Nothing in this Covid-affected football season has been business-as-usual, said Alyson Rudd in The Times. Just look at England’s top two sides. Such has been the dominance of Manchester City and Liverpool in recent years that nearly every match they’ve played has felt like a potential title-decider. Yet this season, their form has been “wobbly”, so when they met at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, the occasion felt a lot “less momentous” than normal. The “blisteringly enjoyable” first half soon put that to rights, said David Hytner in The Guardian. Liverpool came out “all guns blazing”, and took an early lead through Mohamed Salah. But with Kevin De Bruyne an increasingly influential presence, Pep Guardiola’s team “surged back into it” and drew level when Gabriel Jesus slotted the ball past Alisson. Now rampant, they would have gone into the interval 2-1 up – had De Bruyne not uncharacteristically missed a penalty.
So why did both sides lose their attacking verve in the second half and allow the match to peter out into a draw? Both managers were in no doubt of the answer: the over-congested and too-rigid fixture schedule puts excessive physical strain on the players. Earlier in the week, Manchester United’s manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær had raged at the way his team, having had to go to Turkey on Wednesday for a Champions League match, then had to face a 12.30 kick-off on Saturday against Everton. In a similar vein, Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp and City’s Guardiola launched a “blistering attack on the Premier League and TV broadcasters” over their match scheduling. I don’t like “hearing managers moan about fixture congestion”, said Chris Sutton in the Daily Mail. “Older generations put in greater shifts and hardly ever complained.” That said, the “extraordinarily high” number of muscular injuries this season is almost certainly the result of too much football being played. On Sunday, it was Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold who limped off with a calf injury: he will now miss England’s forthcoming international games.
Some things managers should just grin and bear, said Henry Winter in The Times. So yes, the early timings of some matches is done to suit the broadcasters, but “the average Premier League salary – £60,000 a week – is largely funded by broadcast revenue, and those who pay the piper will continue to call the tune”. But one battle managers should fight is to get the authorities to reconsider the rule about substitutions. Back in July and August, when the Premier League was being completed, teams were allowed an extra two subs per match. Most top flights in Europe have kept that arrangement – but the Premier League has reverted to three. With injuries mounting up, and concerns about the impact on next summer’s European Championships, Guardiola et al could well “force a change” in the league’s thinking. Let us hope so.