It’s a relief to have English football back. But bloody hell it’s been a bit of a drag, hasn’t it?
Liverpool’s trip to Goodison Park was supposed to be the show-stopper. The box office culmination of the first weekend of Premier League action since March, if there was one game we could count on not to disappoint, it was this.
Yet, somehow, it ended up being the worst of the lot. Late flurry of Everton chances aside, there was nothing to write home about, as the theme of friendly-esque matches with next to no lasting intensity continued into its 11th game since Wednesday.
In retrospect, that can’t really be surprising. From the moment the teamsheets came out – as 19-year-old Anthony Gordon made his first Everton start while Mohamed Salah was rotated out for Liverpool – it was pretty clear both managers saw it, at least partially, as an exercise in getting up to speed.
But as disappointing as it was to see yet another highly-anticipated encounter contested with the energy of an exhibition match, it raised the question: has the Premier League really been that bad, or did we just expect too much?
The coronavirus-enforced break, after all, was far more than a close-season. It came with no prior warning, and brought with it a level of disruption and emotional stress that completely wiped football from the list of priorities for all involved with the sport.
When it was announced that the Premier League was to return, a decision that came almost entirely without the consultation of those who will be out on the pitch twice a week, there was no time given for a pre-season. That’s despite the fact that the break from team training – 11 weeks – was almost twice as long as your typical summer period.
Some clubs were able to grab a friendly, with whomever was available within 30 minutes of travel. But more than half of Premier League teams – some of whom have already played twice competitively – came in with intra-squad games as their only match experience since March.
It’s no coincidence that Liverpool were forced to start without two key players at Goodison Park, or that they had lost two more to injury by the 70th minute. It’s the same reason Arsenal lost two players within 25 minutes of their return, or that seven players have already been substituted by the 46th minute – more than in any other round of fixtures since the beginning of last season.
As a fan, it’s only natural to be frustrated when players aren’t delivering what we’re accustomed to seeing. That’s highlighted especially in the case of Liverpool – a team who have set the bar for themselves so impossibly high, but in Sunday’s derby looked so disjointed and lacking in vivacity that they may as well have been playing another sport to the one they were involved in back in March.
The explanation for that is rudimentary: the players are nowhere near ready, and there is no other set of circumstances in the history of football where you would expect them to be after so long out of action, with anything other than kicking a ball on their minds.
So as much as the sport we’re seeing now – fake crowd noise, dropped standards and low intensity – is jarring and alien, just remember the task put in front of the players. It goes above and beyond the call of duty, a huge physical ask, while expecting them to put their profession ahead of safety at a time when the majority of the country is still staying at home.
With more training and more match practice – of which there will be plenty – things will only improve from here, but if it takes a little longer than we’d hoped when we were first shown a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, then that is simply something we’ll have to accept.