The Premier League, and Arsenal, are back next week. Or at least, a working facsimile of those entities. Last week I reflected on how the armchair experience would impact me as a match-going fan, but I also think the biodome conditions are going to have a tangible impact on the ‘product’ that we see.
There has been lots of speculation on how the lack of a crowd might impact home advantage and how the enforced three-month layoff will impact players physically. Darren Burgess made some very interesting comments on the most recent Arsecast about players returning from injury. To paraphrase Darren, he suggested that players returning from long-term injuries mightn’t need very long to get back into the rhythm of competition.
This is due to a total absence of rhythm- everyone is returning from a three-month layoff simultaneously, which is a great leveller for those injured pre-COVID. A glance across the league reveals some intriguing jokers when it comes to squads. Lots of teams expecting to finish the season without significant players now have them back for the final games.
Spurs have Kane and Son back in play, Manchester United can tag Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba back into action. Jamie Vardy was struggling with a glute injury when play was suspended and he endured the most barren run of his Premier League career in the winter months, now his muscles have had time to heal. In the relegation battle, Villa can again count on the much-missed John McGinn.
The final nine or so fixtures already have a playoff feel to them, this is officially the conclusion of the 2019-20 season but in physical terms, it is a whole new cycle for the players. As much as key players are returning, lots of teams are likely to lose players to muscle injuries in the coming weeks as English domestic football ramps up from 0-100 in one fell swoop.
The league is operating with a bill of health comparable to the first game of the season. All of the aches, niggles and even a few ligament tears are healed now. Only the players nursing long-term injuries are still unavailable. Four weeks from now it’s not inconceivable that we will be looking at a record number of soft tissue injuries- clubs are likely to go from full squads to the bear bones in record time.
In a bid to manage the altered physical landscape the Premier League have introduced a rule allowing five substitutions to be made in three sittings. On the face of it, this temporary rule benefits the richer clubs with greater quality in depth. However, I think the smaller clubs could certainly use it to their advantage too.
Coaches now have the opportunity to change 50% of their outfield players in-game. If you have a defensive or a physical game plan, having the option to replace your entire midfield and / or a forward is a nice ace to hold in your sleeve. You could send your midfield and lone striker out to run their absolute legs off for 45 minutes, then replace them all with fresh foot soldiers to run themselves silly protecting the back four for the second half.
Rotational fouling is much more of an option with a greater number of substitutions too. Arsenal’s fouling numbers have started to climb under the tutelage of Mikel Arteta. Perhaps he can send out Sead Kolasinac to mercilessly shoulder charge Raheem Sterling for 45 minutes, before tagging Kieran Tierney in for a half of “it was a tangle of feet, honest” type shithousery.
The introduction of five substitutes may force clubs into bringing through young players that would ordinarily struggle for opportunities. Burnley and Crystal Palace have only given Premier League minutes to one player under 23 each. With finances across the league impacted by COVID, clubs will need to rely on their academies more and the likes of Palace and Burnley can use this short burst of games to test some of their homegrown talent.
There has been a lot of discussion about how the lack of fans will impact the viewing experience; but it will have an impact on how the game is played too. It’s impossible to measure the extent, but the crowd absolutely impacts moments and player decisions. It’s why I still get so annoyed when the Emirates faithful yells “shoooooot!” at Granit Xhaka when he is 35 yards from goal. Xhaka is an instinctive, emotional player and he often responds by blasting the ball out of the stadium.
The crowd provides adrenaline and impetus. Most academic research into home advantage suggests its impact is felt on officiating the most. In the recent Bundesliga clash between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, Jerome Boateng handled the ball in the Dortmund penalty area and the incident wasn’t referred to the VAR.
Had the Yellow Wall been present, it’s difficult to believe the referee wouldn’t have been persuaded to check the decision again with 80,000 voices screaming in his ear to do so. A general lack of match sharpness and the lack of a crowd will, I think, lead to more technical, tactical games. Now, at the top level, it is fair to say that the best players are the ones that can master their emotions under pressure and scrutiny.
Xhaka, for example, is a player that responds to stimulus and it’s one of his major flaws. He is a technically excellent footballer that too often allows emotion to be his master rather than his servant. The best players aren’t affected by crowd stimuli- some players, teams even, thrive off it. Jurgen Klopp has successfully mobilised Liverpool and Dortmund fans to fuel his teams’ high-octane football.
I wonder if we will see something of a levelling off as players who tend to wilt under the lights flourish. Women’s football is often described as far slower than men’s football. I don’t think that difference is as pronounced as many people think- it’s just the small, murmuring crowd provides the impression of a lack of intensity, especially on TV. People more happily watch women’s international tournaments because there are larger, more engaged crowds present.
One of the things you pick up from watching women’s football is that the tactical shape of a game and the personality of a coach is more obvious. This is partially physical, partially because, according to coaches who have worked with men and women footballers, women footballers are more curious about tactics and more likely to ask why they have been asked to do something.
It’s also because crowds are small and quiet and leave very little imprint on a game, it’s not a factor in players’ decision making. Women’s teams tend to pass out from the back very comfortably for instance. I think this bio-secure Premier League football we are about to witness will reward patient, incisive possession-based teams- and I hope that might benefit Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal.