You did have to feel a tad sorry for BT Sport’s Des Kelly on Saturday lunchtime. Instead of having a relaxing day, like most of the nation, he faced the wrath of Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp.
Klopp’s side had just drawn 1-1 with Brighton and Hove Albion, and to see he wasn’t amused would be an understatement.
Added to conceding a last-minute penalty, veteran midfielder James Milner was forced off with a hamstring injury, lengthening the champions’ notable injury list.
That came less than 72 hours after Liverpool had lost 0-2 to Atalanta in the Champions League at Anfield on Wednesday evening.
Seething with sarcasm on Saturday, Klopp gave his unabashed judgement following the full-time whistle:
“After Wednesday, Saturday at 12:30 is really dangerous for the players.
“I don’t know how often I have to say it – you picked the 12:30.
“Until this year is over in this part of the season, we had this slot three times. Look who else had this slot three times – no one.”
A bit unfair on poor old Des, who could well have been as frustrated about having to cover an early kick off as Klopp was.
However, the affair raises an important debate. As Liverpool have seen their players drop like flies while they defend their title, the compressed coronavirus campaign is clearly taking its toll on some more than others. That being said, there are plenty worse off than the Premier League champions.
Sharing, substitutes and sleep
Klopp was incorrect when he said no other team had played in the Saturday lunchtime slot more times than Liverpool. That accolade goes to neighbours Everton, who will have played four lunchtime games by the end of 2020, one more than their neighbours.
However, of the other English teams in the Champions League, only Manchester United will have kicked-off at 12:30pm on a Saturday as many times Klopp’s team has come the end of the year. Indeed, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær also labelled the fixture schedule a “joke” and accused broadcasters of trying to “set us up to fail” last month.
Liverpool sit second In the Premier League table at the time of writing, level on points with Tottenham Hotspur. Interestingly though, Jose Mourinho’s men are yet to play in a Saturday lunchtime kick-off.
Whilst Spurs have played in one Sunday lunchtime fixture following a Thursday night Europa league game, should this difference remain it may well be a sore spot for Liverpool if they are unable to protect their title.
The stats offer compelling support to Klopp’s case that early kick-offs are dangerous. Premier Injuries has reported 72 muscle injuries in 119 Saturday lunchtime matches: one every 147 minutes. This is compared to one every 224 minutes throughout the 2019-20 season.
A key issue here is the lack of recovery time between fixtures. Sleep is vital, allowing the muscles to repair fully after the intensity of an elite match. Studies have indicated that the lateness of matches, particularly those abroad, and close proximity of games to each other, negatively impacts a player’s ability to recover, and thus makes them more prone to injury.
A remedy suggested by many has been increased substitutions. The English Football League adopted the ‘five from nine’ rule in place of the traditional ‘three from seven’ for the rest of the season on 18 November. The Women’s Super League, Championship and League Cup have had the rule in place since the start of the campaign, and many of Europe’s top leagues – which include some of Liverpool’s European opponents – also adopted the change.
Klopp squarely pointed the finger at Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder on Saturday, labelling him “selfish” for being one of the handful of managers who openly disagreed with changing rules on substitutions.
Although appearing to regret his words later on, Klopp’s point is valid in that a mere few are resisting continent-wide support for increasing the number of changes allowed to prevent injuries in matches.
There’s always someone worse off
However, it could conversely be argued that Liverpool should take the rough with the smooth of their success.
The lunchtime kick-off is a cornerstone of television broadcast deals worth billions. Whilst avoiding the UK’s live coverage blackout, aimed at protecting gate revenues, it is also Saturday evening in many Asian countries, where there is a huge Premier League following and doubtlessly thousands of Liverpool fans.
Clubs receive huge amounts of money from TV deals, and this means broadcasters hold huge power over schedules (which clubs have agreed to) in return for notable sums of money. According to TalkSport, Liverpool earned just over £145 million in 2017/18; a season when they only finished third.
The money that broadcasters pay today is only greater, with BT Sport agreeing in February to pay £295m per season to cover lunchtime kick-offs until 2022.
Given Liverpool’s standing worldwide and increased success since that deal was signed, it would seem natural to select them for games broadcast worldwide. Every game they play will be of interest to someone, somewhere. It is a hard-knock life, being Premier League champions.
But as someone who is a fan of a Championship team, I do sometimes wonder what Klopp is complaining about. Granted, my team do not have European commitments (and alas, haven’t done for almost 30 years), but the cut and thrust of, “weekend, midweek, weekend, midweek” is all too familiar to most outside the Premier League. 46 league games, and more if a team is involved in the play-offs, as well as cup commitments, will certainly make some in the football pyramid think that Klopp simply needs to suck it up.
A word too, on the pandemic, and its undoubtable effect on football worldwide. Whilst it is of a course a shame to see players injured, in a season constantly meddled with by external forces, everyone has had to make sacrifices. Unfortunately for Klopp and the other big clubs, they are not exempt. If football wishes to be as normal as possible in a pandemic by retaining its structure and intensity, this is merely an unfortunate side-effect.
By Callum Parke