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What impact is fixture scheduling having on players?

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The high prevalence of anterior cruciate ligament injuries in the women’s game is not a new phenomenon. Female footballers are four to six times more likely to suffer this injury compared to their male counterparts.

Seven of the 12 teams in the WSL have had at least one player absent due to an ACL injury this season, while 20% of the 20 nominees for the 2022 Ballon d’Or – Alexia Putellas, Beth Mead, Catarina Macario and Marie-Antoinette Katoto – are currently rehabbing from this exact injury.

The WSL casualty list extends beyond ACLs. Pernille Harder is a long term absentee for Chelsea after undergoing an operation on her hamstring in November, while Arsenal have been without first choice centre back pairing Rafaelle and Leah Williamson since October due to foot injuries. Emma Hayes and Jonas Eidevall both highlighted the role that the congested domestic and international fixture schedule has in player load and injuries.

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“We need to consider in women’s football when we see the calendar, how we put the players health first,” said Eidevall. “They are constantly going between really competitive games at club level, onto international level. My gut says that we are not creating something that is good for the players.”

During the 2022/23 season, there are four international breaks (including the 2023 World Cup) in the men’s football calendar. There are five during the 2022/23 women’s season, not including the European Championships and World Cup which bookend the campaign.

Since Euro 2022 concluded at the end of July, there have already been three international windows. Midweek international fixtures have taken place ahead of the league season resuming at the weekend, with players travelling back to their clubs – sometimes on long haul flights – and fitting in a day or two of training or recovery in the best case scenarios before returning to competitive action.

“I think there needs to be a bigger conversation,” said Aston Villa boss Carla Ward. “We had one player arrive back [after] 38 hours, three flights, lands the day before the game and is expected to play. And from a player welfare point of view, that’s not okay. And in economy, may I add…

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“My point is, these players are meant to be elite athletes and they get treated to a certain extent like it, but I think we need to do more.

“It’s so important that we look after individuals; not just their physical state, but their mental state as well. The last international break was the World Cup window, some [teams] went out, some went through. You’re expected to be back 24 hours later, playing 48 hours later. Some players are still struggling because they’ve not slept. It needs some serious thought.”

There is no sign of this letting up; the Covid-19 pandemic pushing the European Championships back one year means that certain players face participating in a major international tournament five summers in a row.

Concerns were raised over the quick turnaround and lack of rest and pre-season afforded to players between Euro 2022 concluding on 31 July and the 2022/23 season beginning, particularly for those competing in Champions League qualifiers. The 2023 World Cup does not wrap up until 20 August.

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The crux of the issue appears to be with the manner in which international fixtures are packed into the domestic calendar as opposed to the volume of WSL games. Reading’s Kelly Chambers and Leicester’s Willie Kirk both actually called for more WSL matches to be played.

Leicester played just twice in November, but now face three matches in the space of eight days in December – and Kirk highlighted this irregularity as a problem for managing load.

“I don’t think there’e enough games in the women’s game,” said Kirk. “What I think is the issue is the consistency of those games. I think it’s the peaks and troughs that are really difficult to manage. I think if it was more consistent it wouldn’t be a problem.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the five substitutions rule was introduced in the WSL to help tackle fatigue and aid player welfare.

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WSL teams have used all five subs 30% of the time during the 2022/23 season; Arsenal and Everton have used the maximum number of substitutes in 57% of their league fixtures, Chelsea and Liverpool in 50%, Manchester United in 43%, West Ham in 38% and Manchester City in 29%.

“One [reason we often use five subs] is tactical – we can of course change the different players coming on,” explained Everton boss Brian Sorensen. “But it’s also I think the demands especially in this league. We don’t have in all positions top international players that have been playing in this league for three, four, five years.

“If you look at the players that play a lot for us – Gabby George, Lucy Graham, Megan Finnigan – those type of players that are used to the league, they can do it, but the young ones that we brought in, they need to adapt to this league. So that’s probably the biggest reason – we need to manage the load. A player like Aggie Beever [Jones] has been really great for us but there is a step to be taken to be able to play 90, 90, 90. I enjoy that we have the possibility of five subs and I think the player welfare is really important.”

However, the five subs rule has been criticised for only benefitting top teams with the greatest squad depth who have the luxury of taking advantage of it.

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Brighton and Tottenham have made all five substitutions on just one occasion – both during the latter’s 8-0 destruction of the former – while Aston Villa, Reading and Leicester have never used the maximum number of subs in the WSL this season.

“It’s not really helpful is it, five subs? It helps the top teams, it helps the teams with big squads,” said Ward. “I don’t think it helps the majority of WSL clubs.”

