Both the Manchester City and Arsenal managers complained about facing a quick turnaround after Champions League fixtures last week, but should they just accept the busy schedule?

Following Saturday’s 1-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola went on the offensive.

Speaking to the BBC having seen his team progress to the FA Cup final just three days after they had lost on penalties to Real Madrid in the Champions League, his target was those in charge of setting the fixture schedule.

“It’s unacceptable to let us play today,” he said. “It’s impossible, for the health of the players. It’s not normal.

“One hundred and twenty minutes, the emotions of Madrid, the way we lose, honestly. I know this country is special [with the FA Cup] but it’s for the health of the players. I don’t understand how we survived.”

In the days following his tirade, Guardiola has been given little sympathy. Plenty have pointed out that he has greater resources to work with than most other managers in world football, while others have been quick to ask what he expects if he is at a club that hopes to win any competition they enter. Go deep in the Champions League and FA Cup and you’ll play lots of games, obviously.

Another charge aimed his way regarded how much – or little – he chose to rotate for the Chelsea game on Saturday. Guardiola made four changes to his starting lineup from the Madrid game, one of which was in goal, while the likes of Mateo Kovacic and Jérémy Doku remained on the bench. Kovacic came on after 112 minutes against Madrid and did not appear against Chelsea. It seems reasonable to ask whether he might have made more changes if he was so worried about his players’ wellbeing.

man city lineup vs real madrid
man city lineup vs chelsea

Guardiola’s point was not that his team was facing too many games, but that they were forced to play on Saturday, when Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final pitted Manchester United against Coventry City, both of whom hadn’t played in a week.

Later on Saturday, following Arsenal’s win over Wolves, Mikel Arteta was also questioned on the topic. He echoed Guardiola’s thoughts.

“It’s not about us, Pep or myself, it’s about the wellbeing of the players,” Arteta said. “When you compete in European competition every team has to compete in the same way. You cannot have a team that hasn’t played for seven days, or three days before, and has more recovery time and then you have to play in the Premier League and the FA Cup.

“It is not right. If you look [from] any angle it’s not right. If you want to protect [the players], let’s talk about the protagonists. Let’s protect the players and do everything we can to give them the maximum time to help them recover and perform.”

The point that Guardiola and Arteta made is all the more pertinent as it comes in the week when FA Cup replays were scrapped for good. The player workload debate has been thrown back into the spotlight.

It isn’t clear what the solution should be.

There have been different suggestions over the years, but each seems to meet resistance from the game’s traditionalists.

There are people who still want FA Cup replays to be retained. Scrapping the League Cup seems an easy route to clearing space in the schedule, particularly given other countries tend to have just one domestic cup competition, but people in England don’t seem to like that idea on the whole.

In France, the scene couldn’t be much different, with the powers that be doing everything they can to reduce the workload on their players. A few years ago, France became the latest country to scrap their second cup competition – the Coupe de la Ligue – and then Ligue 1 was reduced from 20 to 18 teams for 2023-24.

With PSG and Marseille still battling in Europe this season, the Ligue 1 fixture-makers postponed those clubs’ games on the weekend between the first and second legs of their next Champions League and Europa League ties so that they had the best chance of getting through to the final. That has knock-on effects for other clubs in Ligue 1, but everyone is made to work around the needs of the biggest teams.

It is common, meanwhile, for a Champions League team from France, Germany or Italy to have their league fixture rearranged for Friday night ahead of a round of European games to give them the whole weekend to prepare.

So, do Guardiola and Arteta have a point? Should more be done to protect England’s best teams to both give them the best chance of succeeding in Europe and also to create the best conditions for them to produce entertaining matches?

Both managers would no doubt argue that an extra day’s rest would have meant better games for TV viewers to enjoy at the weekend, and a better product to show off.

But where would the extra rest time come from? An extra day off on Saturday would have just meant less time to recover before their midweek Premier League fixtures which, incidentally, they are fulfilling in midweek because other games had to be rearranged earlier in the season due to the latter stages of other competitions.

