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Man United, Spurs, Milan in trouble? How big five leagues are managing minutes amid hectic season

Over the past six months, Manchester United’s Harry Maguire has played 38 matches in all competitions, logging a total of 3,421 minutes. In the six months before the coronavirus stoppage — so, mid-September 2019 to mid-March 2020 — he put in 40 matches for 3,552 total minutes. Teammate Bruno Fernandes has logged 39 matches and 3,117 minutes in the past six months, compared to 31 for 2,569 pre-stoppage.

Liverpool’s Andy Robertson and Gini Wijnaldum, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Frenkie de Jong and Clement Lenglet, Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, Ruben Dias and Rodri, Tottenham Hotspur’s Matt Doherty and Toby Alderweireld, Chelsea’s Mason Mount, Inter’s Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez … a lot of important players have logged at least 2,500 minutes in the last six months, just as they did pre-stoppage.

Similar spans of time, similar minutes. The difference? The last six months included an “offseason,” though there’s almost no scheduled break in soccer for the next five months.

The average European soccer season was already interminable. Camp is going by July, and the season starts in early- to mid-August. For the next nine months, your club season lasts between 34 and 38 matches. (If you’re in the English Championship, you play 46.) If your team’s good enough, you’ve got between six and 15 Europa League or Champions League matches to look forward to. And if you were lucky enough to have won the Champions League the previous season, then you get to play a couple of FIFA Club World Cup matches in Qatar in the winter.

Then there’s your country’s domestic cup tournament (two, if you’re in England). And while there are breaks scattered throughout, if you’re one of your country’s best players, these “breaks” likely require you to fly home and report for national team duty, which could mean World Cup qualifying, friendlies or qualifiers for continental competitions like the UEFA Nations League (Europe), Gold Cup (North and Central America) and Copa America (South America).

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Liverpool, for instance, played 57 matches in the 2019-20 season. It could have been more — they were knocked out in the Champions League round of 16 and before the semifinals in both the FA Cup and EFL Cup. If FIFA had its way, they’d have played a couple more in an expanded Club World Cup, too, and it probably goes without saying that quite a few of their players are good enough to start for their country as well. When the offseason finally comes, (a) it only lasts a couple of months, and (b) you might have a huge international tournament to play in, as well.

In the wake of the coronavirus, which caused massive revenue shortfalls and meant that the 2019-20 season didn’t officially end until mid-August, we are in the middle of a 2020-21 campaign that began a month or so later than normal and sacrificed almost no fixtures. The league and European slates are still full, the international breaks still frequent. Injuries have increased, to be sure, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg; it seems a virtual guarantee that the next few months of action will see even more.

That’s not to say that every team is equally in danger of an injury crisis, however.

Who’s distributing their minutes well?

As of Dec. 23 last season, teams in Europe’s “Big 5” leagues (English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, French Ligue 1, Spanish Primera Division) had deployed an average of 23.5 athletes in league play. About 5.0 of them (21%), on average, had logged at least 80% of available minutes, with 4.6 (20%) picking up between 60-80% of game time. As you might predict, teams in either the Champions League or Europa League had a different distribution: they had the same average number of players used per team, but only 4.4 of them had logged over 80% of available minutes as they attempted to save some legs for European play.

This time around, in the compressed 2020-21 campaign to date, the numbers have shifted.

Teams have played an average of 24.7 guys in league play, ranging from 33 (Saint-Étienne and Spezia) to 19 (Aston Villa). Teams in European competitions have averaged 24.8: Granada (31) and PSG (30) have deployed the most players among this sample of teams, due both to pragmatism and necessity, while Lille has used only 21. A handful of tournament contenders (Atletico Madrid, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Inter Milan, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur) have managed to play only 22 players.

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You may have expected a larger increase than basically playing one extra guy, but a 5% increase is still a 5% increase.

On average, 4.3 players per team have logged over 80% of league minutes for their club so far, a decrease of about 14%. Among Champions and Europa League teams, that number’s 4.0, a decrease of about 9% from last season.

