Liverpool star Mohamed Salah testing positive for Covid-19 while on international duty with Egypt has added to the Premier League champions' ongoing troubles, with the Reds having already lost quite a few key players to injuries in recent weeks. Salah is not the only prominent footballer to be sidelined by the coronavirus of course. There has been a spate of positive Covid-19 results since football resumed across the world and it is expected that this virus-hit season will see many more players missing games.
Take Manchester United left-back Alex Telles's case for instance. The newly-signed Brazilian was found Covid positive last month, then returned a negative test result before he linked up with his national team during the international break. There, he tested positive again on Sunday. United wouldn't normally have been too worried about Telles's absence. They have had the services of Luke Shaw in that position. Except, the English full-back is now out with a thigh injury and could miss the next four weeks of action, giving manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a new headache ahead of this weekend's Premier League meeting with West Brom.
Solskjaer had earlier voiced his displeasure over the lack of space between games, a view that has also been shared by his Liverpool and Manchester City counterparts Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. This season, the number of muscle injuries, in particular, has gone up after an unusual start to the season.
With little to no pre-season for most teams, and with teams involved in European competitions having to rush into the new campaign, medical experts had predicted a higher risk of injuries. The website Premier Injuries, which maintains a database of injuries in the Premier League, has noted that 103 muscle injuries have taken place over the first eight match days of this Premier League season. It is a 16% increase compared to the same period last year, with two games from this season's initial match day yet to be played.
According to The Athletic, after five match days, the Premier League had already recorded 78 muscle injuries, a 42% increase from the same stage the previous year. Pedro Luis Ripoll, a doctor and founder of a specialist sports injury clinic in Spain, told newspaper ABC that there had been 78 muscle injuries in the first 50 days of the Spanish season.
When City boss Guardiola was asked about his worst start as a manager after eight points from five league games, he said, "I would prefer to have results but also have to analyse the start and where we are…We have struggled for the many injuries, for the lack of preparation, and no recovery time between the games—the incredible tough games we played so far."
As the season progresses, this feeling will undoubtedly be echoed by many managers. Compared to Spanish, Italian and German clubs, Premier League clubs have the added competition to play in—the League Cup. This means four competitions for those involved in Europe, as well as international commitments for most of their players. Even in France, the League Cup has been discontinued from this season in order to avoid fixture congestion. That has not helped French champions Paris Saint-Germain a lot. Runners-up in last season's Champions League, PSG have been struggling to get 11 players fit for matches this season.
Asked for an explanation of the serious injury crisis at the club, PSG boss Thomas Tuchel said that lack of recovery time between games was to blame. "We have played eight games in 22 days so we are not doing proper training sessions. All we do are recovery sessions, and we always play at 9 pm, so we lack recovery days. Our next game is on a Friday at Monaco and some of our players will come back on Thursday or the Wednesday after playing two or three games for their countries. There's your explanation," he said.
The problem is expected to only get worse in the coming months. There's no winter break this time and most clubs will play a game every three days. Unlike the other major European leagues, the Premier League has returned to three substitutes a game instead of five, which makes things that much harder for players.
Many managers and the Professional Footballers' Association are in favour of using five substitutes. But that's unlikely to happen because a rule change needs all 14 Premier League clubs to agree, and the smaller clubs believe that it would disproportionately benefit the bigger clubs.
For some of the league's more prominent names, the fixture pile-up in the next few weeks remains a huge cause of concern. Man City, for instance, will play 13 games in 42 days from November 21 to January 2, 2021. United play a similar 13 matches in 41 days. These include nine League games, three Champions League games, and a League Cup quarter-final each for both sides. With the FA Cup starting from the beginning of next year, the tight scheduling could cause serious problems for teams still alive in all competitions.