Early on Saturday afternoon, as Neal Maupay limped off with what looked like a hamstring problem two minutes after striking a penalty wide, the phone pinged.
“There we go, the first injury of the weekend,” came the message from a staffer who works in the conditioning department of a Premier League club. “Can only imagine what number we’ll be on by the end of it.”
He pointed out that Brighton, like the other top-flight teams without European commitments, are still enjoying premium recovery time, yet are not shielded from the strains of the demands of a condensed season.
By the end of the early kick-off at the Amex let alone the weekend, there were three muscle-related issues. Adam Lallana went off eight minutes after being introduced, while Liverpool – held to a 1-1 draw after late drama – lost James Milner to a hamstring injury.
When next month swings in, the pain will really kick in. As one highly respected physio told The Independent: “The teams not in Europe at the moment are playing a different sport with the amount of time they have to train and recover, but they will be struggling when that is removed in December. It will hurt everyone.”
For all the public squabbling between managers about the five-subs rule – with Jurgen Klopp and Chris Wilder currently engaged in a trade of barbs – conditioning experts across the division have been unified in their belief that player welfare has to be a priority, a position they’ve expressed since talks were ongoing about Project Restart.
In every other major European division as well as in the Champions League, clubs have been afforded more substitutions in the appreciation that a unique situation calls for unique solutions.
The scheduling of games in Germany, Spain and France is also done to allow maximum recovery time for the teams competing in continental tournaments.
There is not much of a TV product when players are limping off, intensity dwindles and squads are forced to be heavily rotated.
In England, however, the conversation continues to wrongly be framed as the big clubs versus the rest.
We are told there can’t be much sympathy given how much BT Sport pay to have the choice for Saturday’s early kick off, coupled with the sums elite sides earn from Champions League participation.
What any of that has to do with the reality that there have been a staggering rise in muscle as well as serious injuries this season needs to be explained.
BT also possess a 3pm Saturday slot and if they desperately had to air a team that featured in Europe late on Wednesday night, that is surely a better option.
Those hours may not seem like much, but anyone involved in sports science will testify that for recovery right now, every little bit helps.
In the heated exchange between Des Kelly and Klopp in the aftermath of Liverpool’s draw at Brighton, the latter highlighted that while broadcasting contracts were agreed upon when the last TV deal was passed, current circumstances have to be given greater consideration.
“The problem is whoever signs the contract – yes, our shareholders or whatever did that, that’s true,” Klopp said. “It’s a problem, but now it’s a bigger problem because of no pre-season, because of intensity and all this kind of stuff. It’s not okay.”
The worst is on the horizon and all Premier League clubs will be feeling the sting.
As Klopp pointed out: “Brighton lost two players with muscle injuries and they play one game a week. The most difficult time is coming up now. For Sheffield United as well, by the way. We will see. I can explain it one last time: in this period we are now in, five subs is not for tactical changes.”
Whether you like or despise the Liverpool manager, you cannot argue with the fundamental that ravaged squads will not be of any benefit no matter how you slice it.
Pep Guardiola echoed this offering. “The problem today is the players lose the joy of playing football. Before it was nice playing football once or twice a week with spectators. Now it's three days and then another one.”
It’s going to be nightmarish to manage and won’t be pretty to watch. It’s unfortunate that the warnings have been flagged as “grumbling” with Klopp, Guardiola and co told to “just get on with it”.
That’ll be increasingly hard to do when the people – not robots – that have to take to the pitch every few days end up on the couch having to view the games on TV because they’ve been ruled out with injury.
IT’S CLEAR AND OBVIOUS VAR HAS GONE ROGUE:
Prior to the introduction of VAR in the Premier League, a selection of journalists were invited to Stockley Park for an induction into how the technology would be used in the division.
Mike Riley, head of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), oversaw the session. We were told a few concrete things, as my notes from that afternoon reveal:
• There will be minimum VAR intervention (maximum benefit, minimum interference)
• The point is not to re-referee games
• There will be a high bar for clear and obvious
• Only overturn a decision if it is clearly wrong
• There to pick up big missed incidents, not painstakingly search for them
So, how’s that going then?