Finally, the waiting is over. The barren summer is at its end. How on earth did we pass the time? Those listless days. The yawning void between the Champions League final last Sunday and the Community Shield on Saturday. But now, like the first drop of rain on a puddle, a nation starved of football for all of 138 hours can finally gorge itself. Or, as the Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta, so aptly put it this week: “We are ready to go. We have no choice.”
Yes, football’s back, and it feels like it’s never been away. Partly because it hasn’t. Six days after Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich brought down the curtain on the elongated 2019-20 campaign, Arsenal and Liverpool will step out at an empty Wembley to formally inaugurate the 2020-21 English season, after not so much an off-season as a barely visible seam between rolling campaigns, the perforated join separating two bin bags.
Of course, in many respects even this flimsiest of demarcations is largely arbitrary. Ligue 1’s season started last Friday. The Scottish Premiership is five games in. Meanwhile, around 24 hours after Arsenal and Liverpool vacate the Wembley turf, Wolfsburg and Lyon will step out to contest the Women’s Champions League final, the last major game of the 2019-20 season.
In a sense, this pandemic-enforced turbo-schedule has offered us a glimpse of how football’s administrators and broadcasters envisage the future: a genuinely 12-month sport, in which the game’s colonisation of the summer is finally complete. In which irritations such as pre-season training and adequate rest periods are winnowed down to a bare minimum. In which the stars of the piece – the players – are essentially rendered a fungible resource, circus animals to be flogged and flogged again.
And so Arsenal, 28 days after they beat Chelsea to win the FA Cup, and with only a handful of training sessions under their belts, will be back out there. “Obviously it’s not an ideal moment,” added Arteta, who is already dealing with an injury crisis in defence. “Both teams will not be the finished articles,” warned Liverpool’s manager, Jürgen Klopp. “How can we be after two weeks training again?”
This may, you suspect, become something of a recurring theme. For after the first of three autumn international breaks, the start of the Premier League on 12 September will usher the most brutally compressed season in living memory. Every midweek between now and 23 May has been allocated. The last five rounds of the Premier League will be played in 23 days. The Champions League and Europa League group stages will take place in consecutive weeks (breaking only for a three-game international week in November).
This isn’t so much “fixture congestion” as fixture gridlock, fixture congealment, a plague of fixtures on all your houses. Any team making significant progress on four fronts will have some invidious choices to make. Should Tottenham progress through their three rounds of Europa League qualifying and make next May’s final in Gdansk, they could end up playing 67 games in 257 days in all competitions (some of them simultaneously). Plus international commitments. Then Euro 2021 (© Euro 2020) straight afterwards. Then an inevitably shortened 2021-22 season to make space for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The human toll of all this is incalculable: the soft tissue injuries, the tweaked ligaments, the stress fractures, the wearying joints, the exhausted minds. Not to mention the coaching and support staff now working under straitened budgets, perhaps even fearing for their jobs. Meanwhile, fans and the media will invariably brush aside cries of fatigue by pointing out how much the top players are paid, as if banknotes are somehow a substitute for eroding cartilage. Football has always rather successfully managed to conceal its basic disdain for its workforce, but over the coming months the masquerade may become harder to maintain.
There is, of course, a simple solution to all this. Yet the prospect of a half-fit Arsenal meeting a half-fit Liverpool at a deserted Wembley on Saturday merely brings its intractability into sharper focus. If the answer to fixture congestion is less football, then what is a meaningless ceremonial friendly still doing on the calendar? In short, why are we playing the Community Shield at all?
Originally, it should be said, there was a nice logic to it. Until the government put a lid on the idea, the day was conceived as a test event for returning fans to stadiums: a symbolic rebirth, with the men’s fixture following the first Women’s Community Shield since 2008. Yet while the women’s part still feels vital, a welcome resumption of the domestic calendar for the first time since February, it will invariably be swamped by the usual talking points about William Saliba and whether Liverpool have invested heavily enough in the window.
All of this presumably mattering a great deal to somebody, somewhere. This is the founding principle of the modern footballing economy: everything must matter, all of the time. Once the coronavirus forced the postponement of the football, it obviously had to be made up in its entirety. To abridge any part of it would be to acknowledge its dispensability, even its superfluity, and this is a road football really does not want to go down.
FA Cup replays, League Cup semi-finals and the winter break (naturally) have been deemed temporarily expendable. But if the Community Shield is not optional, then what other lucrative betting opportunities and potential streams of broadcast revenue might be? The Carabao Cup itself? International friendlies? Burnley v Brighton?
And so at 4.30pm BST on Saturday, in a game sponsored by McDonalds, Arsenal and Liverpool will play each other for the fourth time in 12 months (with another meeting scheduled for September), precipitating another new season with all its scrapes and thrills, its sweetness and its bitterness. We are ready to go. We have no choice.