Ken Early: Hectic pandemic-era schedule bound to take a toll on players

Managers united in condemnation of decision not to persist with five-substitute rule

Last week, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made some interesting points about how empty stadiums have changed the game.

“It’s a completely different game without the fans,” he observed. “Playing in empty stadiums takes all the passion and excitement out of the game ... tactics come more into it because you can see how each side is being set up. In normal circumstances players react to the crowd, whatever their manager tells them to do. At the moment that is not happening as much.”

Solskjaer's lucid analysis ensured even more attention would be focused on his personal contest with Arsenal's Mikel Arteta at Old Trafford yesterday evening. The match was soundtracked by the rain hammering down out of the dark winter sky and Arteta yelling constant detailed instructions to his players.

Solskjaer seemed more inclined to let his boys get on with it, though at one point towards the end, as United chased an equaliser, he could be heard screaming “Go wide!”


Solskjaer had scored a brilliant 5-0 victory during the week against RB Leipzig, using a diamond formation that allowed him to get his new signing Donny van de Beek involved from the start. For Arsenal, Solskjaer changed the players – van de Beek was back on the bench – but kept the system, even though Arsenal’s system is different from Leipzig’s.

The first half was a disaster, and Solskjaer was forced to revert to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 at half-time. The hasty reorganisation meant Solskjaer’s 100th game in charge left the impression of confusion, of patternlessness. It’s hard to see United ever reclaiming their dominant position in English football if the team continues to evolve by what amounts to a process of trial and error.

Arsenal, by contrast, seemed to have a much better idea of what they were doing. But it is significant that their midweek European game was a more relaxed affair against Dundalk, who did not even commit a foul against them.

Arteta had been able to rest most of the players who would start at Old Trafford and Arsenal’s greater clarity owed something to the way they could prioritise their preparations for the United match.

Sky’s pundits including Roy Keane and Tim Cahill quickly diagnosed that United lacked “men” and “leadership”. Solskjaer himself struggled to explain why his team had played so badly until the contrast with the Leipzig match was mentioned, at which point he remarked, “maybe that is the reason”.

The temptation might be to dismiss this as a manager clutching at straws, but actually this was a better point than any of the pundits had made.

Several managers including Solskjaer, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Frank Lampard complained last week that the Premier League had made a stupid mistake by deciding not to continue with the five-substitute rule, unlike every other major league in Europe.

It’s no coincidence they’re the four managers involved in this season’s Champions League. The Champions League is the top competition in world football, but consider what a joyless, soulless grind it has become for the players, as they pass through empty airports on their way to empty stadiums to play what are in theory very important games of football that in practice feel ... empty.

Emotional payoff

Manchester City’s visit to Marseille should have meant flares, drums, smoke, flags, 67,000 fans bellowing hymns of love and hate. Instead there was only the sounds of the match bouncing off the empty white shell of the Velodrome, which resembled the bleached skeleton of some dead sea creature. City’s 3-0 win seemed hardly more euphoric than a solid Tuesday training session. For the players it was straight back to Manchester and on to empty Sheffield on Saturday to do it all over again.

Yes, Champions League footballers are among the most privileged young men on the planet; no cry of pity on their behalf is likely to move many hearts. But it would be a denial of reality not to acknowledge that football is supposed to be more fun than this, that players are used to getting more of an emotional payoff from their work, that this payoff is part of what sustains them and that in its absence things are going to change.

There are not many among even this small group of elite athletes with the machine-like focus required to deliver peak performance game after game in such weird circumstances. Not every player can keep hurling themselves into the game like the world depends upon it, in the absence of all the usual cues – the screaming crowds, the vile abuse, the hero worship – that tell them how important the game is.

Instead, players are surrounded by evidence that the world has other stuff going on right now, that football has never been less important. And this is the very moment at which the game chooses to demand more from them than ever before, with the densest-ever fixture calendar, thanks to the authorities’ grim determination to complete all the fixtures as usual, despite the pandemic chopping several weeks out of the usual season.

While some players struggle with the mental demands of the new situation, the physical demands weed players out relentlessly and indiscriminately. Guardiola says that Premier League players are suffering muscle injuries at a rate 47 per cent higher than last season.

Curiously, it is not just top-six players who turn out to be vulnerable to muscle injuries. West Ham were one of the clubs most firmly opposed to the continuation of the five-substitute rule. They almost got a result at Anfield on Saturday night.

We will never know what their wrecking-ball centre-forward Michail Antonio might have done to Joe Gomez and debutant Nat Phillips, because his hamstring came apart in West Ham's previous game against Manchester City.

You have to laugh when you think of some of the reasons why clubs voted against the five-subs reform. Sean Dyche, for instance, felt five substitutes would make it easier for big-club coaches to manage the politics of their bloated squads, by providing more opportunities to dispense game time to players who would get "slightly disgruntled" if they were left out.

“It quite obviously favours the big clubs because they can keep more players happy,” he said.

God forbid the league would adopt a measure that risked making players happy. Much better to impose impossible physical and mental demands on the players, then respond to any wavering of consistency by questioning their manhood.