Pep Guardiola has suggested players should consider going on strike to demand a reduction in their workload, as player welfare moved to the heart of the debate over the Premier League's Covid crisis.
With two more top-flight matches postponed and league officials meeting with club captains and managers to discuss their concerns, temperatures continued to rise even as the various parties agreed to muddle on with the traditional festive programme.
Guardiola took the most provocative line, suggesting direct action may be required before the game’s authorities heeded concerns over demands placed on players.
“Should the players and the managers be all together and make a strike?” Manchester City’s manager said. “Just through words it’s not going to be solved. For Fifa, the Premier League, the broadcasters, the business is more important than their welfare. The simplest example is all around the world they have five substitutions; here it’s still three. Tell me one argument to take care of players’ welfare than this one? Here, where everyone decides for themselves, we didn’t do it.”
Guardiola’s words were picked up by the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Maheta Molango, who demanded that authorities take the concerns of elite players more seriously.
“I’ve spoken with many senior players on this issue,” he said. “I can tell you that it isn’t going away. Players don’t choose to speak out on issues like this without having given it a lot of thought.
“Now it’s up to those who run the game at all levels to begin to take this seriously so it’s an issue that can be addressed constructively with players at the heart of the conversation. That has to happen now. ”
Top-flight players are understood to feel aggrieved with the Premier League over a lack of direct communication. Regular meetings held with club captains during Project Restart have not continued and this week’s meeting had been postponed from Monday until Thursday. There are also concerns a new player welfare department within the league has not been proactive enough. The rescheduled meeting ended with captains and the league agreeing to engage in more frequent dialogue.
This week the Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, told the BBC that “nobody really takes player welfare seriously”. Among elite players there is concern not only over playing a condensed fixture list during a Covid outbreak but also over upcoming changes to the professional calendar that will mean an expanded Champions League and potentially a World Cup every two years.
As Liverpool v Leeds and Wolves v Watford St Stephen’s Day matches became the latest fixtures to be postponed because of Covid outbreaks at the two away teams, Henderson’s concern was echoed by Rafael Benítez.
The Premier League rejected a request to postpone Everton’s St Stephen’s Day game at Burnley despite five positive Covid cases and six injuries in Benítez’s squad. The manager believes his club are being punished for not closing their training ground and that the league’s integrity could be damaged by fulfilling fixtures with academy players.
The league concluded Everton have enough players to fulfil the Burnley fixture. Their available contingent includes Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has not played for two months because of a thigh muscle re-injury, and several academy players with top-flight experience. One, the 18-year-old midfielder Tyler Onyango, has made two 89th-minute substitute appearances in the Premier League and an 85th-minute substitute's appearance in the FA Cup.
Benítez said: “Money is now managing the game and it is quite complicated to find the right solution. We are professionals and have to manage the situation but the fans, everybody, want to see the best players on the pitch and playing at the best level possible. You sell the TV rights because you play nice and exciting football, but then all these things happen.”
Despite airing the possibility of a strike, Guardiola does not believe there is appetite for one. “No I don’t think so, because we want to play, we want to continue,” he said.
Although the Premier League has been the object of much of the criticism from managers over scheduling, it was the clubs who voted to reintroduce the three substitutes rule, making the league Europe’s only top-flight competition not to take advantage of relaxed rules. Clubs voted against the measures twice but they can be put back on the agenda by a club at a shareholders’ meeting.
One suggestion for clearing space in the calendar was staging one-leg semi-finals in the Carabao Cup. After progressing to the final four on Wednesday, Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp and Tottenham’s Antonio Conte suggested that home and away ties for the semis should be scrapped, but this proposal is unlikely to be considered by the competition organisers, the EFL, because it would cost an estimated £20 million (€23.7 million) in lost revenue from sponsorship and broadcast rebates.
Manchester United's interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, went further on Thursday, suggesting that the League Cup could be abolished to ease the congested schedule.
“England is the only country in the top five leagues in Europe that plays two cup competitions,” he said. “This is something we could maybe speak about and discuss. I know the reason for that: the League Cup is kept for the third and fourth division teams to improve the financial situations of those clubs. But I still think if we talk about a tight calendar, maybe having to play too many games, this could be something where we speak and discuss.”
Rangnick also acknowledged, however, that he was looking forward to being in charge at Old Trafford during the Christmas period. “You know better than I do what a big tradition it is to play on Boxing Day and the 27th,” Rangnick said before a game at Newcastle scheduled for December 27th. “I think we should stick to this and respect this tradition. I’m looking forward to that for the first time in my coaching career.” – Guardian