The Premier League Restart Will not Be Football as We Know It
Football and its followers can start to cheer up a bit now that there is a Premier League restart date to look forward to, though no one could be foolish enough to imagine normality will return on 17 June.
Cynics are already pointing out, for a start, that on that date the two outstanding games in hand are going to be played first, so that if anything goes wrong all the clubs in the Premier League will at least have played the same number of matches should curtailment of the season suddenly reappear as an option.
Perhaps that is taking far too gloomy a view when the Bundesliga is already up and running, without spectators and, perhaps more important, without any police insistence on neutral venues. We have all become wearily resigned over the years to the police running the football calendar for reasons of crowd control, but if they are now saying empty grounds represent an unsupervisable threat to public safety it is quite a development, especially at a time when the nation’s pubs and bars are also standing silent and unused.
Unless football fans in the south of England have become too timid, trustworthy or tangential to cause any concern, the apparent northern bias detectable in the fixtures the police have asked to be moved probably has more to do with Liverpool being on the verge of a first title in 30 years.
Some sort of public partying can only be expected when that achievement is confirmed, as even if only half the remaining games can be played no one is going to argue with the right of Jürgen Klopp’s team to be called champions. A 25-point lead at the top of the Premier League sounds as ridiculous now as it did when games were suspended, and though many a joke has been made about Covid-19 and title number 19, Liverpool have been so demonstrably superior to the rest of the division this season that almost everyone has sympathy for the way their regal progress was halted by factors beyond their control.
The situation at the top of the Premier League is as uncomplicated as it is possible to be at this stage of the season, and though the battle for fourth place and the Europa League positions promises to be quite lively, at that end of the table no one is going to face financial calamity through fixtures being completed in compromised circumstances.
It is a different story at the bottom, where the clubs under threat of relegation must have enormous, if private, misgivings about playing out the season without spectators. Only a couple of weeks ago Watford were successfully arguing that the plan to play games at neutral venues would be to the detriment of clubs who were relying on their home fixtures for the points necessary to survive. No sooner had that fight been won than news arrived from Germany that without spectators, home advantage does not appear to count for much anyway. Of the 27 games played in Germany before this weekend, only five resulted in home wins, fewer than 20%.
By contrast, 11 matches or just over 40% resulted in victory for the away side, some by thumping scores. From this (admittedly limited) evidence, home advantage has little to do with familiarity with the dressing rooms or the nap of the turf and everything to do with the presence of a vocal and partisan crowd, whether urging the home players on to greater heights of performance or intimidating opponents and perhaps the referee.
Who knew? It makes sense when you think about it, but who has ever thought about it before? It has also come to light from the German experience that games played behind closed doors tend to proceed more efficiently, with the ball in play for a greater proportion of the game than is normally the case.
Without a crowd there is evidently no point playing to the gallery or putting pressure on the referee to change his mind. Players just get on with the game, quite possibly because it has suddenly become more of a contractual duty than a means of self-expression. Even goals as exquisite as the one scored by Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich against Dortmund are not celebrated or savored for long; when the symbiosis between performers and spectators is missing so is the sense of theatre.
Football does not normally contain pauses for introspection; the whole point is that once the ball is set rolling it is not intended to stop. A three-month mid-season hiatus is wholly unprecedented and it is not clear how everyone will react, or indeed if everyone will react in the same way.
The possibility of Liverpool taking their foot off the pedal once the title has been clinched or mid-table teams with nothing to play for phoning in their performances to get the season over as quickly as possible existed before the lockdown. Should anything similar happen in the coming weeks it would be nothing new, except that at the moment everything is new.
This is not quite football as we know it, and to judge by Bundesliga results the season that starts again in artificial circumstances does not follow the form lines of the chunk of the program already completed.
There can be little doubt that what the Premier League is proposing represents the fairest way of concluding the season – everyone has the chance to save themselves on the pitch – though there is going to be more of the dogfight than usual about this year’s relegation scrap, and that’s without even considering all the justifiable calls from hard-pressed EFL clubs for future parachute payments to be drastically reduced.