It happened all so suddenly. Willian whipped in a corner into the near post. David Luiz challenged to win the ball in the air. Luiz’s and Raúl Jiménez’s heads collided. The sound that came as they did so.
The players were aghast. Nuno Espírito Santo’s eyes turned red with a dreadful emotion as the realisation of what had happened caught him. Even in an empty stadium, the solemn silence was deafening.
Jiménez’s injury was a traumatising moment for those who witnessed it live. The fear of how serious the occurrence was spread across a distressing ten minutes. The news of his condition at the hospital would need to wait even longer. His teammates and the fans watching at home were powerless. The only thing we all could do was hope – hope that Jiménez would recover and could one-day return.
But while Jiménez left the pitch, attention turned to David Luiz. The nature of the incident made it seemingly impossible for him to continue. Afterall, Mikel Arteta urged the Premier League to consider the significance of player welfare. “They are the most important part of that, and we have to be conscious that we have to protect them,” he declared a few weeks before.
“We are constantly exposing them…. At the end of the day we are going to have some really bad news with players that, at the end of the day, we are not respecting. And we can change some things, even if it is not ideal. But given the context we are in at the moment it would be really helpful in my opinion.”
This was the moment: Arteta had the chance to protect the player. He could make a statement against the football injury plague and, most concerning, the sinister link between football and neurological diseases. There was no need to expose Luiz to further dangers. Given the context of the situation, Luiz is at severe risk. He must respect the player. The situation was not ideal, but the context meant he must protect him.
The Spaniard then waited close to 40 minutes to finally react: Luiz was deemed unfit at half-time. By that time, Luiz’s injury was crystal clear with blood soaked through his bandages. The most worrying part was that the blood had been pouring for a while and no one acted.
The shocking nature of the situation was cemented days later when the injury ruled him out of Arsenal’s Europa League tie and the North London Derby. Nevertheless, the damage was already done. The ‘protect the players’ narrative evaporated. Common sense disappeared. The dangers of concussion became once more present; and so, did football’s negligence.
In this case, questions must be pointed towards why Luiz was able to continue in the first place. Arteta supported his medical team by stating they followed through with the necessary protocol, but this claim only raises further questions.
How flawed is the protocol if Luiz could continue? How long does it take for concussion injuries to be thoroughly diagnosed? Arteta mentioned Luiz wanted to continue. Does that mean he had a say when it is well-established players must not have one? How can Arteta standby for the whole half and believe Luiz is in the right state with blood soaked across his head? How could his medical team also take this view?
The next week the Spaniard was again at the front of player welfare criticism. He pushed Thomas Partey back onto the pitch to try to stop a Tottenham counterattack, despite clearly suffering from a muscular injury. Arteta admitted the Ghanaian was expected to miss ‘a few games’ days before the fixture with a thigh issue. He also recited he must protect the player in the same instance. Once again, Arteta failed put his words into action.
Thankfully, the authorities are no longer staying on the fence regarding concussion and the worrying link football has to neurological diseases. Eyes are peeled to the effectiveness concussion substitutes will have in the FA Cup 3rd Round as well as Premier League trials in the second-half of the season. Successful trials would mean a positive step forward for football moving in the right direction.
Nonetheless, Arteta is not alone in football’s inconsistent narrative for protecting player welfare. Pep Guardiola is a known five substitute supporter and has fired bullets in the name of player protection in the past. He has tended to utilise all five substitutes in Europe which supports his cause. Though on the other side, Guardiola has rarely used all three substitutes in the league (against Fulham he did not make a single substitute) and he proclaimed he does not rest players. Guardiola’s actions makes him as similarly inconsistent.
Though the five substitute debate has since become an embarrassing war of words between Jürgen Klopp and Chris Wilder. They are two managers looking out for their own interests. More so, the polarising positions of their views is symbolic of the divide in the Premier League. It wouldn’t be out of the question if it is a conscious aftermath to Project Big Picture either. Liverpool attempted to diminish Sheffield United’s power. It would not be surprising if Wilder had grown to mistrust the intentions of the elite.
Besides that possibility, the switching attitudes is a symptom of the sports cultural failure to actually protect the players. The sport is ruthless. Microscopic intensity placed on managers is hidden behind the clubs’ curtains except for a couple of hours per week.
Guardiola, particularly, has been under immense pressure since his arrival to mirror his success at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He is deemed a failure unless he dominates, especially with the resources at his disposal. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s performances have placed Arteta into a stressful realm where a relegation fight is looking more likely than challenging for Europe. The status of the club and Arteta’s reputation dwindles as each game goes by.
Unfortunately, this type of pressure is only the tip of the iceberg to why player welfare is an unsolvable problem. Beneath the hysteria are the thick roots from the money tree seed.
Money is the beating heart of football’s success. Money is the reason why the Premier League is a globalised fairy-tale. Money is why football is the most played sport in the world. Money is the cause of the bureaucratic system the sport has positioned itself in. And yet, despite money giving the players so many luxuries, it is why the player welfare problem is so desperate.
