A lot of strange things happened in the Premier League this weekend.
On Sunday, Manchester City lost 5-2 at home to Leicester. It was the first and so far only time in 686 games that a team trained by Pep Guardiola conceded five goals.
On Saturday, Manchester won 3-2 away against Brighton. The result seemed normal enough, but Brighton played around United and should have won by several goals. Only with the help of a penalty given after that the final signal had gone, United landed the victory.
Before that, Brighton had hit the woodwork five times, which is a record in a Premier League match since such things began to be measured in 2003/04.
Both United and City were shadows of themselves. The could It was a coincidence that two such good teams played so poorly in the same round.
But was it really that?
Probably not. Even before the weekend, there had been signs that something was wrong with United and City. The most obvious case was United, who had lost 3-1 at home to Crystal Palace in the first round.
Strictly speaking, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men should now have zero points in two games.
City had first run over Wolves in their opening match, before they lost control after the break and had to struggle to three points. They too could quickly stand with zero points in two games.
Against Leicester, City lacked key players – Sergio Agüero, Gabriel Jesus, Aymeric Laporte, Bernardo Silva – but that alone did not explain why they were let in. five goal.
Nor did Guardiola’s diagnosis.
“We were not patient enough,” he said.
Instead, it is Solskjær who has touched on the most probable explanation. When United had lost to Palace, he said that the players would need between four and five games to get started properly.
And this is the common denominator for United and City. None of them have had a proper season run.
Both have performed accordingly.
How much of the blame for the short summer’s performance is difficult to say. But you do not have to be a physical trainer to understand that it has played an important role.
The Premier League usually ends in mid-May and starts again in mid-August. Players get off for three months.
If a team reaches the final of the Champions League, the holiday will be two weeks shorter. Last year, the holiday was even shorter than normal due to the UEFA Nations League, which lasted until well into June.
Still: The holiday was still at least eight weeks.
This summer has obviously been different. Since the pandemic stopped the Premier League from March to June, the league ended in late July and started up again in mid-September.
The should given all teams seven weeks vacation.
But United and City have not had it once.
When most teams went on holiday in July, United and City traveled to Cologne and Lisbon respectively to play finals in the Europa League and Champions League. United in particular seemed exhausted when they played their last two matches, against Copenhagen and Sevilla.
If you include the season run-up in 2019, the players had now trained or played matches for 12 months in a row.
With such a great need for rest, the Premier League gave the two teams an extra week’s holiday by postponing their matches in the first round. In theory, that idea was good.
In practice, it was almost useless.
For the European Football Association (UEFA) had its own race to run. Between September 3 and September 5, they hosted the first round of the UEFA Nations League (and then the second round between September 6 and 8).
And there were players from United and City taken out on the national teams.
Thus, the postponement to the Premier League had almost nothing to say for several of the players, since they had to return home early from their holidays anyway.
Seven of those who started the match for City against Leicester were in the Nations League. Taking into account that City played the last game of the season (against Lyon) on 15 August, these seven got between 18 and 20 days break between the seasons (depending on when their national team played their first game in the Nations League).
And that does not include the preparations and travel that are part of when players are selected for the national team.
For United, five of the players who started against Brighton had been in the Nations League. United played the last game of the season (against Sevilla) on 16 August.
So these five got between 17 and 19 days holiday.
This is sadly a short time for top level football players. And that represents a significant advantage for United and City’s rivals.
Take Liverpool, for example. The Reds lost the quarter-finals of the Champions League against Atlético Madrid just before football was stopped. So when they finished the league on July 26, they could go straight on vacation.
Liverpool also had players involved in the Nations League. Five of those who started against Arsenal on Monday night, were in the beginning of September.
But when these showed up for their national teams, they had had between 38 and 40 days break.
What this difference will have to say for the players’ physical and mental health throughout the season, time will tell. What we do know is that it has affected the teams’ run-up.
Had Solskjær and Guardiola recharged for the season as normal, with several weeks of hard training and training matches, the players would have been exhausted. So the two have cut back on training and the number of matches.
United only played one friendly before they started the season.
City did not play a single one.
What about Liverpool? They had training camp in Austria, where they played two friendly matches. Then they played Community Shield against Arsenal, plus a new friendly in England.
They have had better conditions for flying out of the starting blocks.
In a hurry
City and United are not the only teams with a short holiday that have gone on a rampage in the season opener. Bayern Munich, who won the Champions League, lost 4-1 against Hoffenheim this weekend.
Before that, Bayern had won 23 games in a row.
The other finalists in the Champions League, Paris Saint-Germain, have already lost two of five league games. They lost three of 27 league games last season, before the league was canceled. Lyon, who reached the semi-finals, have won only one of four.
Fortunately for Bayern and PSG, they are superb enough to win the league even with a weak start. But it is not City and United. Liverpool have won all three of their matches and play much like they did last season, when they took 99 points.
If City and United are to hang on to the champions, they must find the top speed quickly.
If not, the title fight may be over before it starts.