Market Insight: On ice: what the Premier League winter break could mean for English soccer
England’s top flight is currently unique among Europe’s biggest domestic competitions in not having any kind of winter break, and it has long been a point of contention that the intensity of the Premier League’s winter calendar takes a physical toll on its players, leaving them too tired to perform well at summer tournaments. With the news that a winter lull is on the cards, could this be the route to domestic, continental and international success?
What has been agreed?
This season’s festive period saw further calls for the introduction of some respite in the winter months, with a number of managers voicing complaints about injuries to key players, while a common gripe among fans is that the congested schedule means games can be less exciting due to exhausted players.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola warned that the festive schedule was “killing” Premier League players, while his cross-city rival Jose Mourinho of Manchester United complained earlier in the season that the lack of a break was damaging to English clubs' hopes of progressing in the Uefa Champions League.
Last week, according to UK media, the Football Association (FA), the Premier League and the English Football League (EFL), the organising body for the second, third and fourth tiers of club soccer, reached an agreement for a first annual two-week break in early February 2020.
The Times says that matches in the fifth round of England’s historic annual knockout competition, the FA Cup, would be played midweek, without replays, to facilitate the break.
The resulting break would be staggered, with five Premier League matches taking place on one weekend and five on another. The proposals mean that all top-flight clubs will have a minimum of 13 days without a match but there would be no full weekend without Premier League action.
However, the winter break will not apply in the Championship, League One and League Two since the 46-game schedule for each division means that there is less room for flexibility.
How does this compare to other top flights?
Winter breaks are already included in the schedules of the top soccer leagues in Germany, France, Italy and Spain, which each enjoy midseason rests of between 11 and 22 days. However, they all take place between December and January, which is traditionally the busiest period for Premier League teams.
While western Europe has seen exceptionally cold conditions in the past ten days, very few games have typically been lost to the weather in those countries in recent years. The winter breaks, however, are required for different reasons in regions where temperatures drop far below freezing during those months— the Russian Premier League, for example, shuts up shop for almost three months between the middle of December and early March, while Scandinavian leagues in general structure their calendar around winter with games taking place between April and November.
What could the winter break mean for player performance?
Germany won the Fifa World Cup national team tournament in 2014, Spain emerged triumphant in 2010, and Italy were victorious in 2006; all have breaks in their domestic leagues. Meanwhile, successive England managers have cited the hectic winter schedule in England as having a detrimental effect on the national team, and fans have long complained that the Three Lions look uninspiring at major tournaments next to nations that enjoy a winter break.
Former England and Liverpool player Jamie Carragher told the Daily Mail that, having played 70 games in the 2005/06 season, by the time he faced Portugal in the quarter-final of the 2006 World Cup he was “on his knees”. Meanwhile, Uefa reports that there are four times as many injuries in the Premier League in April and May as in leagues with a festive pause in play.
With that in mind, others calling for a midseason pause also point to the toll England’s arduous schedule takes on the prospects of Premier League clubs in the latter stages of the Champions League and Europa League.
It is hoped, then, that the introduction of a winter break could benefit the national team and foster success on the international stage. The new schedule would allow England players to enjoy a rest ahead of the pan-continental 2020 edition of the Uefa European Championship national team competition. London’s Wembley Stadium will be hosting seven games, more than any other host venue, meaning England would have the benefit of home advantage over other participating countries.
Of course, Premier League clubs also employ a large numbers of foreign players, whose national teams also suffer from their lack of a winter break. England manager Gareth Southgate has been keen to underplay the excuse of tired bodies for his team at the upcoming World Cup in Russia, suggesting that other nations “have the exact same problem and maybe we can over-egg that”. Nonetheless, England could now have a chance to show the benefits of rested legs when they head to compete at Euro 2020.
Some suggest that the proposed hiatus would not lead to much drastic change: Everton, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Newcastle and Watford, for example, all enjoyed breaks of at least 13 days between games this February owing to their elimination from the FA Cup, while some clubs may still be called into action in the knockout rounds of European competition.
What other effects would the changes have?
The move to midweek matches for the FA Cup’s fifth round could mean that the FA will have to pay a penalty to overseas broadcasters. However, the Times understands this would not be ‘significant’ and that the Premier League would ‘be asked to make up any shortfall in lost TV revenue’.
The changes would also see the Premier League gain a weekend on which its matches are played, suiting broadcasters which prefer weekend fixtures.
Changes to the FA Cup, however, could prove more controversial, and lower league club owners and executives are expected to express misgivings about the plans. Newport County manager Michael Flynn, whose League Two side earned an FA Cup replay against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium this season after a 1-1 home draw, believes the impact of removing fifth-round replays could negatively impact smaller teams, who split gate receipts from away fixtures. He cited the “great occasion” winning a replay represents for smaller clubs and claims the changes would take “a lot of the romance out of football”.
The idea that a lower-league club could get a chance once in a decade and make significant commercial gains from winning a replay would be lost. League Two Exeter, for example, played Liverpool in a replay in 2016 and made enough money from the game to fund artificial turf facilities for their academy.
Darryl Eales, the outgoing chairman of the League One side Oxford United, said it would be disappointing for the competition as a whole and has suggested that changing the way revenues are distributed from fifth-round ties would soften the financial blow for lower-league clubs of scrapping replays.
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