Covid tests taking toll as clubs count cost of players’ holiday habits
Shorter pre-season and loss of missing stars could put added pressure on sides over coming months of campaign
At Chelsea, where the club played their last game in the Champions League against Bayern Munich 20 days ago, the simple question of how to run a competitive session that prepares Frank Lampard’s players for the demanding season ahead is already a challenge.
The absence of eight first team players is not simply about who might play in their first game against Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League on Sept 14, or indeed in a friendly against the same opponent tomorrow.
It is about conditioning their players in pre-season to withstand the demands of playing and training over a season like no other, in which the programme will be compressed into a period one month shorter than usual.
The positive coronavirus tests for players returning from holidays across Europe and further afield – as well as those obliged to isolate because of potential contact with infected parties – has become a major problem at the club. But not just Chelsea, where Jorginho, Ross Barkley, Emerson, Michy Batshuayi, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham and Christian Pulisic are all in isolation.
Manchester United must now reconfigure Paul Pogba’s training programme, with the French midfielder left out of the France squad and isolating at home following a positive test. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is facing a quarantine of 14 days when he returns from Dubai – a holiday destination that the players were counselled against visiting. Elsewhere, Tanguy Ndombele at Tottenham has returned a positive test, while Joelinton at Newcastle United has been forced into self-isolation.
The success or otherwise of a season is so often built on the bedrock of the preparation that players are able to undertake in the weeks before it starts. It is there that the hard work is done and the tactical ideas for the next nine months are drilled and refined. This summer, like no other, time is short. The robustness of players toward injuries, their capacity to play the way their coaches demand, is very much reliant on these next few weeks.
For the clubs who have had to tell players to stay away from the training ground, this is the spike which many feared when Project Restart was first launched. Then, the clubs in the Premier League and the Championship were less sure they could contain the virus among players and staff, although test results quickly demonstrated that their protocols were working.
The twice-weekly announcement of the Covid-19 test results in both leagues began as a dramatic reveal that would indicate the likelihood of the season being completed. It eventually became a formality – by the end of the season, the Premier League was returning zero positive results on test cohorts in excess of 2,000 players and staff.
The players’ summer holidays have changed that and while the expectation is that the numbers of positive tests will fall again once the players return to the cycle of playing and training, the concern is the long-term effects of an interrupted pre-season.
The fears that social distancing and Covid-safe protocols would go out of the window once multi-millionaire footballers were unleashed on their summer have been realised in many cases. Many of the players’ Instagram feeds have given a clue as to the attitude towards the virus in the places they have visited. Their clubs have tried to warn them of the dangers and player WhatsApp groups have kept track of destinations where quarantine measures have been introduced.
For Gareth Southgate, the expectation is that his England squad for the games against Iceland and Denmark will have to be redrawn over the weekend as players are tested, and fitness checked. For international managers, whose last games were in November, it is particularly difficult. The scheduling of the first round of Nations League games before the resumption of the league season was always likely to cause tension with clubs, but the scale of withdrawals could be much greater than usual.
Chelsea are still planning to play their friendly against Brighton tomorrow – a pilot event for the return of fans to parts of the Amex Stadium. As for how the league might deal with clubs facing multiple Covid cases and forced to play games under-strength, the question still remains.
It was raised at Premier League shareholder meetings before Project Restart. The league is very unwilling to postpone any games and hopes the Covid outbreak will be under control by the time the fixtures resume.
The show must go on, although it seems the control of the players’ movements and the changing of their habits will have to take longer if the clubs are to make a success of it. They believe they can control the virus, but what damage positive cases and isolation requirements in pre-season will do to the long-term fitness of players placed under more intense demands than usual, will only emerge over the coming months.