Soccer managers love to complain. This is not surprising, given all the things about high-level soccer there are to complain about, as well as the immense pressure that soccer managers in particular find themselves under. Can you imagine how the average NFL coach would behave in a league where relegation exists and it’s not uncommon for even the most accomplished managers to be fired after just a season or two of disappointing results? Given how permanently grouchy even the guys who manage the best and richest teams are, it’s usually fair to tune out the various gripes they share during every press conference. Jürgen Klopp’s always complaining about something, you know? But this week feels a little bit different. The managers are upset, yes, but they have a lot of extremely good reasons to be mad.
The Premier League is currently in a situation very similar to the NBA’s, in that the league is attempting to push through a league-wide surge in coronavirus cases for the sake of playing as many of the annual festive fixtures, which traditionally take place between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, as possible. Where the Premier League’s situation becomes more dire than the NBA’s is in the fact that this period of the season has always been particularly contentious. Teams are forced to play multiple league games in a stupidly short period of time, and those that remain in domestic cup competitions sometimes find themselves playing a game every two or three days. For clubs that have real designs on the league title or a deep Champions League run, the festive fixtures are as much about keeping everyone healthy as they are picking up points.
What was already a tightrope walk has become all the more treacherous this season, with so many players testing positive for COVID-19. Managers who have had their squads thinned out by coronavirus cases and regular injuries, but have not been granted any game postponements by the league, now have to figure out how to weather the avalanche of games without dropping too many points and overworking the players they do have available. And so during this week’s pre-match press conferences, pretty much every manager in the league made their displeasure with the upcoming schedule known, and hinted that things need to change going forward.
Nobody used stronger language than Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who took issue not with the festive-fixture schedule in particular, but with the year-long congestion of games that often robs players of an offseason lasting more than two or three weeks. Then he said a word that I am sure nobody in the Premier League offices was happy to hear. From the BBC:
Guardiola said a strike may be the only way to get the authorities to listen.
Speaking on Thursday, he said: “Should the players and the managers be all together and make a strike, or something, because just through words it’s not going to be solved?”BBC
Perhaps realizing the seriousness of raising the prospect of a strike, Guardiola backed off his comments a bit when pressed. “I’m not saying there’s a reason to make a strike,” he said.
A strike is certainly unlikely, but that doesn’t mean that significant changes aren’t more possible now than they were previously. Just as it has in the world outside of sports, the coronavirus put big red lights around the weaknesses that have already made world soccer’s infrastructure so rickety. All anyone can hope for is that soccer uses the opportunity to address those weaknesses better than the rest of society has.