The demands placed on modern footballers have never been higher, with the presence of numerous domestic, European and international competitions keeping players busy throughout the entire calendar year. Thanks to the advent of new competitions in club football like the FIFA Club World Cup and, most recently, the UEFA Conference League, it’s now common to see some teams play well over 50 games in a single season.
This was the case with Liverpool last season, who, by virtue of reaching the final of every major cup competition, ended up playing 63 games out of a possible 63. However, while a vast number of games for any club side to play in a single season, is that the record for games played over the course of a campaign? Here, we intend to answer that question.
Competitions Premier League Clubs Can Feature In
Where once the only prizes on offer to English clubs were the FA Cup and First Division title (later the Premier League), today there are an array of trophies on offer. As well as the two titles above, the English League Cup – now regarded as the ‘Carabao Cup’ – was first introduced in the 1960-61 season. The League Cup was to be contested by all professional EFL sides and would include seven rounds in total – culminating in a final at Wembley.
This naturally added to the busy schedules of the top division clubs in England, many of whom had just started playing in European competitions. While the European Cup (today known as the Champions League) was first created for the 1955/56 season, it wasn’t until the next campaign that English representation was to be found. Manchester United were the first club officially enter, going against the advice of the Football Association in order to do so – who worried about European football devaluing the domestic game.
Timeline of English involvement in European competition:
- 1954 – Wolves lay the foundations for future European competitions by playing Hungary’s all-star club side Honved home and away
- 1955– Birmingham City and a London XI become the first clubs to enter InterCity Fairs Cup
- 1956 – Manchester United became the first English club side to play in the newly formed European Cup
- 1963 – Spurs become the first English side to win a European trophy, lifting the UEFA Cup Winners Cup
- 1968 – Manchester United became the first English European Cup winner, beating Benfica at Wembley. Leeds United also became the first English winners of the InterCity Fairs Cup the same year
- 1972 – Spurs win the inaugural UEFA Cup in 1972, beating Wolves in the two-legged Final
- 1999 – Manchester United became the first winners of the newly rebranded Champions League – thanks to a 2-1 win over Bayern Munich. This makes them the first ever English treble winners
- 2021 – Tottenham and Leicester City became the first Premier League clubs to compete in the newly-formed UEFA Conference League. Leicester go on to reach the Semi-finals
However, prior to United’s involvement in the European Cup, both Birmingham City and a ‘London XI’ would feature in the ‘Inter-Cities Fairs Cup’. This early incarnation of what would later turn into the UEFA Cup proved to be a watershed moment for English involvement. By 1963, Bill Nicolson’s Tottenham Hotspur side became the first to win on the continent – lifting the European Cup Winner’s Cup.
The now-defunct trophy was well loved before being scrapped in 1999, as it invited every domestic cup winner from around Europe to compete against one another for the Cup Winner’s Cup. Before being shunned by UEFA, the likes of West Ham United, Man City, Chelsea, Everton and Manchester United all won the trophy. While we don’t see the competition on the schedule anymore, a similar trophy has emerged in recent times to take its place – the UEFA Conference League.
Introduced for the 2021/22 season, the Conference League invites teams who finished just outside of the Europa League places in their respective domestic divisions to compete. Won by Jose Mourinho’s AS Roma, it proved to be a great success in its first year. Alongside the major competitions, some fortunate high-flying clubs get the opportunity to play for trophies based on recent success. This is the case in the FA Community Shield, the traditional curtain-raiser for the English football season, which sees the previous campaign’s Premier League winner face off against the FA Cup winners.
The UEFA Super Cup is similarly contested between the reigning Champions League and Europa League holders. In addition, there is also the FIFA Club World Cup, which sees the reigning champions of Europe take on continental club champions from around the world. While a European side would only play two matches in the Club World Cup, it’s yet another game in a season that can take their game tally well beyond 60 – pendant upon other results.
Through The Ages
Historically, clubs would play more games in a season than they do now. This is mainly down to the domestic league, as the old First Division in England had 22 teams rather than 20. Therefore, after the creation of the League Cup in the early 1960s, several records were set for games played that may never be broken in the Premier League era.