So, what’s the solution?

Hayes suggested having fewer, longer international breaks to reduce the amount of travel and disruption to players’ training and recovery schedule.

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Eidevall meanwhile has previously given players time away from football for the benefit of their freshness, even when Arsenal have fixtures. Caitlin Foord, Steph Catley and Lydia Williams all had a break after the 2022 Asian Cup in February instead of returning immediately to north London, while Vivianne Miedema was recently granted a leave of absence to rest and recover. The Arsenal boss suggested this kind of break should be introduced across the game.

“My idea was to have protected periods for the players with no club football and no international football for a period,” said Eidevall. “At the moment there are players who get barely any vacation and it’s consecutive, year after year after year. It’s great if we’re going to have more competitive games but let’s have a calendar that allows players to recover so we can keep the quality too.”



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Moises Caicedo appears to post farewell message to Brighton

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Brighton midfielder Moises Caicedo appeared to post a farewell message to the club on Friday night, only hours after Arsenal had a £60m bid rejected.

The Seagulls, who are sixth in the Premier League, have no interest in selling Caicedo this month and 90min has reported they are not looking to entertain further bids.

Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi seemed to suggest on at his Friday press conference that Caicedo’s preference would be to leave but that he and the club are trying to persuade him otherwise.

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“I spoke with him on Wednesday and I told him my opinion. It is always difficult to change during the season. For our way, it is important for him to stay a few more months,” De Zerbi explained.

“He is relaxed. I spoke with him like a father, not a coach. I understand when one player has the possibility to change to a very big team. But my work is to give the style of play but also advice for his career and his life.”

Speaking about his own future recently, Caicedo had said that his focus is on Brighton.

“I am here, I’m playing every day. Things from outside don’t trouble me, nor does it take that focus away because I’m focussed only on here,” he commented.

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Yet taking to social media now, Caicedo made clear a desire to leave Brighton and speaking of his pride at being able to bring in a huge fee in what came across as an attempt to force the club’s hand.

“I am grateful to Mr. Bloom and Brighton for giving me the chance to come to the Premier League and I feel I have always done my best for them. I always play football with a smile and with heart. I am the youngest of 10 siblings from a poor upbringing in Santa Domingo in Ecuador,” he posted.

“My dream always to be the most decorated player in the history of Ecuador. I am proud to be able to bring in a record transfer fee for Brighton which would allow them to reinvest it and help the club continue to be successful.

“The fans have taken me into their hearts and they will always be in my heart so I hope they can understand why I want to take up this magnificent opportunity.”

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On this edition of TCOAG, Harry Symeou is joined by Arsenal presenter Nicole Holliday to preview Man City vs Arsenal in the FA Cup, discuss the transfer window, our midfield needs, Leandro Trossard & more! A more informal preview show than usual but it was plenty of fun! If you can’t see this embed, click here to listen to the podcast!



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Football

Everything you need to know about the Hollywood-backed club

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Wrexham are gearing up for one of the biggest games in their club history when they face Sheffield United in the FA Cup.

The Welsh side have grown exponentially in recent years following the arrival of Hollywood players Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds, with a documentary series also raising the profile of the club.

There has been plenty of on-pitch progress too, with some big signings being made in the past couple of season.

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Here’s what you need to know about the club.

Wrexham host Sheffield United in the fourth round of the 2022/23 FA Cup with both sides in brilliant form. Wrexham are top of the National League as they target promotion back to the Football League, while the Blades are second in the Championship.

It’s the first time Wrexham have reached the fourth round since 1997. The two teams last met in 2014 when United edged a five-goal thriller – Phil Jagielka was among the scorers that day.

Phil Parkinson is the current manager at Wrexham, having taken charge of the club back in 2021. He began his managerial career with Colchester United and had roles with Hull and Charlton before a five-year spell with Bradford.

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City achieved promotion as League Two play-off winners in 2012/13, also unexpectedly reaching the League Cup final at Wembley that season.

Parkinson then managed over 150 games for Bolton before resigning in August 2019. He was snapped up by Sunderland a few months later but lasted little more than a year before leaving.

He arrived at Wrexham in July 2021 and took the Welsh side to the FA Trophy final where they were defeated by Bromley in May 2022. The were imminently knocked out of the play-offs by Grimsby at the semi-final stage.

Paul Mullin in undoubtedly Wrexham’s main danger in attack. After boshing in the goals for Cambridge United, the striker dropped down the pyramid to sign for the Robins and has delivered goal after goal.

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The physical Ollie Palmer is dangerous up front, too, with 13 league goals this season, while Ben Tozer and goalkeeper Mark Howard are important players in their defence.

