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Manchester United facing Premier League fixture congestion

Manchester United facing Premier League fixture congestion

Manchester United face a struggle to find a place to play their postponed Premier League games after failing to win their Europa League group.

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United needed to beat Real Sociedad by 2+ goals to take first place and require only two games, to be played in March, to make it through to the quarterfinals of the Europa League.

However, they could only manage a 1-0 win in Spain, which means they finished second and will have to play two matches in the knockout playoff round, which takes place in February.

Clubs who go through in the Champions League or win their Europa Conference League groups also only play in two of the four midweeks reserved for European football in February and March. That leaves two dates spare to play rearranged Premier League matches after a total of 14 games were postponed in September due to the death of the queen.

Man United’s away game at Crystal Palace and home match vs. Leeds United need to be rescheduled, and had United won their group those fixtures could have been rearranged for February and March.

Every other midweek is taken up by FA Cup or Carabao Cup dates, or European fixture slots. The only vacant midweeks are specifically there to home Premier League games displaced by the Carabao Cup final, and FA Cup quarterfinals and semifinals — so are not naturally free for other rearranged games.

Here’s what it means for the fixture list.

When could the postponed Premier League games be played?

English football restarts on the midweek of Dec. 20 — just two days after the World Cup final — with the fourth round of the Carabao Cup, followed by three blocks of Premier League matches over the Christmas period.

This list shows how congested the schedule will be in 2023, with only three vacant midweeks built in through to the final day of the Premier League season on Sunday, May 28.

Jan. 10 – Carabao Cup QF
Jan. 17 – FA Cup R3 replays
Jan. 24 – Carabao Cup SF L1
Jan. 31 – Carabao Cup SF L2
Feb. 7 – FA Cup R4 replays
Feb. 14 – European competition knockouts
Feb. 21 – European competition knockouts
Feb. 28 – FA Cup R5
March 7 – European competition knockouts
March 14 – European competition knockouts
March 21 – International break
March 28 – International break
April 4 – vacant midweek
April 11 – European competition QF
April 18 – European competition QF
April 25 – Premier League fixtures
May 2 – vacant midweek
May 9 – European competition SF
May 16 – European competition SF
May 23 – vacant midweek

Teams who have been knocked out of the Carabao Cup or FA Cup in an earlier round could use those matchdays if necessary, though it becomes complicated if that league game is due to be shown on TV as it shouldn’t be scheduled against the broadcaster of the cup competition.

The two midweeks in late January reserved for the Carabao Cup semifinals offer a solution — but there will still be four clubs ruled out, and the same issue with the TV clash applies.

So just play the games in the vacant midweeks?

It’s not quite that simple, as those three vacant midweeks are there for a reason. The clubs involved in the Carabao Cup final (Feb. 26) plus the FA Cup quarterfinals (March 18) and semifinals (April 22) will all need to rearrange the three league matches scheduled for these dates, and that’s primarily what the vacant slots are for.

It’s especially a problem for teams who go far in a European competition as there is little room for manoeuvre. If a club were to reach the final of the Carabao Cup, the semifinals of the FA Cup and the semifinals of either the Europa League or the Europa Conference League, there are only just enough available dates to rearrange the three league matches from the dates outlined above. Add in any more rearranged games, and there is no natural slot.

But Man United won’t get to all those cup finals?

Fixtures schedules are put together with the worst-case scenario in mind, otherwise it can lead to an unintended backlog.

Last season, Liverpool reached the finals of all competitions there were in, and needed every single date after having postponements due to COVID-19. But as clubs in the UCL have two extra spare midweeks during the round of 16, Liverpool used them to play Leeds United and Arsenal, thus avoiding added congestion further into a season.

You also have to factor in that while Man United might not get all the way in the cup competitions, the teams they are due to play on FA Cup dates might. For instance, United are due to play Chelsea on FA Cup semifinal weekend, and if Chelsea reach that stage they will need the catchup midweek to play United, rather than United playing Crystal Palace or Leeds.

