If Everton do line up with nine senior outfielders, plus a child, plus four other children and two goalkeepers on the bench, then what follows will certainly be a game of football. It might even be a fun game of football, at least for Burnley. But it will only be an Everton game in some very vague sense: an Everton team that would never have existed had this pandemic not come along to double everybody's injury list.
Talking about "sporting integrity" is always awkward in the Premier League, where the literal playthings of billionaires and countries get to swan around beating everybody else. But if the point (or at least part of the point) of Everton playing Burnley is to find out which of these two football clubs has a better team, then this seems to run entirely contrary. Shove some kids out there, give the TV cameras something to point at.
Come the end of the season, when the last postponed fixture has been played, that final league table will look as it always does: everybody played everybody else, and here's who was best and worst. But even more so than usual, that flat symmetry will hide a story of advantage and disadvantage unequally applied; of some teams forced to improvise while others could bunker down.
We're not saying that the Premier League's approach is incorrect, as such; that's beyond our ken. But it's worth being clear that part of the cost will be borne here, in the sporting integrity of what is still, just about, a sporting competition. The idea that the first lockdown season should come with an asterisk was mostly a joke to annoy Liverpool fans, and it did good work as such. But this season could, in the end, be a much more deserving candidate. This team had to play the kids. This other team had to play four games in seven days. Asterisks all round.
Rafael Benitez of Everton speaks to the media after the Premier League match between Chelsea and Everton at Stamford Bridge on December 16, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
It's more or less a rite of passage. A new manager arrives in the Premier League from parts elsewhere, takes one look at the festive schedule, and asks, incredulous, "You live like this?" Then everybody shouts at them.
They have a point, of course. They always have a point. What English football does to its footballers at this time of year is, in several different respects, completely ludicrous. Pigs in blankets for everybody else, hamstrings in agony for them. You can see why coaches, their heads full of recovery times and red zones, might find it completely unfathomable.
So what a surprise to see Ralf Rangnick deftly step around the trap laid for him in yesterday's press conference. Here is the answer of a man who has done the reading.
You know better than I do what a big tradition it is in England to play on Boxing Day and the games on the 26th, or 30th and 2nd. I think this is a big tradition and we should stick to the tradition. I’m looking forward to it. It will be the first time in my coaching career to be part of that.
He then ruined his own cleverness by suggesting getting rid of the League Cup. And the festival of "Coming over here" was saved!
But the broader arguments concerning player welfare are coming to the boil. This week Pep Guardiola even raised the possibility of players going on strike, and the PFA, the players' union, have suggested that the support for such action would be there. There is a sense that in all the calculations over what needs to get done and when, the players' wellbeing is considered last, if it's considered at all. The fact that the Premier League decided not to carry on with five substitutes, out of step with the rest of Europe, is just one example, but it's a telling one.
There are a lot of conversations about the future of football happening at the moment, and almost all of them seem to trying to find new ways of squeezing in more and more games. There's an iron-bound commercial logic to that, of course, but at the same time, these players do not have an infinite capacity for playing. Certainly not for playing at their best. Something's going to have to give somewhere. Fingers crossed it's not: everybody's hamstring, all at the same time.
HAT TIP 1
Over to the BBC and Ron Ulrich for this look at the life of Frank Mill, the man responsible for the Bundesliga's greatest ever miss. The piece also contains some pretty startling revelations about amphetamine use in the Bundesliga, along with some reminiscences about Mill's good times, but let's be honest. It's this kind of thing we're all here for.
Several years ago, I went to a local butcher's shop with my good old friend Matthias Herget, the former West Germany defender. An old lady behind the counter wrapped our bread and sausages and when she raised her eyes, she exclaimed loudly: 'Ah! You hit the post!'
Incidentally, if you've never seen it, here it is. Pretty tight angle. We're sympathetic.
HAT TIP 2
Some sneaky bonus reading today, just to hurry those clock hands round a little quicker. The Guardian's Emma Kemp takes a look at Australia’s Afghan National Cup, which brings together the Afghan community in Australia and has, since 2015, boasted a women's tournament alongside the men's.
Football is obviously the bread and butter of this annual five-day, round-robin tournament but the game itself is also a vessel to community, a bringing together of the diaspora, including some who have recently escaped Afghanistan. It is an excuse for families to travel interstate and renew cultural roots – and make a heap of food. It is, basically, a festival.
There is still football happening around the world, because the game is permanent, and because not everywhere grinds to a complete halt for Christmas. But you'll struggle to find it on television.
The Warm-Up will be back on Boxing Day, along with an as-yet-unconfirmed proportion of the English game. Until then, have a good one.