By Jamie Barton (@jamieonfootball)
The following is a guest article by the aforementioned author – linked above – and is not necessarily representative of opinions held by anyone at Empire of the Kop…
If déjà vu really is a glitch in the matrix, then those big robot guys who are controlling us really need to get someone round to fix it. I could swear that we’ve been here before, no? Almost two years on from March 2020 and football, much like the rest of the world, is falling apart again. It would appear, however, that this time the Premier League is attempting to stagger on. After all, what could be worse than the Reds not playing three games a week? Clubs have been informed that as long as they have 13 available outfielders and one goalkeeper available for selection then they will be required to fulfil their fixtures. Crucially, U21 players who have started a competitive match count towards a club’s 14. It’s them who will bear the brunt of the Premier League’s unabated greed. In the words of Helen Lovejoy, won’t somebody please think of the children!?
Young players now run a much higher risk of being thrown in at the deep end. Any manager will tell you that game time at the highest level is crucial to player development. However, what we often overlook is the care with which managers pick and choose specific games in which to blood youngsters. Give an 18-year-old too much to handle and you can potentially hinder his progress. You only have to look at Wednesday night’s game as an example. Klopp elected to go with Tyler Morton, Conor Bradley and Billy Koumetio from the start. 3-1 down and having endured a torrid time against a strong Leicester side, none of these three re-emerged for the second-half. The Premier League ruling also stipulates that playing positions will not be taken into account when assessing whether a side has enough available squad members, meaning not only that young players could find themselves thrown in at short notice but also that they may be required to play out of position.
The outcome of young players being forced to play could be even more serious if they do manage to impress, as many may end up being driven into the ground. With more emphasis on (read: money in) academies than ever before, we are seeing more and more technically complete teenagers arrive ready-made into the first team. Increasingly, what sets a 24-year-old apart from an 18-year-old is not their ability but their stamina and physicality. Whilst someone like Mo Salah looks like he could play every day, most young players would run the significant risk of picking up potentially career-stalling injuries should they be required to keep up with a fixture schedule Pep Ljinders has called ‘absurd’. Bafflingly, the league has explicitly stated that appearances at youth level shortly before first-team games will not be taken into account, meaning that some players could end up being forced to play for the first-team a day after representing the U21s.
For many young players, the Premier League’s instructions also have the potential to bring about an opposite but equally damaging situation – U21s never making their first-team debut. (Most) managers aren’t stupid. They will know that once a player has started a game for the club they become what the league terms an ‘appropriately experienced U21’ and make up one of the 14 required to play. This is regardless of whether they would be up to the level of the fixture they are drafted into. When Liverpool host Shrewsbury in the third round of the FA Cup, will Klopp think twice about starting the likes of James Balagizi and Mateusz Musialowki for fear that he may then be forced to start them at the Etihad some time down the line? It sets an unfair precedent to assume that a player ready to start a third-round cup tie against a lower-league side is also ready to play in a top-of-the-table clash against some of the best players in the world.
Anyway, all of this feels a little like shouting into the void. The round of fixtures which some clubs asked to be postponed will be shown by Amazon Prime, and given their sports business model relies on people taking out Prime memberships around the time of the January sales, Premier League clubs would lose out on a huge deal if Amazon were not able to show the matches in late December. We often forget that the Premier League is not some independent unattached body but is actually simply the clubs themselves. It is a marker of what modern football has come to that those clubs, most of which are still in relatively rude financial health, are so ready to prioritise the continuation of the league over the careers of their brightest young stars. It really does feel like football is falling apart all over again. If déjà vu really is a glitch in the matrix, then those big robot guys who are controlling us really need to get someone round to fix it. I could swear that we’ve been here before, no?