How football is adapting after its longest ever break

By now some of us have been lucky enough to have met up with friends in an open space or used the side-gate for a socially-distanced barbecue with our parents. This week we will reacquaint ourselves with another loved one.

With the return of the Premier League comes a cavalcade of our favourite players, narratives and either a welcome distraction from the existential dread or, well, more dread. The Bundesliga and La Liga have filled the void, but the attachment for most has been superficial. Anyway, here it comes: fast-paced, flashy, headline-a-minute and – crucially – ours.

Nevertheless there are some superficial elements from Germany and Spain that we know will be true over here.

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Much of the data collated suggests trends that can be attributed to the lack of fans. Some as simple as home advantage no longer being a factor, with away teams in the Bundesliga winning a greater proportion of the matches played than before lockdown.

Crystal Palace, for example, whose home support is a particular driver, might be inordinately affected. Then again, just three of their seven remaining games are at home, and actually their away form before the hiatus is better.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect has been the increase in time that the ball is in play. Across the board that seems down to factors such as players spending less time remonstrating with referees or acting up with opposition – something evidently done to play up to the crowds. Only in the behaviour’s absence are we seeing it for the unnecessary theatre it is.

The result of more playing time is energy levels sapping quicker than normal, and conditioning coaches across the other leagues that have returned have noted elongated recovery times when it comes to getting players back to match readiness. Teams that abide by a possession game, such as Manchester City, will largely be fine. Liverpool might rely less on their wave upon wave of attacks.

Naturally, those two clubs and others with more robust squads will be fine, especially so with the five permitted substitutes. Pep Guardiola could effectively rotate his five most attacking positions to ensure no door remains bolted.

Stylistically, the expectation is that play will be slower than normal. And for that reason it could well be the case that the technical deficiencies that are often cloaked by the Premier League’s fast transitions may be all the more stark. At the same time, teams might have used this period to improve other sides to their game.

Football consultant Kevin Nicholson observed that some of the top Bundesliga sides have improved their post-lockdown finishing, with the top four all showing dramatic improvement in efficiency in front of goal.

Of course, these restart sample sizes are too small for us to come to any worthwhile conclusions. And in some cases, such as the second tier of German football, the advantage has remained with the hosts. But the starkest adaptations football has made in a coronavirus world will be more tangible.

A leaner, meaner Diego Costa for Atletico Madrid at the weekend was another indicator of how advantageous this delay has been. As far as injury concerns go, the high profile beneficiaries are Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford – once doubts for Euro 2020, now integral to the run-in. Similarly, teams with smaller squads near the bottom of the table have had a chance to rest up for relegation battles.

There’s also a question to ask about how we all plan on consuming this, with Project Restart’s death-by-chocolate servings of Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday. Competitive eaters say they never enter a competition on an empty stomach, and you wonder what effect all this football pumped directly into our systems will do to us. Sure, we’ve never craved it more – but are we ready for this much of it all at once?

There’s another aspect to all this – what happens when the remaining issues to be decided are decided? Liverpool could win the league in two games, relegation could all but sort itself out in a fortnight. A slosh of dead rubbers and second-string XIs would await us.

Teams could end up saving their main players from further harm, especially given the grey areas around sustaining injuries at this time, and similarly, those players looking to move on might want to take themselves out of harm’s way in case they scupper a future deal elsewhere. It may not be long until we’re all pining for the start of the 2020/21 season having only just gotten 2019/20 back. And that will come with no guarantees of football being what it was.

Even familiar surroundings will carry reminders of just how different things will be. And it is the fans that will bear the brunt of this.

So much of British football culture is about companionship, groups, family, just mum or dad. These are routines ingrained within us from an early age that pass down as all traditions do. Just as much of it centres on attending matches as it is about watching them at home.

Though we may mourn what we might have done on a derby day and who we might have done it with, after a point we will all just simply get on with it. The speed at which we get to that stage is very much on the individual.

Some of us have locked down well. Some of us not so well. And the acceptance that whichever way we did it was the right way will soon move to wonder if this is how we will be from now on. There’s a real sense that behavioural change will be beyond temporary, and the Premier League may be no different.

As intriguing as it will be to see English football’s “new normal”, you wonder how long it will take for it to be just, well, normal – and at what cost.

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