Meanwhile, both managers may not be happy about it, but their teams have a couple of free midweek slots coming up because they have been knocked out of the Champions League. Those who disagree with them might suggest a busy week is manageable this week when they both have a full seven days’ rest coming up.

Premier League Hours Between Games
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

However, a look into the number of hours between fixtures this season shows City have had one of the most gruelling schedules in Europe. On average in 2023-24, City have had 121 hours and 26 minutes between games – just over five days. Only Liverpool (116 hours, 18 minutes) have had a shorter average turnaround of Premier League teams.

Earlier in the season, Jürgen Klopp bemoaned the fact that his team was being given Saturday’s early kick-off slot after playing in midweek.

But only Liverpool (53) have played more games than City (52) this season. Unsurprisingly, quick turnarounds and lots of games correlate pretty nicely. Aston Villa (50 games) and West Ham (49) have played the next most games, and come up next in terms of the shortest turnarounds.

Arsenal, though, have had more time between matches on average than Newcastle, who have played two games fewer, suggesting the scheduling has been kinder to Arteta’s team than it might have been.

Comparing these numbers to the other current top 10 sides in the Opta Power Rankings does, however, suggest that Premier League teams face tougher schedules than their European counterparts. Of the biggest teams in the biggest leagues, Barcelona (131 hours, 28 minutes) are the only side with a shorter average turnaround than Arsenal, who rank sixth in the Premier League.

PSG, still battling on three fronts, have had almost 22 hours more than Liverpool between each of their games.

Europe's Top Teams Hours Between Games
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

It all adds up to a decent argument for the fixture pile-up in England to be reduced. “It’s not healthy, for sure,” Arteta said on Saturday. “Somewhere, somehow, we have to reduce the calendar.”

If removing the League Cup is off the cards, the obvious place to look would be reducing the size of the Premier League by two teams, which would take four fixtures out of every team’s season. With two extra group-stage games in the Champions League from next season, that may well be necessary.

But none of this will mean any more sympathy for either Guardiola or Arteta. Both City and Arsenal went out of the League Cup in the early rounds, and are playing so many games because they have gone deep in other competitions.

Both sides are still having to put in so much effort in every Premier League game because they are in the title race (boo hoo!). Part of the reason City have played more games than most is because they won the Champions League last season and had to compete in the Club World Cup in December (boo hoo!).

And despite their sides playing the second- and fifth-most games of Premier League sides this season, Guardiola and Arteta have given hardly any fringe players starts. No top-flight team has started fewer players than City (24) in all competitions this season, while Arsenal have only done so with one more (25).

The result is that the average playing time (including added time) of each player at City (2,037 mins) and Arsenal (1,932) is the highest in the Premier League this season other than West Ham (2,067). David Moyes’ side have far less in the way of resources than either of those title-chasing team.

Guardiola has, however, at least rotated his starting XI well. With 219 starting XI changes – at an average of 4.2 per game – only Klopp (265, at 5.0 per game) has tinkered with his starting lineup more. Doing that consistently throughout the season has meant City are able to keep going this late into the season. That said, if he showed a little more trust in his whole squad – like Klopp – they might be in better shape now.

Arteta, on the other hand, has less depth to work with and has made just 124 lineup changes, at an average of 2.6 per game. Is it any wonder that his players appear to be tiring in the season’s final weeks?

None of this information will lead anyone who does not sympathise with either Guardiola or Arteta to change their mind. They are managing two of the best and biggest clubs in the world, fighting for glory at the top of the Premier League, and with genuine ambitions to win several competitions each season.

Managers will always complain about the fixture pile-up their teams face, but – for now at least – it just comes with the territory. There are plenty of other teams and managers who would love to be moaning about playing in a Champions League semi-final on Wednesday and an FA Cup semi-final or key game in the title race on the Saturday.

Both teams have more than enough depth to deal with a problem like this one.

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