Is this actually real? More importantly, is it actually any good? One interesting part of the current football season is – at the end of the day – its metaphysical angle.
In Monty Python’s famous Philosophers’ Football Match the only goal of the game is scored at the death by the Greek captain Aristotle (“very much the man in form”), and allowed to stand despite prolonged protests from Germany’s Hegel about the nature of reality.
It seems likely both skippers would have some interesting things to say about the Premier League season 2020-21. This has been a spectacle at one remove, a piece of staging that seems always to be asking very basic questions about what football is, what it should be; and whether this is all actually real, or some other thing entirely.
The season is now into its second quarter. As the return of fans signals a slow roll back towards normality, it seems safe to drown out the noises off, forget our own shared expectations, and draw some conclusions. At the end of which the most obvious conclusion is that, to date, the Premier League’s 190 games of ad hoc bubble-football have been intense, high-grade, and instructive too.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. It might even take some shedding of preconceptions to realise it is the case. This is not the authentic experience, we have been told repeatedly. Pundits have referred to “a season like no other”, something to be enjoyed through a veil, a journey into the hyper-real.
Jürgen Klopp in particular has seemed disturbed by its demands, seeing something unheimlich in this altered landscape, an experience imposed by dark forces – broadcasters, the league, his own chief executive.
Here’s another thought. What if this is actually more real? What if the shared restrictions, the inability to bring superior resources to bear, has provided a return to some previous form of reality?
In an everyday season it is possible to run these global businesses so well, to stockpile so much expertise, that it is literally impossible for four-fifths of your competitors to finish ahead of you. What if that was the unreal part? Perhaps, for a few short months, we have emerged from rather than entered The Bubble.
Most notably, the field is simply closer together. The distance from Tottenham in first to Wolves in seventh is four points. After 10 games of last season there were 15 points between first and seventh. The season before that the difference was seven points, and before that 12.
West Ham and Southampton have had a better start than the two Manchester clubs. Goal differences are unusually even.
This may be a source of sorrow for supporters of the biggest clubs. But then, it might not too. Everyone likes a little narrative tension. A more widely-cast drama might benefit the whole league, even if, as expected, the stronger squads assert their authority through the slog into spring.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of those 10 rounds of ghost-games is the retained intensity of the football itself. It would have been very easy for the tempo to drop and the rhythms to sag. Instead the Premier League has maintained its manic intensity, albeit one characterised at times by flurries of goals, and marked by mistakes and slack defending.
When Chelsea and Tottenham produced a tight, low-throttle nil-nil last Sunday there was a temptation to nod knowingly and point to the lack of crowd. But this is to forget that low-throttle nil-nils have always been present, and are in fact a sign of continued normality. The day before Liverpool and Brighton had produced a hysterically committed 1-1 draw, a game that could scarcely have been more helter-skelter played out in front of an all-terrace crowd of old-school ultras.
This is not something to take for granted. There have been suggestions in some other sports, those without blanket TV coverage, that crowd-free fixtures have sagged in intensity. One revelation of the current Premier League season is just how much the players actually want to play, how motivated they are by basic competition. Given the weirdness of the modern footballer’s existence, the occasional sense of distance, it has been heartening to see this so clearly.
That intensity has translated into 2.84 goals per game, compared with 2.72 in last season’s games with a crowd, an increase that has, according to figures provided by Gracenote, been entirely down to away teams becoming more prolific. Opta report an average of 29 shots per Premier League game, the highest average since it started counting in full.
This is of course a spectators’ view. For players and managers there have been issues with workload and a jiggered schedule. Not to mention the fears Klopp has raised of fatigue and injury.
How accurate is this? On Sky Sports this week Gary Neville suggested that teams had played no more football than any other season, while also enjoying an unusually long summer break. The bare numbers suggest Neville is right about most clubs, but wrong when it comes to those playing in the Champions League, figures that may also prove illuminating for Klopp.
From the start of the current Premier League season Manchester United have played a game every 4.6 days, as opposed to 5.2 days at the same stage last year. Chelsea have played every 4.5 days as opposed to 5 days last year. Manchester City have been busiest, down to 4.4 days from 5.
In fact only Liverpool have not played more games this season, holding steady at one every five days. Liverpool also played fewer matches over the summer, with nine to City’s 14, Chelsea’s 13 and Manchester United’s 14.
These numbers should not be used to scoff at Klopp’s comments. He has been at pains to stress his concern is for all clubs and all players not just his own, an entirely reasonable point of view. In any case the problems with fatigue relate to much more than simply matches played.
Every professional athlete suffered during the first lockdown. Training regimes were knocked off course, routines junked. Being in a bubble, travelling in a bubble, taking all the endless precautions: this is exhausting in itself.
Players have contracted Covid-19. Some clubs have had injury spikes. Plus everyone involved has had to cope with the mental stress of the situation. We may only see the results of this grind as the season rolls on.
For now it seems likely things will return to the usual trajectory from here. The lack of training time has clearly hampered some managers; perhaps more noticeably those whose game is based on honing a finely-wrought system. One of Pep Guardiola’s strengths is his maniacal attention to detail. Football on the hoof is not the ideal place for this to blossom.
Before long those advantages will come into play again. Larger, stronger squads will be more of an asset. The familiar powers will reassert themselves. And the bubble will become the usual bubble, the extreme conditions the usual extreme conditions. Until then, there is still time to enjoy an oddly familiar unreality.