Frank Lampard, who decided not to go deep into the root consequence, touched the surface of the subject. “The majority of our squad have been travelling,” he said after the November international break. “Some are travelling just now, they will travel again up to Newcastle, they will travel back from Newcastle, they will fly to Rennes on Monday, they will fly back from Rennes.”
“When you look at the scheduling,” he added “the broadcasters have never had so many slots of games that they have now. That 12:30pm slot…how much does it need to be there?”
“If you’re looking over the course of a season, the number of times players return from international duty, it’s absolutely not the optimum way to have player playing in a Premier League game, that is an incredible brand all around the world.”
Lampard explicitly hints at the harsh affects of what is required of player’s behind the theatre curtains. Travelling incessantly with little time to rest and recover will wear down anyone eventually. Footballers are no different. They are not robots (no matter what we, the consumes, would like to think of them as such). They will suffer from mental fatigue just like the average worker.
But that doesn’t stop football from inflicting detriments onto its own players. The September, October and November international breaks will most likely go down as the most ludicrous and callous scheduling decision in modern sport history. The physical and mental health risks far outweighed the need to play friendlies and the completion of the Nation League group stages.
Even now when we ponder it, we know why it had to happen. The continental organisations and the football associations needed them to. They needed the cash flow, regardless of the risks and the slight thought that it was a pointless existence to the fans. It shows the people in suits rule football. The consumers get what we are given. No questions asked.
This goes for the recent limelight given to the 12:30pm kick-off TV slot for the Premier League. It was thrusted into the news because of Klopp’s furious post-match interview. He mimicked Lampard’s concerns but the grandeur of lambasting the BT Sport reporter with guilt for his side drawing to Brighton made the incident far more newsworthy than Lampard’s subtle query.
Both managers are correct in stating their concerns for the fixture time after a Wednesday night game. Injuries are more likely. Doctor Joel Mason told The Athletic players need up to 72 hours to fully recover after a match. The limited timeframe to recuperate, train, rest – sleep in particular – and be fully prepared for the next match is an intense job to master.
Nonetheless, not even science can overcome the elephant in the room for why Liverpool were chosen for this fixture. The broadcasters are the puppeteers of the fixture list. They command, the clubs obey. They pay the billions; the clubs receive the millions. The manager’s duty in all this is just to prepare as effectively as possible, arrive, perform their media commitments, and leave.
In the 12:30pm kick off exists to accommodate the Asian audience. Liverpool are a globalised club attempting to expand and implement hegemony on as many markets as possible. Asia is the biggest of them all. It accounts to around 60% of the global population. Lampard and Klopp are already in a losing fight.
For this particular scenario, if Klopp really wanted to understand why BT Sport chose Liverpool and not, in this instance, Everton vs Leeds, he only needs to look at the brand name he represents. He is manager of Liverpool Football Club: the current Premier League and club world champions, the previous European champions and one of the most historic clubs on Earth.
Their well-earned title as one of the best teams in the world will not be departing them any time soon. Klopp has phenomenally placed Liverpool back on top. Inciting why the broadcaster did not choose their shadowed local rivals versus a newly promoted club over them, when the broadcasters are looking out for their own interests as well, is extraordinary. BT Sport and other broadcasters want the biggest audience possible. Liverpool draws it.
If Lampard, Klopp and potentially others are going to attack the TV slot again, they must look to their upper echelons for guidance. It would not be good for business or relations if the Premier League’s biggest teams are attacking the broadcaster’s judgement while they handover the funds to pay for their transfers and wages.
The need to accommodate money over player welfare will continue throughout the decade. This time in two years the 2022 World Cup will be well underway. Eight European teams will be expected to take part in the inaugural expanded Club World Cup the same year or 2023. This builds up to the climatic ending of the European football calendar in 2024 when the Champions League could be changed to a mini-league and eight additional fixtures could be inducted too.
The five-substitute protocol is a plaster for a worsening wound. If it becomes a permanent staple for the future, it will legitimise the increase in demand further. The pressures will mount.
In all, Toni Kroos is wary of the strains placed upon them. He publicly criticised the governing bodies for their lack of care towards the players on his podcast during the November international break. “At the end of the day, as players we’re just puppets for all these new things which are invented by FIFA and UEFA. Nobody asks us,” he said.
“[We] wouldn’t be playing in the Nations League, nor a Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia, nor a Club World Cup with 20 or more teams” if they had more input Kroos believes. He also says the purpose is “to suck out everything financially, and, of course, physically from every single player – and then some.”
The scheduling issue and its impact will continue until the players make a serious impression. They have the power to revolutionise their welfare to ensure they are cared for properly. Football’s popularity is channelled through them rather than the people in suits. They need to decide whether they want to be persistently treated as commodities on a scale like we see today.
If the sport really cares, it needs to buck up its ideas and put their words into action.