A 42-game domestic league season helped Arsenal earn the current record for games played by an English side at 70 – which was achieved in the 1979-80 season. The feat was helped significantly by a deep run in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, where they would ultimately lose to Valencia in the final. On top of this, Arsenal also reached the final of the FA Cup, playing a pair of replays en route to beef up their game tally.
It’s unlikely that this pre-Premier League record will ever be broken, but here are a number of clubs who have run it close since the introduction of the 38-game Premier League season back in 1994.
Chelsea 2012/13 – 69 games
Incredibly, despite the reduced number of domestic league games, Chelsea were just one game shy of equalling Arsenal’s record just over a decade ago. Heading into the 2012/2013 season, the London club were reigning European and FA Cup champions. As such, they were obliged to play in all three additional competitions –the Community Shield, the UEFA Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup. Unfortunately for The Blues, they would go on to lose in the final of all three in the second half of 2012 – to Man City, Atletico Madrid and Corinthians, respectively.
|CHELSEA 2012/13 STATS|
|Competition||Round Entered||Final Position||First Game||Last Game|
|Premier League||–||3rd||19th August 2012||19th May 2013|
|FA Cup||3rd round||Semi Final||5th January 2013||14th April 2013|
|League Cup||3rd round||Semi Final||25th September 2012||23rd January 2013|
|FA Community Shield||Final||Runners-up||12th August 2012||12th August 2012|
|UEFA Champions League||Group stage||Group stage||19th September 2012||5th December 2012|
|UEFA Europa League||Round of 32||Winners||14th February 2013||15th May 2013|
|UEFA Super Cup||Final||Runners-up||31st August 2012||31st August 2012|
|FIFA Club World Cup||Semi Final||Runners-up||13th December 2012||16th December 2012|
The other reason that they managed to clock up so many air miles and so many fixtures that campaign was their success in the UEFA Europa League. Following an early elimination from the Champions League, Rafa Benitez’s men went on a fine run in the sister competition, culminating in a final victory over Benfica at the Portuguese side’s own stadium.
An FA Cup run also padded out their fixture list, with Manchester City’s 2-1 win over Chelsea in April 2013 the only thing stopping them from equalling Arsenal’s 70-match record. It may have ended with just one trophy for the West London club, buts it’s still a season for the record books.
Liverpool 2021/22 – 63 games
While nowhere near Chelsea’s Premier League era record, Liverpool’s 63 is the most recent of those, we’ll be assessing. What makes their tally all the more impressive is that they were not involved in the Super Cup or FIFA Club World Cup last season. Instead, Liverpool played in every game possible, having reached the final of the League Cup, FA Cup and Champions League.
They would win the first two thanks to penalty shootout victories over Chelsea, but a 1-0 loss to Real Madrid in Paris cost Jurgen Klopp’s side a chance to play in the Club World Cup next season.
Manchester United 2008/09 – 66 games
Manchester United’s longest campaign instead predictably came on the back of European success. Winning the Champions League in 2008 assured the Red Devils of a place in the Super Cup and Club World Cup for the next campaign.
They began the record-breaking 2008/09 season with a Community Shield win (on penalties against Portsmouth), having added the Premier League title to their European triumph only a few months prior. From there, United would win the Club World Cup, seeing off Columbian outfit LDU Quito courtesy of a Wayne Rooney strike. They would lose in the final of the Super Cup at the beginning of the season before defending their League Cup crown – once again on penalties – against Spurs.
Disappointment would follow after a Semi-final elimination in the FA Cup and a final loss to Pep Guardiola’s peerless Barcelona side in the Champions League Final in Rome. However, Sir Alex Ferguson did guide United to a record-equalling Premier League title, where they ironically just edged out Liverpool.
Manchester United 2016/17 – 64 games
Going one better than Liverpool managed last season were Manchester United once again – this time back in 2016/17. Under the management of Jose Mourinho, United won something of a treble, having claimed the FA Community Shield, Europa League and the English League Cup in one campaign.
Had they beaten Chelsea in the FA Cup, they would have gone even further in a year where Paul Pogba played more minutes than anyone else with 4,350. The trio of trophies were sealed in May of 2017 when United would beat Ajax 2-0 in Stockholm – one of the goals coming from Pogba.
A disappointing Premier league finish of 6th did take the shine off Mourinho’s achievements, as the focus was clearly directed elsewhere in the Portuguese manager’s pursuit for silverware.
