Manchester City have 16 players in Qatar but for teams with fewer representatives, this winter offers vital rebuilding time
Pep Guardiola was notably accepting of Manchester City’s defeat by Brentford in their last match before the World Cup. “My staff and I will have time to reflect on what we did well and what to do better,” he shrugged. Guardiola and his staff may also have to watch events in Qatar through their hands, clenching as heavy tackles fly in and muscle injuries stack up given City – with 16 players – are the Premier League club sending the most players to the finals.
Even if Erling Haaland will be spending much of the next six weeks on the Etihad Campus, key players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Rodri will return bearing the physical and mental scars of the tournament. And individual success in Qatar may not necessarily be good news for a player’s club. To take the example of England’s Euro 2020 finalists, a number of Gareth Southgate’s players made indifferent starts to their 2021-22 club campaigns.
Such are the intangibles for clubs of this World Cup. Jürgen Klopp is a vocal critic of the tournament being staged in Qatar, particularly in mid‑season, but he will see only seven players jet out to pre-tournament training camps. Like Guardiola, Klopp has a star forward getting a needed rest, in Mohamed Salah, but it is Uruguay rather than Liverpool who will be the immediate beneficiaries of Darwin Núñez’s recent flowering.
Overall the Premier League is providing more World Cup players than any other division, with 134 players at the tournament – 16% – plying their trade in the English top flight. The league leaders, Arsenal, have 10 players in World Cup squads but their England contingent of three contains two players, Aaron Ramsdale and Ben White, expected to be reserves in Southgate’s squad. The same may go for Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli among a Brazil squad featuring heavy competition for forward places. Mikel Arteta appears to be getting off rather lightly, though how to motivate players disappointed at being underused is yet another consideration to add to the pile.
The response of players to disappointing tournaments is also important. How, for example, might Antonio Conte coax the best from Harry Kane at Tottenham should England’s captain flop in Qatar? Or, to name another player among Spurs’ 11 call-ups, someone carrying a yet heavier burden for his national team, Son Heung‑min? Will his disappointing season so far – and the facial injury he is nursing – cast a shadow over his World Cup and consequently his return to Tottenham? Every player is on a sliding scale. How might they react to playing in a mid‑season tournament in which their country’s expectations are sky‑high while playing for a different coach using probably very different tactics?
For managers such as Graham Potter and Erik ten Hag, relative newcomers to their clubs trying to install a fresh playing doctrine, losing players in mid‑season is unhelpful. Manchester United, sending 14, have made significant improvements under Ten Hag, and though Cristiano Ronaldo can be discounted from the list of players whose fitness he will care about, Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martínez have all been crucial to United’s revival. Each is playing for a nation expected to go deep in the tournament.
Potter’s Chelsea have stalled of late. His players have appeared unresponsive to his tactics. Chelsea will have 12 players in Qatar but a mid‑season training camp planned for Abu Dhabi also gives Potter a decent core with which to work. Reece James, Wesley Fofana, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Marc Cucurella, Trevoh Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jorginho and Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang are among those players not travelling.
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Manchester United and Chelsea will return to action at Christmas looking at Newcastle in third place, and while Eddie Howe will not welcome a loss of momentum only five players are being lost from his squad to the World Cup, two of them – Callum Wilson and Nick Pope – likely to be on the England bench. And while Bruno Guimarães is a player Newcastle cannot afford to lose, other leading players from this season in Sven Botman, not picked for Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands team, and Miguel Almíron, whose Paraguay did not qualify, will return to Tyneside after taking short rests.
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Further down the table, the World Cup break throws up an opportunity for Nathan Jones, freshly arrived at Southampton, who are sending only two players. Should Bournemouth appoint a new manager – or Gary O’Neil stay on – only the Wales pair of Kieffer Moore and Chris Mepham will not be around.
Three managers ended the season’s first tranche of fixtures under pressure. At West Ham David Moyes will have mixed feelings if England progress deep in the tournament, with Declan Rice a key midfielder. Lucas Paquetá, the summer’s big signing, is yet to shine in east London but is favoured by the Brazil coach, Tite. Perhaps a good showing in Qatar can energise Paquetá’s club season. Jesse Marsch will be roaring on Team USA, though in Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams he will fear fatigue in two players who have become important to Leeds.
Which leaves Frank Lampard, with Everton losing four players to the tournament. Until his mistakes at Bournemouth at the weekend, Jordan Pickford had been exemplary in goal. An injury or the loss of form that can follow for players scapegoated for English failure could mortally wound Everton. Such are the myriad equations the World Cup must turn over in the minds of Premier League managers.