Ryan Reynolds is a Canadian-American actor renowned for roles in films like Deadpool, Free Guy and Red Notice.

He is thought to have a net worth of around $150m. He has a stake Aviation Gin though unclear how big, having sold the company recently for $610m, and co-founded Maximum Effort Productions and Maximum Effort Marketing.

He’s also involved in Mint Mobile.

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Rob McElhenney is an American actor, writer and producer most well known for the comedy show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which he co-created alongside Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton.

What is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is an American sitcom that centres around a group of narcissitic and self-obsessed friends who run an Irish pub in south Philadelphia. McElhenney is known for playing Ronald “Mac” McDonald.

It stars the aforementioned McElhenney, Howerton and Day as well as Kaitlin Olson, who McElhenney married in 2008, and acting legend Danny DeVito.

Rob McElhenney’s fascination with Wrexham began with Mythic Quest writer Humphrey Ker, who revealed he got the actor into the spot during lunch breaks.

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“I’m laying claim to the fact (Rob’s) interest in football derives from several years of teasing me for watching football during our lunch breaks at work. Until eventually, just by pure osmosis, I got him interested in the game to the degree that he decides to buy a football team,” Ker said.

Wrexham had been fan owned since 2011 but the supporters’ trust voted McElhenney and Reynolds’ takeover bid through with 98% in favour.

The pair took total control through RR McReynolds Company LLC and made an initial £2m investment under the terms of the deal in early 2021.

Wrexham is a Welsh town close to the Welsh/English border. The club is well renowned for being one of the oldest professional teams in world football. They nearly folded as recently as 2011, though fan action kept the institution afloat.

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The place is known for being a mining town and was previously a rock-solid seat in United Kingdom political elections for Labour, but in 2019 a Conservative MP was voted in.

Welcome to Wrexham is available exclusively on Disney+ in the United Kingdom, while viewers in the United States can view the show through streaming platform Hulu.

When is the next series?

Wrexham owners Reynolds and McElhenney confirmed on social media the show would return for a second series. It will likely come after the 2022/23 football season finishes.

The biggest result in Wrexham’s history came in the FA Cup in 1992 when they upset First Division Championship winners Arsenal at the Racecourse.

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Alan Smith’s opener was cancelled out by Mickey Thomas’ awesome free kick before Steve Watkin slid in the winner.

They reached the first round of the FA Cup in 2021/22, while the year before they were dumped out in the fourth qualifying round by Solihull Moors.

Wrexham’s ground is the Racecourse Ground. It’s the world’s oldest international football stadium that still hosts international matches and the fifth largest stadium in Wales. It has a current capacity of 10,771, though in 1957, 34,445 spectators watched as Wrexham faced Manchester United.

It was first opened in 1807 and has been Wrexham’s home since 1864.

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EPL

Player ratings as single Ake goals knocks Gunners out of FA Cup

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Manchester City knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup at the Etihad Stadium as the fourth round kicked off on Friday night, with Nathan Ake the unexpected star of the show with the only goal.

The Gunners made a bright start and right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu stung the palms of City goalkeeper Stefan Ortega after only a few minutes. Leandro Trossard was the architect of a few moves down the left in those early stages, exposing City’s preference to have right-back Rico Lewis operate as an auxiliary central midfielder.

The hosts caught their first sight of goal courtesy of a loose ball that threatened to let Erling Haaland in. Matt Turner was quick to rush out, but as the ball popped up into the air, Haaland attempted the acrobatic – think Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs England in 2012 – but Tomiyasu dropped back onto the line.

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Midway through the first half, Ortega’s strong left hand stopped Trossard putting Arsenal ahead after the £27m Belgian drove in-field from his flank. City had their own chance from a Belgian soon after when Kevin De Bruyne whipped a left-footed shot just wide of the far post.

Trossard made another Arsenal chance when he put a teasing cross into Eddie Nketiah at the near post, with the in-form striker sending his flick just wide. It didn’t really feel like an action-packed first half, yet the opportunities kept coming as Haaland missed the target under pressure from Gabriel.

Trossard aside, none of the big players on either side had particularly stood out in the first 45 – the likes of Haaland, De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and Bukayo Saka had all be disappointingly quiet.

Given that, it was perhaps fitting that the eventual breakthrough came from an unlikely source. Substitute Julian Alvarez changed things by taking on a shot from distance that rebounded off the post. Jack Grealish recycled it and found left-back Ake, who passed the ball into the far corner of the goal like a seasoned striker.

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Both managers made numerous changes to try and shift the balance of the game in their favour as the minutes ticked away. It achieved little as far as the spectacle was concerned, breaking up any potential for a bit of rhythm or momentum.

City dug in in the closing stages, squeezing Arsenal out whenever the Gunners threatened to make something happen in or around the box – in particular Ortega made a couple of vital smothers when Arsenal sub Gabriel Martinelli injected some pace for the hosts.

Stefan Ortega

Stefan Ortega was the busier goalkeeper in the first half / Michael Regan/GettyImages

GK: Stefan Ortega – 8/10 – Needed to make saves from the start, keeping City in it when Arsenal were arguably stronger in the first half. Stayed strong throughout and never looked as though he was going to be beaten.

RB: Rico Lewis – 6/10 – Spent a lot of time in the middle of the pitch as per instructions from his manager. Clearly a good player but it gave Trossard too much space, albeit not his fault.

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CB: John Stones – 5/10 – Often looked vulnerable because of how Lewis was playing. A suspected hamstring injury then ended his night before half-time.

CB: Manuel Akanji – 7/10 – Had to switch positions after Stones was taken off but put in a dominant performance regardless.

LB: Nathan Ake – 8/10 – Finished with great composure to put his team ahead and put in a solid defensive shift as well, with Saka hardly given a sniff.

CM: Kevin De Bruyne – 5/10 – Narrowly missed with a great curling effort in the first half and slightly improved after half-time but was far from his best.

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CM: Rodri – 5/10 – Unusually sloppy with the ball by his standards.

CM: Ilkay Gundogan – 6/10 – Did both sides of the ball pretty well but not always on the same page as the forwards ahead of him.

RW: Riyad Mahrez – 4/10 – Not really himself. Didn’t have enough of the ball to make any real impact and was withdrawn before an hour had passed.

ST: Erling Haaland – 5/10 – Attempted the spectacular early on and also took a whack to the back of the head before half-time. Didn’t get his usual quality service.

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LW: Jack Grealish – 6/10 – Gets an assist for his layoff to Ake and City’s best forward on the night.

Substitutes

SUB: Aymeric Laporte (45+4′ for Stones) – 7/10

SUB: Julian Alvarez (58′ for Mahrez) – 7/10

SUB: Kyle Walker (58′ for Lewis) – 7/10

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SUB: Bernardo Silva (75′ for De Bruyne) – 6/10

Manager

Pep Guardiola – 7/10 – The way he set up the team didn’t make sense when Trossard kept causing problems down City’s right. Changed shape early in the second half and the substitutes definitely did make a positive impact overall.

Bukayo Saka; Rodri

Bukayo Saka saw precious little of the ball / Michael Regan/GettyImages

GK: Matt Turner – 6/10 – Stood little chance with the only goal. Always keen to come for crosses or rush off his line.

RB: Takehiro Tomiyasu – 6/10 – Had the first early chance with a good foray forward.

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CB: Rob Holding – 5/10 – Got physical with Haaland and took a yellow card for it with 50 minutes still left to play. The danger of getting another saw him removed at half-time.

CB: Gabriel – 6/10 – Did enough to put Haaland off in a key moment.

LB: Kieran Tierney – 6/10 – Would have expected a tougher test from Mahrez. Didn’t offer much going forward to take advantage of that.

CM: Fabio Vieira – 5/10 – Had one shot that missed the target and didn’t do enough otherwise.

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CM: Thomas Partey – 5/10 – Didn’t stand out and was surprisingly replaced at half-time.

CM: Granit Xhaka – 6/10 – Successful in stopping City play their usual sparkling game, although a couple of hesitations in key moments were almost costly.

RW: Bukayo Saka – 4/10 – Just 23 touches of the ball tells its own story.

ST: Eddie Nketiah – 5/10 – Couldn’t find the target with a chance in thef first half. The service wasn’t there for him and he touched the ball only slightly more than Saka.

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LW: Leandro Trossard – 7/10 – Gave City real trouble from the start and created a number of chances in the first half. Much quieter after the break.

Substitutes

SUB: William Saliba (46′ for Holding) – 6/10

SUB: Albert Sambi Lokonga (46′ for Partey) – 6/10

SUB: Gabriel Martinelli (66′ for Trossard) – 7/10

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SUB: Oleksandr Zinchenko (66′ for Tierney) – 6/10

SUB: Martin Odegaard (74′ for Saka) – 5/10

Manager

Mikel Arteta – 6/10 – Took no risks with Holding on a yellow card and later responded to going behind by making chances immediately. Couldn’t get one over on his old mentor.

Player of the match – Nathan Ake (Man City)



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