WHEN Manchester City were defeated by Lyon in last year’s Champions League quarter-final, Kevin De Bruyne gave a couple of honest and insightful post-match TV interviews.
On BT Sport, De Bruyne was frank about City’s poor first-half display but, in another interview, which was farmed out to a host of other channels, De Bruyne was more inclined to look beyond the defeat and at the long-term view.
“It will be tough heading into the new Premier League season with only a few weeks break,” he said. “Mentally, it’s going to be very hard.”
The Belgium player was soon proven right. City were given an extra week off prior to starting their Premier League season last September, but their tally of 12 points from their opening eight games was their worst start to a top-flight campaign since 2008-09.
City have since dramatically turned things around and now look certain to win the Premiership. When their form-line began to rise before Christmas, De Bruyne gave another interview where he returned to that point he first raised last August.
“Mentally and physically, we weren’t ready for the new season,” said De Bruyne.
We had many difficulties, many injuries, no pre-season. I think over the last month we recovered a few players. We raised our level.”
City have world-class players. They also have massive financial backing but, most importantly of all, they had the time to mentally and physically reset, and the opportunity to try and figure out where they were tactically going wrong.
Pep Guardiola drastically changed the way his team are playing, striking that ideal balance between shutting opposition down and carving them open. It probably isn’t Guardiola’s preferred style of football, but it’s been highly effective; the Opta Index have calculated how City have been conceding half the average number of big chances per game this season compared to the 2019/20 campaign.
Changing the full-backs approach when City are dominating the ball, has enabled them to prevent teams from exposing them on the counter-attack. That philosophy was a fundamental requirement after the 2019/20 season, but the pragmatism was also necessary in the current circumstances; in a more congested schedule after such a late start to the season, teams have less training and coaching time, and less time to rest.
In so many ways, inter-county teams will be faced with similar challenges whenever the season begins again. Unlike professional soccer teams at the outset of their season, GAA players have had a sufficient break to mentally and physically recharge, especially when the 2020 championship was so condensed.
GAA players may have to train on their own but they’ve also had the scope to improve their individual strength and conditioning levels. It has also presented ample time and opportunities to review and evaluate last season and to use that knowledge to prepare for the 2021 campaign.
Unlike professional soccer teams though, especially with far fewer games, there will be much less time to learn, adapt and recalibrate on the hoof.
Guardiola needed over two months and around 12 games for Man City to find their groove again. No inter-county side will get that many games in 2021 but trying to plan ahead is all the harder again when teams still have no idea as to the minimum number of games they may have.
When the GAA drew up their revised 2021 calendar in December, each senior football team was guaranteed a minimum of six matches (four league and two championship), with hurling sides sure of seven games (five league and two championship).
The GAA are keen to play the league in 2021 but players and management won’t know until late March/early April if that competition will go ahead. If it does, the format may have to be revised again to trim some games off the schedule to free up more space for the championship calendar. If there isn’t a league, teams will need to find form at the right time to ensure their championship won’t be over in a blink.
With John Horan saying recently that teams will have a four-week preparatory lead-in before competitive games begin, any meaningful league (unless the GAA change the current format) couldn’t conclude until mid-June. That would push any likely championship start into late June/early July, with the All-Ireland finals moving back to September.
The loose outline of any plan for now though is still only speculation. The Government’s ‘Living with Covid Plan’ envisages the return of inter-county games at Level 4 and of some club games in Level 3, but planning a revised Master Fixtures calendar is all the more difficult again where there is no indication of when those Levels may kick in. It is even more complex when all plans need to be aligned with whatever is permitted by the NI Executive for counties and clubs in that jurisdiction.
Horan and GAA Director General Tom Ryan said in a joint-statement on Wednesday that the GAA have not decided on what competitions may or may not be facilitated in any revised national fixture programme: “Such decisions will be a factor of how much time is ultimately available to us, both for an inter county season and for the broader participation levels that will be necessary for a meaningful club season at both adult and underage levels.”
The GAA aim to publish a revised National Fixtures calendar at the earliest possible opportunity. Greater clarity won’t come until then but, in the mean-time, every county team will be preparing as best as they can to hit the ground running whenever the inter-county season does return.
Because nobody knows how much time they will have to road-test, drive, service and recalibrate the machine before the road eventually runs out.
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