Neither Atalanta nor PSG have had a single player log more than 80% of league minutes so far. PSG has played 17 Ligue 1 matches, but only two players have featured in more than 13 — 20-year old fullback Mitchel Bakker and 31-year old midfielder Ander Herrera — and only Bakker and goalkeeper Keylor Navas have logged more than 70% of available minutes. The club has been hit pretty hard by injuries — Neymar is dealing with ankle issues and sat out in September with a positive coronavirus test, Kylian Mbappe battled a thigh problem in November and also sat out with a positive test, full-back Juan Bernat has been out since September with an ACL tear, etc. — but it’s clear that manager Thomas Tuchel attempted to leverage a deep roster to get PSG through its particularly congested schedule, too.

It didn’t come without a sacrifice. After dropping only 13 points all of last season, PSG have already dropped 16 in league play and are currently third in the table; despite a 4-0 win over Strasbourg on Wednesday, Tuchel was sacked on Christmas Eve.

Atalanta, meanwhile, advanced to the Champions League knockout stages for the second consecutive season, which is a massive achievement, but Gian Piero Gasperini’s squad also finds itself with just 22 points in 13 league matches, four points back of fourth place and 12 back of first.

They faced a similar issue last season. The boys from Bergamo maxed out to reach the Champions League knockouts and found themselves four back of the top four and 11 back of the league lead by Dec. 24. They charged back to finish third, five points back of the title, but points sacrificed in the fall hurt them. This time around, both Milan clubs have started strong, Napoli and Roma have their respective acts together, Juventus has only lost once and even Sassuolo has lost only twice. Battling back into the top four could be trickier.

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Are Spurs and Man United heading for trouble?

Among top teams, a couple of Premier League giants stand out: Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United have had five players log at least 90% of league minutes.

Spurs manager Jose Mourinho has historically had trust issues: basically, he can only play those he trusts, and he doesn’t trust that many guys. Spurs got absolutely wrecked by injury last winter, but their luck has been solid so far this season. Attackers Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min, midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, defender Eric Dier and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris have all been able to log at least 1,100 minutes in Spurs’ first 14 matches. Midfielder Moussa Sissoko is in the “1,000 Club” as well (1,023 minutes, or 81% of all available).

This has worked out well. Son and Kane have combined for an absurd 20 goals and 14 assists, and with the consistency in the back Spurs have allowed only 14 goals, third-fewest in the Premier League. However, that’s a lot of minutes, and only Dier and Højbjerg are under 27 years old. Granted, Mourinho hasn’t had to deploy his first-choice team for every minute of the Europa League group stages (or the three qualifying matches to get there), but Spurs didn’t clinch advancement to the knockout stages until the sixth and final match. Son, Kane and Højbjerg each logged at least 300 minutes there, too.

Man United aren’t far behind. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to deploy his first-choice lineup for most of what ended up an unsuccessful Champions League stint. Meanwhile, attackers Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka and central defenders Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof have each played at least 89% of United’s available league minutes (Maguire’s played every single one), and keeper David de Gea (81%) isn’t far behind.

Despite a randomly frazzled result here and there, the approach has worked: United are averaging two points per match in the Premier League behind only Liverpool (2.2).

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In all, some Big 5 contenders have deployed a huge bench with the willingness to sacrifice some points in the short-term, while others have tried to keep their lineup as steady as possible while risking wear-and-tear issues later in the year. We’ll have to wait a few more months to see which approach paid off, and for whom.

So who is using their subs?

When Premier League play resumed in June, the league decided (like most others) to increase the number or eligible substitutes from three to five. Italian clubs immediately pounced on it as a way to experiment with tactics — Napoli averaged 5 subs per match after the restart, and four other Serie A clubs (Sassuolo, Lazio, Bologna, Parma), plus La Liga’s Levante and Athletic Bilbao and the Bundesliga’s Paderborn, averaged at least 4.8. The substitutions craze didn’t strike heavily in the Premier League — Burnley averaged a paltry 1.8 subs per match post-restart, while six others averaged under 3.4. No other team in the other four Big 5 leagues averaged fewer than 3.5, and Brighton, Liverpool and Norwich City were the only Premier League clubs to average more than 4.5.

