When you scrutinse Sheffield United's 2020/21 Premier League fixture schedule, some key themes emerge
Chris Wilder never gets too excited when the new season’s fixtures are published.
After all, as the Sheffield United manager has reminded on countless occasions: “I already know we’ll play everyone twice.”
But privately, where they can speak openly and without fear of writing the opposition’s team talk for them, Wilder and his coaching staff will have been drilling deep into the details of the 2020/21 Premier League schedule which was released this morning.
Different parts will be of interest for very different reasons. The start, when United hope to establish a foothold high up the table. The end, which could decide if they qualify for Europe or affect their survival chances will have been scrutinised too. After all, although diplomacy prevents them from saying so publicly, those tasked with steering United through another top-flight campaign know some games are eminently more winnable than others. Although Tottenham Hotspur and Everton are likely to pose difficult tests, Wilder will fancy his side’s chances of taking something from meetings with Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Burnley - who make up the rest of their diary for May.
But something else is likely to have been factored into the 52-year-old’s equations about how the next nine months could unfold. The Champions League and the Europa League calendars, which have already been released after UEFA decided to help member associations plot a course through the chaos caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
On five occasions before the beginning of March, United have been paired against teams who will be - or could be, depending upon results - involved in one of these two tournaments. On October 24, three or four days after they are set to take part in the CL, Wilder’s men travel to the reigning champions Liverpool. Later that month, they host Manchester City who will have just contested a group stage tie in the competition themselves, while Chelsea, where United visit on November 7, will have just staged one themselves on either the 3rd or the 4th. Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Frank Lampard, Wilder’s respective counterparts at Anfield, the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge, are prone to rotating their squads after these matches to guard against fatigue and burn-out.
Leicester City, who slipped into the EL after losing to Manchester United during the final round of last term, have been handed a trip to Bramall Lane on December 5 - only 72 hours after taking part in the group stages. Three months later, on March 13, Brendan Rodgers’ charges meet United again - potentially 48 hours after another EL assignment should they reach the knockout stages. If Spurs secure entry to the tournament proper, and then also get out of the group, they could face United two days after contesting a knockout tie on May 1. Should Arsenal negotiate safe passage through to the later stages, they will be in the same position on April 10. Although the schedule is likely to be rejigged to hand the PL’s representatives in Europe extra preparation time, it will still present them with an issue.