SINGAPORE: The 2019-2020 English Premier League (EPL) season was suspended on Mar 13 due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Since then there have been over 40,000 official deaths in the United Kingdom but there has been a desire among authorities, both football and political, for the sport to restart.
It will do just that in the early hours of Jun 18, Singapore time.
A gap of three months in the English Premier League would usually signify that one season had ended in May and another was starting in August but not this time.
Aston Villa which lost 4-0 at Leicester City on Mar 9 in the last game, before the season was brought to a halt by COVID-19, host Sheffield United on Thurs (Jun 18) morning in the first game after the restart.
ABSENCE OF FANS
The differences between Villa's 28th and 29th game of the season are significant.
The most obvious will be the absence of fans in the stadium. All the games will take place behind closed doors as ardent fans will have to settle for live telecasts on various broadcasters: Sky Sports, BT Sports, Amazon and the BBC.
All four broadcasters are aiming to make the viewing experience as engaging as possible.
Sky Sports, which has broadcast Premier League games since the league started in 1992 and will show 64 of the 92 remaining matches, has teamed up with EA Sports FIFA, the makers of the popular FIFA video game franchise to create “a range of bespoke and team-specific crowd noises and chants to bring the vibrant atmosphere” of the EPL to television, Sky said on its website on Jun 8 adding that viewers can choose to turn off the effects.
BT Sports have looked to Germany where football restarted in mid-May. “Having watched the Bundesliga we are all acutely aware it’s not quite the product it was previously,” said Simon Green, the head of BT Sport.
“But the emotional interest and attachment people have to football in this country is such that it will still be a very strong television product. Without crowds it does open up opportunities to use innovation to enhance coverage.”
Clubs are doing their bit too. Aston Villa have asked fans to send in short videos of themselves cheering on their team. This content is set to be shown on the pitch-side advertising hoardings during the game.
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Whatever enhancements are made, the best way to keep viewers entertained is for the players to serve up the kind of exciting and fast-paced games that helped make the EPL the most popular in the world.
ARE THE PLAYERS READY?
This may not be easy. Ahead of the start of a normal season, clubs have pre-season training in mid-June before embarking on foreign tours in July. They then return home for the final tune-ups before the season begins in August, giving them six to seven weeks to prepare.
Now, the time frame to get ready for “Project Restart” has been much tighter.
EPL teams only agreed to return to full contact training on May 27, just three weeks before the games.
Table toppers Liverpool, 25 points clear at the top and virtually certain of winning a first league title since 1990, played a first full friendly only on Jun 11 – only 10 days before they relaunch their title bid.
There are concerns that players may not be physically ready for the stresses of competitive football especially since the outbreak of the pandemic in the UK meant that players were mostly indoors.
“All the players in England are at risk, because three major aspects are against them,” said Raymond Verheijen, a well-known physical conditioning coach.
"Physically and anatomically they are well below par when it comes to fitness. The brain and the body are now coming out of a totally different period.”
“Players have had a resting period of four weeks at least where they could not train as a group. We are now going back to a full league program with just two weeks of group training maximum and zero friendly games as preparation. It is not difficult to work out that this is by far and away insufficient.”
The Bundesliga experience backs up the Dutchman’s warnings. After the first four round of games in Germany, injuries were up 225 per cent compared to the usual start of a season.
Bayer Leverkusen boss Peter Bosz revealed the extent of the problem. “My players never complain about muscle pain after training sessions. Suddenly they do,” Bosz said.
“And do you want to know how many players are doubtful for the next match every week? Almost all 11! Seriously.’’
It will help that teams will be able to name nine instead of the usual seven substitutes on the bench for the rest of the season and introduce five instead of three of those during the game.
This temporary measure was put in place to help each team cope with playing nine or 10 games from the middle of June to the end of July in a rush to finish a season that should have ended in May.
With injuries and possible worries of catching the virus, it remains to be seen if the action is as fast-paced and aggressive as usual. The absence of the atmosphere created by fans could also affect the energy of the players.
NO MORE HOME ADVANTAGE
It also seems to have another effect. Since the Bundesliga restarted, there has been a striking dilution of home advantage.
In Germany, home teams have won just 10 of 46 games since the return with that 21.7 per cent rate at about half of the 43.3 per cent recorded before the suspension.
Similar trends have been reported in Estonia and the Czech Republic.
“Football is about passion and energy and when you lose that, it is balanced much more,” said Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta who faces a tough trip to champions Manchester City in his club’s first game this week.
“It better be right that playing away is an advantage because we are away four times in a row.”
Only two things can be said with a greater degree of certainty.
Liverpool will eventually be crowned champions and the league will look and feel very different. Just how different will be seen in the coming days and weeks.
Yet, any form of football is welcomed by the die-hard fans among us.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).