The meetings between Manchester City and Liverpool over the past few seasons have, to use an old cliche, been “a great advert for the Premier League”. Sunday’s 1-1 draw at the Etihad lived up to that billing, as the two finest teams in the country played out a pulsating, high-tempo contest that could have swung either way.
For the opening 45 minutes, that is. The second half was significantly more sedate. City and Liverpool – still the two title favourites, despite this season’s unpredictable start – managed seven shots on goal between them after the break and none whatsoever during the final quarter-of-an-hour, almost as if not particularly interested in taking points from their closest rivals.
And if anyone watching from the Premier League’s headquarters in Paddington thought that second half was not a particularly ‘great advert’ for their lavishly marketed product, here’s hoping they missed the press conferences.
Having witnessed that slow finish to the game and an injury to Trent Alexander-Arnold, both Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola spoke more passionately about player welfare than anything that had happened during the biggest 90 minutes of the top flight season to date. A day after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer accused the Premier League of setting Manchester United up to fail with their fixture scheduling, here came two other managerial broadsides against the league’s decision-makers.
Klopp even took the extraordinary step of questioning the leadership of Premier League chief executive Richard Masters, referencing him by name while arguing that the increase to five substitutions per game during Project Restart should have been retained.
“In my understanding it is a lack of leadership,” the Liverpool manager said. “Richard Masters sold it completely wrong in my understanding. Going there and telling: ‘So what do you think, what do you want, what do you want?’ It is the only big league where you have only three subs. Surprise!”
Klopp also revealed that he had held a meeting with the Premier League’s head of broadcasting Paul Molnar to discuss the scheduling of television games. “We played after the last international break at 12.30pm at Everton. Some of my players were on Wednesday night in Peru. These kinds of things should not happen,” he said. “Sky, BT, Premier League, whoever, BBC – they have to talk.”
Guardiola stopped short of calling out individual Premier League officials by name but agreed entirely with Klopp, insisting that he would support a change regarding substitutions. “All the leagues in the world except this one – maybe because it likes to be different – accepts five [subs] to protect the players, protect the football and the physicality of playing every three games,” he said.
But on scheduling, he was less hopeful of compromise. “I remember when I was a young, young lad and I read the news from England. Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Rafa Benitez were complaining the same thing about what Klopp and Solskjaer is saying. I don’t have any optimistic solution. I understand that the TVs have to decide. I am pretty sure it is not going to change.”
Guardiola is right to point out that the scheduling issues may be unresolvable, save a few tweaks here and there. The influence of broadcasting companies is great. It is not an exaggeration to say that some Premier League clubs have survived this pandemic merely because of the current £5bn television deal. When you pay that money, you call the shots. Then there is the difficulty of rearranging fixtures in what is an already condensed schedule.
There is more scope for change in the substitutions debate. The Premier League’s decision to revert to three-per-game faced little public opposition back in August as many saw it as a bulwark against the growing dominance of the largest clubs with the deepest squads. At a time when the Premier League’s fragile competitive balance is assaulted from every possible angle, that was a perfectly understandable position to take.
Even so, there is no real correlation between the size of a club and the size of its squad. Relegated Norwich City used the most players of any top-flight side last season, as clubs desperately battling against the drop often do. Wolves used the fewest – just 21 – but challenged for a Europa League spot and progressed to the latter stages of the same competition. Liverpool and City used 24 players each – the third-lowest total.
Quantity does not equal quality, of course, and it is a general rule that the bigger and richer clubs have better reserves, whether their squad is large or small. But is that general rule really enough to say that two extra substitutes per game would tip the scales too far in the big clubs’ favour? Do the player-welfare benefits not outweigh any minor competitive imbalance – especially if it is just a temporary measure, as it should be?
Whatever the rights and wrongs of these arguments though, it is more interesting to note who is making them. There is a wider context here, after all. The twin issues of scheduling and substitutions appear to set the so-called ‘top six’ in opposition to the rest. Klopp even suggested a hybrid system, where top six games are played with five substitutions but three are used in all other games. A league within a league, arguably. This is becoming something of a theme.
The Premier League has just survived the greatest threat to its existence in its current form for some time, but even after the failure of Project Big Picture, the debate about the future of English football post-Covid rages on. It was therefore striking to see Klopp, Solskjaer and Guardiola – not just managers but the public faces of their clubs, which are three of the biggest in the league – vociferously criticise the way things are currently being done, all on the same weekend.
That is not a great look for the Premier League and, when everyone should have been revelling in what was supposed to be the game of the season so far, not a particularly ‘great advert’ either.