Around The Continent
In Europe’s other major leagues, it’s incredibly rare for a side to rack up over 60 matches in a season. A big reason for this is the stark lack of a League Cup equivalent on the continent, as only previously in France (the French League Cup – which was abolished in 2020) did we see something similar appear. However, some clubs from Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga do still manage to play an excessive number of games once in a while. Here are just a few examples.
Maximum number of matches possible for clubs in each major European top-flight (as of 2022):
|League/Division||Games played in a league campaign||Domestic Competitions clubs can feature in||Number of games possible (not including European qualifiers)|
|Premier League||38||Comm Shield, League Cup, FA Cup||71|
|Serie A||38||Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italiana||67|
|La Liga||38||Copa del Rey, Copa de Espana||67|
|Ligue 1||38||Coupe de France, Trophee des Champions||65|
|Bundesliga||34||DFB Pokal, German Super Cup||61|
|Eredivisie||34||KNVB Cup, Johan Cruyff Shield||60|
Barcelona 2011/12 – 64 games
Outside of the Premier League clubs, it was FC Barcelona back in 2011/12 who set the record for the most games played in a season at 64. Widely regarded as one of the greatest club sides of all time for their achievements the previous year, it was a landmark few months for the club who, added yet more silverware. Having won the Champions League in dominant style in 2010/11, Pep Guardiola steered them to victories in the Super Cup and Club World Cup.
Domestically, Barcelona also lifted the Supercopa de Espagna at the start of 2011/12, adding the Copa del Rey by the end of the season. However, the two main prizes – La Liga and the Champions League – would evade them this season.
Real Madrid 2017/18 season – 62 games
The final season of Real’s historic three-peat of Champions League successes last decade would also turn out to be their busiest. Under former club legend Zinedine Zidane, Los Blancos won the Super Cup, Club World Cup, Supercopa de Espana and the historic third UCL title in a row in the 2017/18 season – becoming the first club to do so.
Involvement in so many competitions meant that they became just the second Spanish side after Barcelona in 2011/12 to play more than 60 games. Similar to Barca, the longer season did appear to affect their domestic form, as Real could only finish third in La Liga and were eliminated from the Copa del Rey at the Quarter-final stage.
|Real Madrid 2017/18 stats|
|Competition||First Game||Last Game||Starting Round||Final Position||Pld||Win %|
|La Liga||20 August 2017||19 May 2018||Matchday 1||Third place||38||57.89|
|Copa del Rey||26 October 2017||24 January 2018||Round of 32||Quarter finals Da||6||50.00|
|Supercopa de España||13 August 2017||16August 2017||Final||Winners||2||100.00|
|Champions League||13 September 2017||26 May 2018||Group stage||Winners||13||69.23|
|UEFA Super Cup||8 August 2017||8 August 2017||Final||Winners||1||100.00|
|FIFA Club World Cup||13 December 2017||13 December 2017||Semi finals||Winners||2||100.00|
Bayern Munich 2013/14 – 56 games
Similar to Spain, Germany doesn’t have a League Cup equivalent, meaning that FC Bayern Munich are yet to reach the mythical 60-match mark. The closest they came was in the 2013/14 season, which followed a genuinely historic campaign for the club where they completed a clean sweep of trophies.
FCB, under Jupp Heynckes, won the Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and the Champions League in 2012/13, even beating arch-German rivals Borussia Dortmund in the final of the European Cup at Wembley.
This unparalleled success paved the way for a first appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup, which they won. The Bavarian outfit, spearheaded by Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben, also defended their DFB Pokal and Bundesliga titles – and even added the UEFA Super Cup crown after beating Chelsea on penalties.
While we may not see a side complete a 70-game season again, the fact that some have gotten so close to that number in the Premier League era speaks to the demands that are being played on modern footballers. As Liverpool showed last season, the high price for historic levels of success is a punishing schedule, where players seldom get a whole week to recover after a match.
Moreover, the addition of new competitions on the international front, such as the UEFA Nations League, doesn’t exactly help matters either. With talk of the FIFA Club World Cup being expanded into a summer competition akin to that of the actual World Cup, one must wonder how this race to fit ever more matches into the already packed football calendar will end.