The Premier League: The Clinic Reopens
It’s back, then, and it’s tolerable. In fact, despite my reservations over how I’d feel about this iteration of The Football coming back, I’ve quite enjoyed it. It would be overstatement to suggest that it feels as though normality is returning. That is a dangerous train of thought which could easily lead to a second spike in this wretched virus which could claim many more lives. But it feels like a green shoot. A sign that we will get back to a form of normal. That we will, to borrow from another song that has been playing on people’s minds this week, meet again.
The crowd noise is working better than I’d probably expected. There have been a couple of mistakes, and it jars when the empty seats are plainly in view, but the sound of the crowd is as much a background noise as anything else. I was writing during the second half of the Tottenham Hotspur vs Manchester United match last night, looking up occcasionally to keep half an eye on events at White Hart Lane. Earlier in the evening I’d tried it without the crowd noises on during the Norwich City vs Southampton match and the experience was empty and void.
But the big flags covering the empty seats has been the real ace of the sleeve, aesthetically speaking. We’ve all been at matches at which these have covered large areas of empty seats. We’ve all watched televised matches during which the crowd is too far back from the pitch to be visible to the watching audience. Ultimately, the entire return of the Premier League has an element of the suspension of disbelief about it, and these touches allow us to sustain a further teaspoon or two of it.
The matches themselves have been, well, a fairly reasonable representation of the Premier League at this approximate point in time. No-one could quite say what would happen upon its return. Which players would be razor sharp? Which would need a few games to get back into the swing of things? Which might be more greatly affected by the lack of atmosphere during matches? Might some even benefit from an easing of the cauldron-like pressure that descends upon them whenever they take to the pitch?
Within 45 minutes of the first match, though, we were back on old and familiar ground. The first half of the opening match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United hadn’t been a particularly edifying spectacle, when the Aston Villa goalkeeper Ørjan Nyland clearly carried the ball over the line as he tried to cut out a free-kick from the United midfielder Ollie Norwood. Referee, Michael Oliver, waved play on because he received no goal alert from either his watch or earpiece, and the match played out as a goalless draw. Hawk-Eye, the manufacturers of the Premier League’s goal line technology, subsequently apologise, stating that:
The seven cameras located in the stands around the goal area were significantly occluded by the goalkeeper, defender and goalpost. This level of occlusion has never been seen before in over 9,000 matches that the Hawk-Eye Goal Line Technology system has been in operation.
But questions remain. VAR was in place, so why was this quite obvious mistake, which came about because all seven of the cameras built into the goal were simultaneously blocked, not quickly rectified by the all-seeing eye? The Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) – the umbrella group that officiates all Premier League matches – explained that VAR was not consulted because the match officials “did not receive a signal”. Their statement read: “Under IFAB protocol, the VAR is able to check goal situations, however due to the fact that the on-field match officials did not receive a signal, and the unique nature of that, the VAR did not intervene.”
Well yes, that’s Michael Oliver exonerated, but it still doesn’t explain why no-one saw fit to consider the possibility that the technology had gone wrong. Believing in the infallibility of any form of technology is usually a form of folly. None of this helped Sheffield United, who would have leapt to fifth place in the table with a win, though. They remain in the chase for a European place, but would have been knocking considerably harder on the door of a Champions League place had they won. It’s not as simple as to say that Sheffield United would have won had this goal been given, but it wouldn’t have done their chances any harm.
Even in these fractured times, there are still things that can bring us together as a nation. The applause for the NHS on Thursday evenings was, for a brief period, a time of something approaching national unity that we all needed in these strange and frightening times. For football supporters, a very similar moment of unity came about last night in witnessing David Luiz’s performance for Arsenal against Manchester City in Wednesday evening’s later match. Does the Premier League player who looks the most like Sideshow Bob really have to act so much like his doppelganger in a yard covered in rakes?
We should be grateful to Luiz for the role he performed on Wednesday night though. If ever there was a sign we football supporters needed of something approaching normal could return, then that sight was of him pratfalling his way through the first half of an extremely comfortable 3-0 win for Manchester City. Arsenal went into the lockdown off the back of just one defeat in their previous twelve matches. There was little to suggest that they have emerged in the same condition. Manchester City, meanwhile, curtailed Liverpool’s title celebrations for another few days.
After a brief hiatus for some Football League play-offs on Thursday night – it’s best to just roll with whatever they’;re telling you is happening, I’m finding – The Betterest League In The World returned last night. Southampton rolled over a doomed-looking Norwich City in the early game, a 3-0 win which left Norwich looking even further adrift at the bottom of the table. They’re some way off mathematically down yet, but they’ve won just five league matches all season and probably need to win five of their last eight matches to have a realistic chance of staying up. They’re not six points from safety with comfortably the worst goal difference in the division. On the basis of last night’s performance, it’s difficult to see where that is coming from.
Much of the bluff and the bluster was sucked out of the Spurs vs Manchester United match by the circumstances, and what we probably learned from the match was that this is two teams with little between them, at present. Roy Keane’s half-time explosion in the Sky Sports studio at half-time notwithstanding, United came back well in the second half after a pretty poor first half, punctuated by David de Gea making a little bit of a mess of Stephen Bergwijn’s shot, though the award of a penalty kick against Eric Dier – warranted as it, after Paul Pogba turned him inside-out – felt like a poor return to what had been, to that point, a decent performance from Dier.
It almost got worse, in the last minute. Bruno Fernandes went down in Dier’s vicinity and the referee whistled immediately for a second penalty kick. This time, the VAR called it correctly. A kind interpretation would be that Fernandes stumbled. An unkind – or perhaps more realistic – one would be that he dived. Either way, there was no contact with Dier, and the penalty kick was recalled. In retaining the lead in the league table, this was an important result for Manchester United. Six points off Chelsea, having played a game more and with just eight left to play, Spurs’ last chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League probably died last night. Dropping two points probably didn’t do Manchester United’s a great deal of good either, though things could have been worse.
Before the start of each match, though, there came something altogether more important. You don’t need yet another middle-aged white man telling you that Black Lives Matter in a football context, so read Musa Okwonga on the subject instead. Suffice to say that the image of Marcus Rashford, a 21 year old footballer who embarrassed the government, taking the knee along with every other Premier League player, is an image that will live long in the mind, as well as a sign that, no matter how terrible things may look right now in so many different ways, something better can lie ahead if we want it to be there. Against all the odds that I’d set in my own head, it’s good to have the football back.