For many, 2020 was written off as early as March as the year that wasn’t. Barely permitted to leave our homes in the fight against a disease for which only now might there soon be a vaccine, we will remember this as the year of staycations, kitchen discos and Zooming distant friends you weren’t really bothered about catching up with. And that’s only scratching the surface. Unless you’re in the football bubble, in which case this will be all have been white noise as you’ve watched a sport gorging itself to death.
When did it all officially become too much football? Was it when Sky had the temerity to charge £14.95 for West Brom 0-0 Burnley? Or when the international calendar snuck in a superfluous friendly in each break? Or perhaps it’s how, in its quest to make up for 100 days of lost time, the game’s authorities will seemingly stop at nothing - regional and national lockdowns, rises in COVID-19 deaths, a continued absence of spectators - to ensure the show does go on. A homogenised, base-level show, but a show nonetheless.
The real victims, of course, are not us viewers, trying as it can be to endure COVID football without the electricity and ebb-and-flow of a real-life crowd in attendance, or with commentators offering their umpteenth apology if we heard someone swearing. Rather, it’s the players, forced to send their careworn limbs into overdrive. Perhaps it’s little wonder, then, that with this season’s compressed schedule, COVID isn’t the only thing that’s spiked in England lately - soft tissue injuries are also up by 15 per cent on last term.
At surface level, Everton’s schedule so far would not appear to have been a sweeping break from tradition. Before last term’s second international break (in mid-October), they had played ten matches. They are now at the parallel stage this season and have faced 11 games, with just one extra EFL Cup round thrown in. Which, in isolation, does not seem overly rigorous or - forgive me - unprecedented.
Yet the issues are, in fact, manifold. For starters, 20 days separated their first game of the season at Tottenham and their seventh, at home to Brighton. 21 days then stood between their eighth, against Liverpool, and their 11th, versus Manchester United. Quite why some sort of compromise couldn’t be found to establish a more even spread of these matches is anyone’s guess.
Then, assuming it’s a foolproof idea in the first place to have players jetting around the world during a global pandemic, there is the unfathomable three-game programme during each international break. As if we needed England vs Ireland at a deserted Wembley to send mouths drooling because two Nations League games just weren’t enough.
Take the October break, for instance. James Rodriguez played for Colombia in a World Cup qualifier at Chile at 00.30am UK time on October 14. By 12.30pm on October 17, he was lining up for Everton in the Merseyside derby. So too was Richarlison, who had scored for Brazil in Peru at roughly the same Rodriguez’s Colombia were battling their way to a 2-2 draw in Santiago.
This time around, as many as six Everton players could still have to take to the field for their country by Wednesday, ahead of a trip to Fulham on Sunday lunchtime. On Tuesday, Alex Iwobi’s Nigeria will be in Sierra Leone, Rodriguez and Yerry Mina’s Colombia in Ecuador and Richarlison and Allan’s Brazil in Uruguay.
Perhaps you can already see the toll this unabating schedule has taken, too. Dire as Everton were against Manchester United, does fatigue go some way to explaining why they couldn’t muster a single shot on target besides Bernard’s early opener? Pedestrian as André Gomes was at Newcastle, is it too much of a cop-out to use this as an excuse for his lethargic brush with Callum Wilson which caused a concession of a penalty? Look also at the way the Goodison derby, usually the embodiment of a footballing chess match, became littered with mistakes as gaping voids of green began to expand further as the game wore on.
And yet despite this ceaseless all-you-can-eat football buffet, we appear to still not have entered the eye of this perfect storm. No, the real pinch will come in the depths of winter, as the FA Cup is thrown into the melting pot and the traditionally ruinous Christmas programme is turned up to 11. Between hosting Chelsea on December 12 and visiting United on February 6, Everton could have just one midweek without a match.
All of which means the players who let Carlo Ancelotti and themselves down in some or all of Everton’s three successive defeats will inevitably be relied on again soon. Perhaps it was wrong to forgive and forget with some of them on the back of good performances against Salford and Fleetwood. Perhaps there are signs of life in some of them yet, as Bernard and Iwobi suggested with more encouraging displays against United. Either way, they’ll be back.
You sense Ancelotti knows full well how stark the nosedive in quality is once his glistening best XI is unpicked, too. Throwing in all three midfield signings Allan, Rodriguez and Abdoulaye Doucouré for the curtain-raiser at Spurs having all barely been at the club a week insinuated as much, as did immediately reintegrating Mason Holgate, Seamus Coleman and Rodriguez into the XI against United despite none looking remotely match-fit.
Leicester City’s title winners of 2016 seem a pertinent case study. Sure, they stuck a gorgeous two fingers up at the grubby tenets of modern football, and we should not underplay just how spectacular a success theirs was, but playing ‘only’ 43 games in a nine-month season (38 league, three EFL Cup, two FA Cup) surely helped their cause, not least with a starting XI so predictable, so resistant to tinkering, you could virtually reel them off from one to 11 by January. By contrast, the Fulham game could be Lucas Digne’s 16th of the season and Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s 17th; both have already clocked in more than 1,000 minutes on the pitch since the start of September.
Trouble is, there appears to be no solution in plain sight, no divine intervention from above to decelerate this race against time. Five substitutes per game may have to lose its taboo tag - injuries for the first six Premier League games in June and July were 26 per cent lower than this season, when three subs returned - while shoehorning United into the Saturday lunchtime kick-off less than three days after a game in Turkey might help.
But truthfully, these feel like sticking plasters on football’s own existential crisis. Competitions must be fulfilled. Profit margins must be met. No governing body must give an inch. Players’ soft tissues must walk tightropes every three or four days while churning out a sub-standard product for us to distract ourselves from Matt Hancock or Boris Johnson’s latest gaffe. The show must go on, in spite of quite literally anything, as the year that wasn’t has proved.