It took two months for the players to start breaking down. Two months before the compounded stressors of the pandemic on soccer’s stars — the shortened offseason; the condensed preseason; the schedule crammed far past even its usual gridlock — accumulated past the breaking point.
Take Liverpool, the defending Premier League champions who swaggered to their first title in three decades, eventually, in rampaging form last season. Liverpool is in trouble.
The season’s third international break is ending. Lots of countries jammed no less than three games into this window, meaning they have played as many as eight international games in a mere two and a half months. That unprecedented international workload only clogs up a club calendar that had to be fit into fewer months than usual. Everybody is trying to make up for the three months lost in the spring.
But as the Reds return to their clubs, Liverpool has no fewer than 10 players unavailable. The entire starting back line of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson is injured. Backup defenders Rhys Williams and Fabio Tavares are as well. So too are midfielders Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Thiago Alcantara. Star forward Mohamed Salah has the coronavirus.
Most of those injuries are muscle injuries, typically brought on by overuse. And while there is no good time for an injury crisis, the Reds face league-leading Leicester City on Saturday, and then Atalanta in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Liverpool is hardly alone in this. Per PhysioRoom, which tracks Premier League injuries, the 20 teams are currently coping with no fewer than 113 combined injuries, almost six per team. A week ago, the number of muscle injuries was already up 16 percent year-over-year, and more have occurred since. The injuries plague every other league as well, but the Premier League is uniquely prone to it because it returned to allowing only three substitutions — whereas most other leagues stuck with the five they went to after the 2019-20 seasons resumed in the wake of a long layoff. The EPL also has a long, 38-game league schedule and two domestic cup competitions, adding to the workload.
There simply isn’t sufficient recovery time between the onslaught of games. Players are still dealing with the physical ramifications from the last one when the next kicks off. And that’s to say nothing of the players lost for a week or two when they contract the virus, as several of the game’s biggest stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo, already have.
“These boys need rest,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said recently. “It’s a difficult time. … We want to play football, it's great. But playing Wednesday night and then 12:30 on Saturday is a crime and we have to change that.”
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has called the pileup of games “an absolute shambles” that leaves teams “set up to fail.”
“We don't protect the players, so that is why it is a disaster,” echoed Solskjaer’s Manchester City counterpart, Pep Guardiola, per the BBC. “That is the challenge for me: keep fit and don’t get injured. This season is going to be dangerous for players because [there are] too many games.”
All three managers have called on the Premier League to reinstate the fourth and fifth substitutions. But even in leagues that do have those added subs, the injury problems add up.
“We’re going to kill the players,” Paris Saint-Germain manager Thomas Tuchel said last month, according to BeIN Sports. “That’s what I’ve always said. We are going to kill them because there is an important link between preparation, performance and rest. In football it always falls on the greatest players because they will always play for their country. They play during the break, they travel and that's too much in my opinion. They don't have a recovery phase to allow them to come back and a preparation phase. Without preparation, players are more fragile.”
There were straightforward solutions. Do we really need to play a Nations League between national teams this year, on any continent? There is no justification at all for international friendlies right now. And secondary domestic club tournaments felt like fat ready to be trimmed even before the pandemic stretched the players much too thin. Because clubs were overscheduled already before anybody had heard of COVID-19, which then worsened the problem by shaving precious weeks off the season.
Like anything to do with COVID, there is no telling what the long-term effects will be. And the pressing concern here is whether some of the game’s young stars who have been felled by these injuries likely stemming from overuse, like Alexander-Arnold or Barcelona’s 18-year-old prodigy Ansu Fati, will suffer long-term consequences.
Because just as the pandemic could yet destroy the economic viability of some clubs, its players could be left permanently diminished as well.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
More from Yahoo Sports: