It was early Saturday and Liverpool had played poorly in their midweek match leading up to Brighton’s visit to Anfield. They looked to bounce back, to use the early match to wipe away the Champions League disappointment, and started on the front foot. They pressed and they pressed and chased some more, and had little to show for it until the second half.
It may be unprofessional to admit it, but I fell asleep. During the match.
It was at 4:30am Pacific Time, we had woken up at 4:15 to watch it, after roughly 4 hours of sleep before. I was curled on the couch with a blanket, the lights were down, and the match was… well, nothing was happening. We had to be quiet to not wake anyone else in the house, even the television was down low.
I missed Diogo Jota’s goal, and James Milner coming off injured (again). I woke up just enough to see Jordan Henderson come on, our second goal ruled offside, and then a second penalty kick given to Brighton late in the game for a perceived challenge on Danny Welbeck, leading Brighton to equalize.
And if that was me, struggling to stay awake during an early match hardly three days after the previous one, I can’t even imagine what it is like for the players. They are the ones putting their bodies, their very wellbeing, on the line for this game and their careers. And while yes, they chose to take part in it, the way the league is treating them in forcing them to play so often that it is detrimental to their very abilities to play, is disheartening.
As a Premier League fan, you know that December is always the roughest period - for any team. The league is aware that more people are at home, so of course they want to take part in football matches - so they schedule matches almost every three-four days for clubs. Teams are forced to play with very little recovery time, exacerbating injuries and wearing threadbare squads even thinner. Especially this year, without a proper pre-season period of rest for players and then re-training to get their bodies into season readiness, we’re seeing players drop like flies as their bodies are put under immense strain to perform at this highest level for 90+ minutes, every three or four days.
The Premier League also did away with the five substitutions rule they instituted once the league came back last season after the prolonged coronavirus layoff. So now clubs are back to only three substitutes allowed per match, putting a further strain on the players that are able to continue playing - rather than allowing more chance for rotation to give other players rest. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has had a lot to say about the matter, recently.
All of this is starting to rear its ugly head as we reach December, as many speculated it would. The Liverpool Men’s team themselves are dealing with an injury crisis they haven’t dealt with in years, with our two first choice center backs out for the season with serious injuries, a rotating list of midfielders getting injured, our first choice right back out for a while, and only prayers keeping our front three of attackers healthy (and two of them have even had to go into quarantine).
“People are expecting us to take our false teeth out and yet still chew the food properly,” Bob Paisley said in 1981, when dealing with a similar injury crisis. The Reds were without Alan Kennedy, Alan Hansen, David Fairclough, and Kenny Dalglish at the time — whereas now we are without Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Thiago Alcantara… should I go on?
All of this isn’t even touching on the problem of VAR - which might be another post for another day.
This review today, not really a review at all either, is about the incredible circumstances that these players are expected to perform under. When it is still largely unsafe to travel, when they are pushed to their very limits because the league is forcing them without very much help. Even now, as stadiums look to welcome the first fans back - Anfield will welcome 2000 fans for the upcoming match against Wolves - and levels of infection of the Covid-19 virus are at an all time high.
It is wrong, to ask so much of these players, regardless of how much they get paid (oh yes, because I am ready for that argument that they get paid millions of pounds to play a game). They are human, and deserve to be treated as such. If we are going to speak about their opinions and beliefs and causes that they fight for, and allow them that space, that space to protest and speak out, we need to expand that thinking and treat them like the human beings they are - fragile water based collections of muscle, really, held up by bones. We, and the league itself, are expecting them to perform in an enjoyable way to us as spectators under immense pressure, and it’s not fair. Especially as we expect them to retire at 35 and off they go, with little else to show for it. Is the money worth it, when you think of it that way?
This year, and years to come as tournaments that had been pushed off come back, has been so cruel to these players. And yet, crueler still, has been the league and those who run it - those who are expected to care for these players, rather than push them past what is feasible for the human body.
So Brighton’s visit to Anfield, with all that it could’ve been, turned into a 1-1 draw, due to the strains that these players are under, and questionable referee decisions. Liverpool were still expected to chew their food as normal, play as normal, through these extraordinary circumstances, and are expected to keep it up through the congested December period. Liverpool have a match every 3.16 days for 19 days coming up. There is no well-intentioned reason for that.
We know that they will do the best with what they have - which, thankfully, is a lot of skill, talent, and resources - but effectively asking them to manage this obstacle course of a season on their own, with no help from the league (for any club, for that matter) is not even sporting behavior. It is greedy, unfair, and unsafe.
On the other side, the Women’s team play three matches in December, and have a break from December 21st to January 9th.
Imagine what the Premier League season would be like if the men’s teams had a holiday break like that? Especially this year, maybe we wouldn’t see so many injuries. Maybe we would see happier players.