Three Steps to Making Sir Alex Ferguson Happier: Reducing Fixture Congestion

Dave HarrisCorrespondent INovember 9, 2011

It takes a lot to keep Sir Alex in a good mood - how about cutting the number of games that United have to play?
It takes a lot to keep Sir Alex in a good mood - how about cutting the number of games that United have to play?Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Managers in the English Premier League are always complaining about the fixture congestion they are up against, and how it means that they have to rest players so that they are at their best for the most important fixtures.  To that end, here is a three-point plan to reduce the number of first-team fixtures that a player has to be involved in, and it ranges from Club to International level.

As a health warning, I should note that this is entirely based on the playing side of the game.  From a commercial perspective, I doubt that any of the top clubs would be interested in adopting these proposals because of the impact on game-day revenues that would result.  This doesn’t mean that these proposals are unrealistic, just that however much Sir Alex or Arsene Wenger would like to see their fixture list reduced the owners and chief executives around the country don’t feel the same way.

One of the common features will be the return to certain historical positions relating to some competitions.  This isn’t meant to be a retrograde approach, but a more convincing way of reducing the fixture list.

Point 1: Domestic League Fixtures

The current Premier League has 20 teams and each play 38 games per season, with three teams promoted/relegated each year.  By reducing the Premier League to 18 teams, this would reduce the domestic league fixture list by four fixtures. 

It would allow for games only to be played at weekends, from mid-August to the first week of May, and allow for FA Cup and International Breaks (see below for further comments), therefore leaving the occasional free midweek dates (and Bank Holidays, for example) to be utilised for postponed or otherwise re-arranged games.

Juventus and Milan used to play a 34 game schedule with no problems, and Serie A became one of the world's greatest leagues.  Not so much since they moved to 20 teams though!
Juventus and Milan used to play a 34 game schedule with no problems, and Serie A became one of the world's greatest leagues. Not so much since they moved to 20 teams though!Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Serie A operated with 18 teams for a number of years very successfully, and with the reduced EPL size it might be necessary to move to four teams promoted/relegated each year to maintain interest among clubs in the Championship and below.


Point 2: European Club Competition

The Champions League has led to an ever-expanding list of European fixtures that needs to be curtailed. Until the 1990s, games between the leading European teams were special events because of their infrequency, but since the introduction of League stages into European Club competition, a match between Chelsea and Inter Milan has much less significance than it did.

In addition, opportunities for surprise results have been reduced, because the league structure makes one individual result much less important.

Therefore, my proposal is to revert to a straight two-leg knockout format for European Club competition.

This would also involve the Champions League reverting to only the Champions of each UEFA Nation being eligible, to a maximum of 64 participants, whilst second (64 teams), third (64 teams) and fourth tier (128 teams) competitions would replace the remainder of the Champions League and Europa League structures.  It would be for each member nation to decide the entrants in the second, third and fourth tiers, and they may choose for their FA Cup or other Cup winners to be included if they wished.

This would mean that a team currently entering directly into the Group stage of the Champions League, and making it to the final would play nine or 11 games under knockout rules, instead of a minimum of 13, and a team losing in the Round of 32 (equivalent to the current Group stage) would now play a maximum of four games instead of a minimum of six (and possibly eight).

The Champions League Trophy - competed for and won by non-Champions
The Champions League Trophy - competed for and won by non-ChampionsSrdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images


Point 3: International Competition

Current International competitions require a large number of qualifiers to reach each tournament, and in some cases European nations are playing 14 group games plus two playoff fixtures to make it to the Finals. 

This provides significant disruption to the domestic fixture list and seems to be a growing issue, as FIFA now sets aside numerous dates as International Fixture dates.

By reducing the maximum group size to five nations, if necessary meaning that only group winners qualify for major tournaments, the number of internationals required can be reduced to eight.  This would mean that the number of weekends affected could be changed as follows:

  • One week in October (two fixtures, one midweek, one weekend)
  • One week in March (two fixtures, one midweek, one weekend)
  • One week at the start of June (two fixtures, one midweek, one weekend)

Friendlies would only then be played when there was already a free fixture date and a maximum of two in the month prior to a major tournament (replacing the June dates above in said years).  If Nations wished to arrange additional friendlies these would have to be scheduled for midweek dates, and clubs would not be required to release players for them.

This proposal would reduce the number of internationals from the current 10 or 11 per year to around six or seven.



 All in all, these proposals will reduce the average EPL club player’s maximum exposure by a total of 11 games per year, should they be involved in European competitions and selected for Internationals— after all, it is these players on whom the current schedule has the greatest impact.  Instead of playing upwards of 60 games a season should they reach the finals of all competitions, a player would be in line to play fewer than 50 games, and even those who only play domestically for their club would see a reduction of four games per season.

 So there we are—a blueprint to make Sir Alex Ferguson a happy man.