Mikel Arteta has warned that players at the top level are “cracking and cracking” under the strain of the fixture calendar and believes football will suffer a dip in standards if changes are not made quickly.
In a staggered week of FA Cup fifth-round football Arteta’s Arsenal side travel to Portsmouth on Monday night; the ties are spread out until Thursday due to television requirements and the lack of weekends available because of the introduction of a winter break.
On Sunday afternoon his previous employers, Manchester City, face Aston Villa in the final of the League Cup, a competition Pep Guardiola has said should be scrapped to ease congestion. Arteta was asked whether he agreed with that view and, without aligning himself to it precisely, he said the current schedule was unsustainable.
“I think there are a lot of ways around it,” he said. “We’re not going to please everyone with the decisions that have to be made. What is for sure is that, for players, it’s an enormous amount of games. The intensity is raising every single year, the level of pressure too, and sometimes it’s too much for them. If [there is no change], we have to be allowed to have 26 or 28 squad players, which we are not allowed to do, and even more players on the bench.
“But something has to be done, because you can see players are cracking and cracking every season. You can sustain that for one season, two seasons, but after three or four seasons you end up paying the price and I think the quality at some stage will drop. But we have a history, a massive culture, here with the cup games and to go against that is difficult.”
He suggested the effects of an unexpected development such as the coronavirus outbreak, which has caused high-profile postponements in Serie A this weekend, could point up the problem. “It’s very condensed and if any event happens that is not considered, like for example the coronavirus, then it will be even more complicated.”
The tie at Fratton Park will be Arsenal’s 40th game of a season whose demands admittedly look less onerous given their surprise Europa League exit to OlympiakosArteta refused to look upon the very real prospect of a 2020-21 season without European football as a possible blessing in disguise – “It’s been nonstop but I think this club has to play four competitions every year, that’s the demands” – and referenced the efforts he has made to lift his players’ spirits after that disappointment. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cut a particularly devastated figure at full time after missing a last-gasp chance to avert disaster, although his earlier bicycle kick had seemed to salvage the tie.
“He was gutted,” Arteta said. “Obviously he scored a wonder goal that [almost] put us through, and with the last kick he had the best chance of the game and he felt very responsible about that. We’ll try to be right behind him. He’s been phenomenal all season for us and now the players have to support him, we have to support him.”