What about the European midweeks?

The Premier League is able to use the European midweeks if it feels there is no other place to put the games, and that applies to 13 of the 20 Premier League teams not in Europe.

Of course, that is no good to the other seven teams: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United.

It’s those clubs who pose the problems for the schedulers — especially as five of them (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United) have had two games postponed.

But as mentioned previously, teams who go through in the Champions League will have two extra blank midweeks in February and March. The same goes for Arsenal and West Ham, who win their Europa League and Europa Conference League groups respectively. They will go straight through to the round of 16, and not play in the two European dates in February.

However, with Man United failing to top their group, this solution doesn’t work for them. They have no natural empty fixture date.

And then it gets complicated…

It’s really all about the eight postponed games involving those teams in Europe.

Arsenal P-P Everton
Arsenal P-P Manchester City
Chelsea P-P Liverpool
Crystal Palace P-P Manchester United
Fulham P-P Chelsea
Liverpool P-P Wolverhampton Wanderers
Manchester City P-P Tottenham Hotspur
Manchester United P-P Leeds United
West Ham United P-P Newcastle United

Of these games, the four teams in the Champions League need to rearrange games against each other — Chelsea vs. Liverpool and Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur.

If UEFA schedules fixtures for these clubs in opposite midweeks for the round of 16 — so for instance Chelsea and Man City play on Feb. 14/15 then Liverpool and Spurs on Feb. 21/22 — there is no spare date to play the rearranged games. They are then in a similar predicament to Man United — though only about one fixture rather than two. The Premier League will hope Chelsea & Man City and Liverpool & Spurs play on opposite midweeks, freeing up dates to play the Premier League games.

Man City and Chelsea do meet each other in the Carabao Cup third round, so only one could be in the semifinals in January. However, the Premier League has to plan as though both Liverpool and Tottenham will make the final four and leave no free date.

Anything else?

There is another possible problem further down the line, with the coronation of King Charles III taking place on Saturday, May 6. This may have implications for Premier League fixtures that weekend, especially those in London.

There are no higher-profile games, as there were in September, so policing might not be an issue — but it still could be the case that games cannot take place on that Saturday — though at least the midweek before is a vacant midweek so does create the possibility of spreading games across a longer period through to the Monday.

So what’s the solution?

The Premier League will probably hope to fit everything in on the vacant midweeks, but it’s now looking problematic due to Man United finishing second in their group. There isn’t space.

– For now, it’s likely the Premier League will wait to see what happens in the next two rounds of the Carabao Cup, when the picture will be clearer.

– If the worst happens, Man United may have to play a Premier League fixture list of Friday-Monday-Thursday-Sunday in between European rounds.

– An obvious solution is to cancel FA Cup replays in the third and fourth rounds once again. This happened in each of the last two seasons due to congestion caused by COVID-19 postponements and would open up one or two extra midweeks required to prevent any issues further down the line. But the Premier League doesn’t want to do this for one team.

– If FA Cup replays stay in place, it’s unlikely, though not impossible, those dates could be used for rearranged games because the availability of teams would only be known at short notice.

– Could the Carabao Cup semifinals be one-legged to open up a midweek? This is the alternative option but wouldn’t offer enough space if Man United reach the semis anyway.

– The Premier League may also wish to keep all the week 6 games together in one block, which may only be possible by cancelling a round of FA Cup replays or making the Carabao Cup semis one-legged.

– Swapping around the FA Cup final (June 3) and the last day of the Premier League (May 28) would add an extra midweek on May 30 — though the Europa League final is being played on the Wednesday of that week. There would also be additional logistical issues, as Wembley is booked for the EFL playoffs on the weekend of May 27-29, making this solution very unlikely, too.

Can the season be extended?

No. After the FA Cup final on June 3, the Champions League final is scheduled for June 10 and immediately afterward there’s an international block reserved for Euro 2024 qualifying matches.

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