While other leagues decided to keep the five-sub option for 2020-21, the Premier League decided against it. Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder was extremely vocal in his distaste for five subs, saying it would result in yet another advantage for rich clubs with deeper benches. His objection makes sense in theory — Manchester City’s 16th-best player is likely far more expensive and well-touted than Sheffield United’s — but it felt a little short-sighted, as increasing substitutions offered an area for potential tactical advantages.

A progressive-thinking team could use heavy subs to quickly change tactics and formations to find an advantage. (They could also use the fresh legs to maintain a high work-rate to frustrate a better, stronger side.) Serie A’s Sassuolo, for instance, averages the second-most subs in the Big 5 this season (4.93) and is a surprising fourth in the table. La Liga’s newly-promoted Cadiz is averaging 4.8 subs (seventh-most in the Big 5) and is a surprising 10th. Other upstarts like Stuttgart (4.77 subs) and Real Sociedad (4.69) have made liberal use of the change.

(That said, more subs hasn’t been a cure-all. Genoa has used every sub in every match this season and is last in Serie A. You still have to make useful substitutions.)

Wilder’s United, meanwhile, has two points from 12 matches. As a bitter Jürgen Klopp said a few weeks ago, before United secured a second draw on the season, “They now have three subs and one point.”

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Substitutes used per game, 2020-21:
1. Ligue 1 teams (4.31)
2. Serie A (4.33)
3. La Liga (4.23)
4. Bundesliga (4.04)
5. Premier League (2.65)

Premier League (and Milan) teams in the danger zone

For obvious reasons, attempting to project injury trouble is a fool’s errand. Even with a certain number of known risk factors, the timing and severity of future injuries is fundamentally unknowable. We can, however, get a good read for who might be in more danger for wear-and-tear injuries as this long slog of a season inches onward.

Let’s separate Europe’s Big 5 teams out by how many of their players have logged at least 2,500 minutes in all competitions in the past six months, knowing those minutes are only going to keep climbing in the months ahead.

7 players: Inter Milan, Tottenham Hotspur
6 players: Manchester United
5 players: AC Milan, Manchester City
4 players: Atalanta, Juventus
3 players: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Leicester City, Sevilla
2 players: Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Lazio, Liverpool, Napoli, Real Madrid
1 player: Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, Fiorentina, Leeds United, RB Leipzig, Real Sociedad, Roma, Villarreal, West Ham United, Wolves

Of the 18 teams with at least two such players, eight are Premier League teams. England boasts 11 of the 28 with at least one player, too.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Premier League teams not only play as many matches as any major league (38), but they also play for two domestic cups and allow fewer substitutes. Add to that the fact this is a very good league with lots of teams featured in the Champions and Europa Leagues, and it would make sense that these minutes have added up.

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It also shouldn’t be a surprise to see a lack of German teams, either: Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich have only one each (goalkeepers Lukas Hradecky and Manuel Neuer, respectively). The Bundesliga features fewer teams (18) and fewer league matches (34), and even with a compressed schedule, it still carved out a small winter break for its teams. Premier League leading Liverpool will play six matches between Dec. 27 and Jan. 16. Bundesliga-leading Bayern will have played four between Dec. 20 and Jan. 16.

Again, the list above doesn’t make a prediction. It’s not saying that AC Milan, Inter Milan, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs are going to deal with a particular number of muscle injuries in the months to come. But they’ve all gambled by playing steadier lineups than others, and while they’ve mostly been rewarded with strong spots in their respective tables, it’s basically been like passing on a pit stop in a NASCAR race. You might shave off some seconds and get rewarded by a high finish, and you might run out of gas on the track.

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