The first full weekend of Premier League fixtures played out in the last few days, giving us all a good chance to assess the state of what the beautiful game could look like for the foreseeable future.
A proportional number of dramatic moments, lovely strikes and calamitous errors to suggest that lockdown football will bear more than a passing resemblance of the game we remember from the pre-corona world.
We soaked up plenty of action across the opening weekend to deliver a verdict on what worked, what didn’t work and ultimately, whether Premier League fixtures under lockdown restrictions are worth the monumental logistical – and political – headaches it caused during the build-up.
Before a ball had even been slid across the turf, we witnessed a ‘moment’. Aston Villa and Sheffield United players sank to their knees in a genuinely rather breathtaking moment to join in with the Black Lives Matter protests. They provided a poignant moment from the word go, with referee Michael Oliver and sideline staff also joining in a united front.
It took less than 30 seconds to curse the person who brought artificial crowd noise screeching into the world. The first half of that match was a torturous watch, annoyingly unaware of the raw, unfiltered, silent option on the other Sky Sports channel. But you know what? It grew on me.
Like a politician conducting a Marcus Rashford-inspired U-turn, my opinion of crowd noise flipped by the end of the evening. I do genuinely enjoy the ‘no noise’ feel, you become much more attentive and attuned to the game at hand, but there’s a certain comfort, a familiarity to hearing the roars and chants of a crowd, even as a reassuring background hum. Crowd reactions may be a fraction out of sync, but more often that not… they work.
Teams have done a wonderful job of adorning their grounds with banners of all descriptions around the ground: promoting causes, celebrating former legends, incorporating chants. They serve their purpose, not to replace fans, but to make the most of the situation and bring a dash of colour and personality to each team.
Everton did a particularly excellent job celebrating fan groups around the world and a tribute to the late, great Howard Kendall. Also, 10/10 shoutout to the Toffees for making Liverpool enter from the car park after getting changed in a portacabin – a typically British moment of character and charm that many new-build stadiums are designed to eradicate.
Staggered kick-off times are a wonderful move for the lockdown phase, allowing fans to hop from game to game and soak up games involving every team as opposed to simply aiming for Liverpool or Man City’s latest rout of a mid-table outfit. The fact that a third of games will be free-to-air is another brilliant fan-friendly initiative that BBC, Amazon Prime and Sky Sports must be applauded for, as well as Premier League officials who helped make it happen.
Moving onto the players themselves, they deserve credit for getting up for games and generating an intense atmosphere of their own. We’ve seen a host of feisty footballers in the opening matches, with more than a few meaty challenges, tasty clashes and harsh words exchanged. The lack of a crowd could have easily taken the intensity out of every game, but it appears that players are more than up for a battle, even if there’s nobody around to see it.
Matt Targett’s hair. Do I even need to elaborate? The Aston Villa’s untamed lockdown mop was a sight to behold. Fair play, that man. Mike ‘Box Office’ Dean also deserves praise for his rugged new facial furniture. As for the suspiciously preened 90 per cent of players, stay tuned…
There was a lot to enjoy from the opening round of games, but a lack of fitness and sharpness was more than a little obvious for some teams. This was an inevitable side effect of a relatively short preparation window after the longest break some of these players have had since they got into the game. Hopefully this is an issue that resolves itself as more games come and go.
Intrinsically linked to fitness, you could’ve switched most games on at half-time and not missed a thing – first halves were often laboured affairs with little action. Just five first-half goals were scored in 11 games: one direct from a free-kick, two more after the 40-minute mark, one because David De Gea’s arms stopped working and one because, well, fair play Jordan Ayew.
Roy Keane’s half-time meltdown over De Gea’s error against Tottenham might have been the most glorious moment of sporting TV since the last time Roy Keane had a meltdown about a Man Utd player. He meant every word of his scorching barrage, but on the whole, the number of searingly bad knee-jerk opinions spouted by pundits and Twitter ultras alike was way above par over the weekend.
I’ve heard ‘Dean Henderson is the best young keeper in the world’, ‘David De Gea is finished’, ‘Liverpool are in trouble next season due to their squad depth’ before they’ve even won this current title, ‘Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes are the best midfield duo in the Premier League’ after 27 minutes together, and many more takes. Simply, stop it. Right now it’s impossible to definitively judge teams based on 90 minutes of action so far, but that won’t stop the world from trying.
Here we go, somebody has to say it. Footballers’ haircuts, HOW? Each game boasted scars of lockdown, from the lack of fans, to socially-distanced onlookers in masks, to disinfecting routines for goal posts, corner flags, footballs and more. And yet, footballers’ tight trims looked as if they’d been cryogenically frozen in time from the days when we used to be able to get haircuts.
We can only assume that every player with a laser-precise, cropped barnet lives with a supremely talented partner with significant experience in the world of hairdressing or dog grooming. We can’t help but feel slightly jealous that they live with such talents, after all, professional barbers and salons remain closed until the first week of July at the earliest.
Finally, drinks breaks need to go. The logic is to provide players with a breather as they edge back to fitness, but they completely disrupt the flow of the game more than if the players kept plugging away for two 45-minute halves without a extra intervals. Hopefully drinks breaks will be flushed for the next round of matches as players find their rhythm.
For the full breakdown of what games are coming up in the top flight check out our Premier League fixtures on TV guide.
If you’re looking for something else to watch, check out our TV guide.