More than three months on from the last fixture, English football’s top tier jolts back into action.
It’s on. Again.
By the time kick off arrives at Villa Park this evening — Sheffield United are the visitors as the Premier League awakes from its slumber — it will have been 100 days since Dean Smith’s side were hammered 4-0 by Brendan Rodgers’s Leicester in early March. That was the last time we saw Premier League football, with the weekend’s schedule following that Monday night game soon postponed, prior to further doubt over an eventual return ensuing. For months. But here we are, and with players, fans, staff and journalists alike having to become accustomed to the entirely different scenario awaiting English football’s return, needs must.
The complexities of coronavirus-enforced changes aside, it is the football itself that most whets the appetite. With just a few things all but done, there remains significant motivation for clubs at the top, middle and bottom of the league to fight for; storylines aplenty to be played out.
Here, I have answered some of the main questions concerning the Premier League’s imminent restart. To help, I have enlisted the help of Lee Scott, lead analyst for Total Football Analysis who has previously scouted for professional clubs including Hibernian, St Mirren and Partick Thistle. It is Scott’s history in tactical analysis of the game, though, — including books written on the key concepts behind Pep Guardiola ‘Mastering the Premier League with Man City’ and Jürgen Klopp ‘Rebuilding the Liverpool Dynasty’ — which means he can provide expert opinion on the different viewing experience awaiting us.
What tactical changes/trends can we expect to see, either across the board or from individual teams?
Scott: “From a tactical perspective I do not expect to see much change from individual teams, simply because for the majority of this lockdown coaches have not been able to work together or with players. There have been some reports of coaches organising online meets with groups of players to discuss certain matches and analyse the positives and the negatives. These can be useful but without combining the learning with on-pitch work, a lot of the key messages can be lost.”
The reality is that much of the lockdown period has involved players, albeit dictated via club-monitored sessions, training on their own. Only in the past month or so, culminating in three weeks resembling a shortened regular pre-season of contact training, have clubs been able to properly step up their preparations in a tactical sense.
Most teams then, surely, will play a similar style to that which we saw during the first 29 games of the season prior to the suspension. It could be interesting to see if teams choose to adopt a more defensively sound three at the back system to counteract restart jitters and rustiness, which seemed to be a trend in the early weeks of the Bundesliga’s resumption. It is certainly something that has been used masterfully by Chris Wilder and his Sheffield United team.
In terms of specific teams, the return from injury of key players such as Marcus Rashford at Manchester United may facilitate alterations to the way they were playing prior to lockdown, while others such as West Ham and Bournemouth have been grappling to find a consistently effective system all season long.
Will the slower pace — at least at first — along with the adoption of the newly-introduced five substitutes rule be used by some teams to waste time and deal with fitness demands?
Scott: “I think that drawing from the experience of the Bundesliga we could see a change in the general tempo of the matches that we see. Even teams that tend to play with a high tempo, whether in or out of possession, are likely to have to find more rest periods in a match.
“During a ‘normal’ pre-season break, most top-flight teams will still give their players tailored training plans that are managed by the sports scientists. This COVID-19 enforced break will lead to conditioning issues over the first few matchdays.
“The increased allowance of substitutions allows more tactical variation from coaches, but it also offers the opportunity to disrupt the flow of the match when ahead.”
Naturally, games will be slower than we are used to as a result of the significant lay-off. It is not feasible to expect high-intensity pressing for 90 minutes in the first few games back, even from Klopp’s title-hunting side who could potentially wrap up the title in the Merseyside Derby on Sunday, Manchester City’s result against Arsenal pending.
It is, though, somewhat hard to imagine that the rule regarding five substitutes will not be exploited in certain scenarios. In a world where every league position brings more prize money and the sporting and financial impacts of relegation are potentially catastrophic — particularly given the uncertainty of life beyond merely the climax to this season — substitutions may well become a way to clog up the flow of the opposition’s progress. Assuming the game has kicked into second gear by that point.
Which teams will have benefitted from the break and which could will struggle to replicate their form in the first two thirds of the season?
Scott: “I think that those sides that were struggling with injuries will be the ones who will benefit the most from the elongated break. Spurs come to mind as they will now have Harry Kane available for the remainder of the season.”
Spurs are the obvious benefactors of this period. Essentially, every team has been awarded a sort of rebirth, a second chance to start afresh in the same season. This is especially the case with José Mourinho’s Spurs, who return with a much stronger team — reinforced by the return from injury of not just Kane, but Heung-Min Son, Moussa Sissoko and Steven Bergwijn too.
Mourinho now has more options available to him than would have been the case had the pandemic not taken hold, along with a realistic chance to qualify for the Champions League, which seemed implausible as they were dumped out of the same competition by RB Leipzig in their last competitive fixture.
Second chances in the lower reaches of the table, too. Teams fighting relegation such as Norwich have been awarded a chance to right some wrongs, and they are a team who may well be spurred on by the opportunity. Bournemouth will welcome the return of the talismanic David Brooks, while John McGinn is likely to be pivotal in Villa’s fight to stay in the league. How the psychological boost of being given a reprieve and dealt a better hand will play out on the pitch remains to be seen.
On the other hand, teams such as Sheffield United may struggle to replicate the form they exhibited over the first two thirds of the season. Undoubtedly, they will be desperate to see out a remarkable first season back in the top flight for 13 years, and to complete what would be a remarkable feat in qualifying for European football. They are certainly well-placed to do just that.
Finally, since it went so well last time, some predictions:
- The away wins trend continues. Evidence from the Bundesliga’s resumption suggests that home advantage is drastically reduced with the absence of fans, which could have a major part to play in the Premier League run-in and prove to be a curse for the sides desperately battling to avoid the drop.
- Dominance of the top teams. Similarly, the return of football elsewhere has proven that the game behind closed doors can be reduced to a training game feel. Heightened freedom of expression and generally higher quality of players in the league’s best teams means we could see some processions, accentuating the predictability of some games.
- Jamie Vardy will win the Golden Boot (closely followed by prolific goalscoring finishes to the season from the usual suspects). It would be a remarkable achievement once again, when you take stock and consider how his career has played out.
- Marcus Rashford or Jordan Henderson will win the PFA Player of the Year award. Both incredible footballers, but more so incredible people. In a season as unique as this one in the unforeseen circumstances that have cast it into unparalleled uncertainty, the off-pitch actions of these two as leaders in the face of adversity has been worthy of recognition. That said, expect both to finish strong on it too.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks, the end to the season is sure to be full of excitement, ecstasy and anguish of varying degrees. For now, even before a ball has been kicked in a Premier League game again, it is just a relief to be able to look forward to it actually happening. Nine gameweeks are set to be squeezed into just over a month. Then there’ll be a short break before it all starts again.