Restart football’s innovations offer glimpse of game’s TV-centred future

Restart football’s innovations offer glimpse of game’s TV-centred future

“S

tay big, bring him inside, bring him inside” … “Lean into him, go on” … “Right foot, right foot” … “Good lad”. That is a truncated summary of the instructions passed between Ray Lewington and Tyrick Mitchell during Crystal Palace’s final match of the season, a 1-1 draw with Tottenham.

Mitchell is a graduate of the Palace academy and the Spurs match was his fourth senior appearance. Lewington has been coaching for 34 years. Part of his job is to pass his expertise on to players, to help them learn. Thanks to the particular conditions imposed on the restart of football, however, Lewington was able to coach in a new way; live, unrelenting, in Mitchell’s ear like a podcast that was impossible to switch off.

Restart football has had its critics, and the reasons are understandable. There was a sense of ghoulishness about playing on in a pandemic, something reinforced by echoes bouncing around empty stadiums. It was only being done for money and it was achieved without supporters, who were contained within a video wall, released only when it was time to shake a fist or collapse their heads into their hands.

There were good bits to restart football too, though. There were things that made it different and which offered fans, well viewers, the chance to experience something new. As the 2020-21 season approaches, with a push to get things back to normal, these innovations seem likely to disappear. That will be a shame.

Mitchell had a stormer against Spurs, earning a post-match backslap from José Mourinho. Watching Lewington coach him through the game and seeing the youngster absorb information and respond was fascinating. In that same game, because Palace were pumped up to put an end to a seven-match losing streak and Spurs were on the verge of qualifying for Europe, there was also a cacophony of noise provided by the players as they sought to keep each other on their toes.

That intensity would normally be provided by fans, of course, and the only reason you could hear what was said on the pitch was because fans were not there. So as a trade-off it was not ideal. But sitting in the ground reporting it provided an insight I do not normally get and, by switching off the fake crowd noise, the viewer could pick it up at home, too.

Other changes were deliberate, rules devised to suit the particular nature of the restart. The use of five substitutes, from a bench of nine, is one. Designed to help prevent burnout during a compacted calendar, it has been the subject of much scrutiny and some thoughtful analysis. Does it benefit big clubs with deeper resources, or actually help smaller teams for whom the gap between a first XI and its reserves is less steep?

Whatever the answer, as a viewer, five subs makes for a more interesting, intriguing experience. Quite simply it offers a greater number of variations in a game. Ole Gunnar Solskjær embraced the new rule by making changes; the first coach in England to introduce five substitutes and, in extra time in the FA Cup at Norwich in June, the first to make six.

Against Spurs in his first game back he used four subs to change the personnel and shape into something more attacking as United tried to come back from a goal down. Once Bruno Fernandes had scored the equalising penalty, the final change was used to hoik Scott McTominay out of a makeshift backline and replace him with an actual defender.

Another change was the drinks break. Brought in to help players stay hydrated during summer matches, it looks likely to be given the chop for next season. It has again been criticised, both as an unnecessary interruption and an advertising break by stealth. It is inarguably a tactical break, something which some people do not like either. But watching the FA Cup final it was hard to argue that the story of the game was not improved by Mikel Arteta using a drinks break to counter Chelsea’s blitz of a start by telling Kieran Tierney to send the ball long, beyond the opponent’s high line, wherever possible.

Just for the sake of balance, Frank Lampard used the break to good effect as he switched tactics in the second half against Manchester City at Stamford Bridge in June. By holding off a City onslaught and sneaking a win (again through a more direct approach against an advancing opponent), he earned points that effectively got his team into the Champions League. Another twist.

Silence, subs, drinks breaks make for a richer viewing experience. And viewing is what restart football is about. You could not go to a game as a fan but, for a glorious six-week spell, it felt as if there was always a match lurking somewhere on your phone. For the next month there will be a similar, slightly thinner experience as Uefa plays out the remainder of its competitions in what BT Sport is ill-advisedly calling Club 2020.

Restart football is only available through your TV but, by and large, it was not designed for it. As all the canvas seat covers around the grounds reminded us, it was trying to get as close to normal football as the circumstances allowed. By accident it ended up showing the potential for a new kind of product that goes by the same name. “Viewers”, “products” – terminology loathed by fans trying to keep the flames of longstanding tradition alive. But on screen not in person lies the future of elite football, pandemic or not. The restart offered a glimpse of what might be possible.