On ice: What the Premier League winter break could mean for English soccer

Reports that English soccer authorities have agreed a two-week midseason break for Premier League clubs from 2019/20 could have considerable implications for the game.

On ice: What the Premier League winter break could mean for English soccer

Mo Salah dealing with Morgan Schneiderlin and the snow
 

England’s top flight is currently unique among Europe’s biggest domestic competitions in not having any kind of winter break, and it has long been a point of contention that the intensity of the Premier League’s winter calendar takes a physical toll on its players, leaving them too tired to perform well at summer tournaments. With the news that a winter lull is on the cards, could this be the route to domestic, continental and international success? 

What has been agreed?

This season’s festive period saw further calls for the introduction of some respite in the winter months, with a number of managers voicing complaints about injuries to key players, while a common gripe among fans is that the congested schedule means games can be less exciting due to exhausted players.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola warned that the festive schedule was “killing” Premier League players, while his cross-city rival Jose Mourinho complained earlier in the season that the lack of a break was damaging to English clubs' hopes of progressing in the Uefa Champions League.

Last week, according to UK media, the Football Association (FA), the Premier League and the English Football League (EFL), the organising body for the second, third and fourth tiers of club soccer, reached an agreement for a first annual two-week break in early February 2020.

Matches in the fifth round of England’s historic annual knockout competition, the FA Cup, would be played midweek, without replays, to facilitate the break.

The resulting break would be staggered, with five Premier League matches taking place on one weekend and five on another. The proposals mean that all top-flight clubs will have a minimum of 13 days without a match but there would be no full weekend without Premier League action.

However, the winter break will not apply in the Championship, League One and League Two since the 46-game schedule for each division means that there is less room for flexibility.

Players in the Russian Premier League battle on in thick snow, even after returning from a near three-month winter break

How does this compare to other top flights?

Winter breaks are already included in the schedules of the top soccer leagues in Germany, France, Italy and Spain, which each enjoy midseason rests of between 11 and 22 days. However, they all take place between December and January, which is traditionally the busiest period for Premier League teams.

While western Europe has seen exceptionally cold conditions in the past ten days, very few games have typically been lost to the weather in those countries in recent years. The winter breaks, however, are required for different reasons in regions where temperatures drop far below freezing during those months— the Russian Premier League, for example, shuts up shop for almost three months between the middle of December and early March, while Scandinavian leagues in general structure their calendar around winter with games taking place between April and November.

What other effects would the changes have?

The move to midweek matches for the FA Cup’s fifth round could mean that the FA will have to pay a penalty to overseas broadcasters. However, the Times understands this would not be ‘significant’ and that the Premier League would ‘be asked to make up any shortfall in lost TV revenue’.

The changes would also see the Premier League gain a weekend on which its matches are played, suiting broadcasters which prefer weekend fixtures.

Crystal Palace enjoyed a 14-day break between games this February due to elimination from the FA Cup

The proposal for a winter break was reportedly referred to in tender documents sent to broadcasters ahead of the recent round of Premier League TV rights negotiations.

Changes to the FA Cup, however, could prove more controversial, and lower league club owners and executives are expected to express misgivings about the plans. Newport County manager Michael Flynn, whose League Two side earned an FA Cup replay against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium this season after a 1-1 home draw, believes the impact of removing fifth-round replays could negatively impact smaller teams, who split gate receipts from away fixtures. He cited the “great occasion” winning a replay represents for smaller clubs and claims the changes would take “a lot of the romance out of football”.

The idea that a lower-league club could get a chance once in a decade and make significant commercial gains from winning a replay would be lost. League Two Exeter, for example, played Liverpool in a replay in 2016 and made enough money from the game to fund artificial turf facilities for their academy.

Darryl Eales, the outgoing chairman of the League One side Oxford United, said it would be disappointing for the competition as a whole and has suggested that changing the way revenues are distributed from fifth-round ties would soften the financial blow for lower-league clubs of scrapping replays.