Football Nerd Weekly Ramblings: Project Restart gets underway successfully… but what have we learnt about football in the “new normal”?

Yet more technology controversy.

100 days after Coronavirus pandemic-enforced lockdown, the Premier League returned but it wasn’t the same as we remember it. After a minute’s silence to remember those who have sadly fallen victim to this unprecedented and devastating virus, referee Michael Oliver sounded his whistle to signal the fulfilment of Project Restart then he, the players, substitutes and coaching staff ‘took a knee’ in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Something along with the players’ names being replaced by ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the back of their shirts in place of their names, that has been continued through all the matches played over the first round of fixtures. As inarguably right as those gestures of remembrance and solidarity are, they were also stark reminders of how the whole world has changed inexorably from where we left off back in March.

Of course we knew there weren’t going to be any fans allowed into the stadium and while the simulated crowd noise at the very least helps to retain some of the atmosphere of watching a match on TV, the huge cheer that greeted a fairly routine save by Sheffield United keeper Stephen Henderson suggests that there is work to do from the sound technicians if they are going to insist on trying to match the sound effects to the action on the pitch. Perhaps a generic murmur in the background may have made it feel less surreal?

Fear not however, for 41 minutes in we got a bona fide controversial decision to sink our teeth into when we were given the chance to bemoan the impact of technology on the game we all love, for the first time in three months. This time however it was the previously seemingly infallible Goal Decision System (GDS) (Goal-line technology to the rest of us) rather than VAR or poor refereeing that provided it. Ollie Norwood played a free kick into the box for the Blades, Ørjan Nyland in the Villa goal came to gather it, collided with one of his defenders and seemed to stumble back behind his own goal-line taking the ball with him. Everyone watching saw that the whole of the ball had crossed the line, except for the Hawkeye GDS system which for the first time in 9,000 plus games failed to make the correct decision. Referee Oliver could only point to his wrist monitor to say the goal hadn’t registered, presumably referees are now banished from using their own eyesight or common sense! Amazingly none of the officials monitoring the VAR screens saw this as an opportunity to intervene and try to establish the message that VAR can have a positive impact.

In the end the game played out to something of a predictable goalless draw and understandably Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder was fuming after the match commenting: “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The feeling at the time by everybody was that both sets of players and staff all had the feel of a goal.” Plus ça change…

 

Manchester City pick up where they left off.

Following immediately after the controversy at Villa Park, Manchester City took little time in debunking Pep Guardiola’s assertion going into the restart that: We are ready to play one game. Three days after and four days after that, we are not ready, not just Man City, all the teams.” Admittedly their cause was helped considerably by the introduction of David Luiz as a replacement for the injured Pablo Mari in the heart of Arsenal’s defence, the Brazil international’s calamitous half-hour cameo produced: an ‘assist’ for Raheem Sterling’s opener with a woeful attempted clearance, giving away a stupid penalty for the fourth time in his disastrous first season with the Gunners for pulling Riyad Mahrez back, and yet another red card. Quite some going!

Even before seeing their opposition reduced to ten men, City were largely in control of the game, after the sending off the contest was a mere formality, the third goal from young Phil Foden was the icing on the cake.

The fact that City followed that win up with their third consecutive 5-0 home win over Burnley suggests that while Guardiola’s men have too much to do to catch champions awaiting coronation, Liverpool, they are determined to try to build momentum and form perhaps with one eye on August’s Champions League mini-tournament in Lisbon.

 

Marcus Rashford a genuine and deserving hero of the public.

Surely there can be no bigger indicator of just how much the world has changed in recent months than young Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford rightly standing alongside Captain Tom as a hero of the nation in these incredibly difficult times. Rashford’s heartfelt, genuine and eloquent campaign forced a Government U-Turn on their policy on Free School Meals and ultimately secured a £120 million “Covid Summer Food Fund. Not a bad way for a Premier League player to “play their part” hey Mr. Hancock? Reportedly within hours of the Government announcing their about-turn #SirMarcusRashford was trending on Twitter, other than the aforementioned centenarian fundraising machine, there can be no more deserving candidate for such an honour when this is all over.

 

Arsenal are still a shambles.

Depending on who you choose to believe, on the one hand respected football writers and on the other his agent one Kia Joorabchian who has in the past been involved in “murky, profit-driven football deals that led to a £20m compensation payment and the over-hauling of transfer rules for ethical reasons because of his conduct”, David Luiz’s disaster of a season has cost Arsenal £24 million, and that was even before the club for largely unfathomable reasons to anyone who has seen him play, opted to extend his stay for another season!

As bad as Luiz was against City, he is merely a symptom of the state (mess?) that the club finds itself in. An owner with no interest in the club beyond increasing the value of his asset who forced most of the players to agree to a 12.5% pay cut. Coupled with an Executive Team whose ongoing ineptitude in terms of contract management means that at the same time as the club were announcing the David Luiz extension  alongside permanent deals for loanees: Cedric Soares (injured since his arrival in January but whose agent is… wait for it…Kia Joorabchian!) and Pablo Mari (currently injured but whose agent Arturo Canales is a long standing friend of Head of Football Raul Sanllehi!); captain and leading goal-scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and exciting young teenager Bukayo Saka look increasingly likely to join the long list of players to leave the club for below market value if not for free.

Meanwhile Mesut Özil, infamously on £350,000 a week and reported to be one of those that resisted the pay cut, hasn’t been trusted to play a single minute since the campaign resumed, while injuries have stretched an already patchy squad even further. The shambles of a defeat at Brighton which saw the Gunners surrender yet another lead through lack of defensive organisation and game management was not wholly unsuspected for anyone who has watched Arsenal recently, but it once again points to the huge task that rookie Head Coach Mikel Arteta faces in trying to shape the mess of a squad he has inherited into something that looks like it is at least moving in the right direction. The Champions League was always something of a pipedream after the damaging run in the autumn that saw Unai Emery (belatedly) relieved of his duties, but it looks increasingly likely that even the Europa League may be out of reach unless Arteta can spark some form of life into his charges.

While failure to qualify for European football will of course have serious financial implications for a club that continues to pay Champions League wages for mid-table football, a season without distraction in which Arteta can start to try to get rid of those players he doesn’t rate, or even trust, and to build a squad, ideally based on youth, that can develop in the way that he wants. It certainly seems that he won’t be able to rely on those above him for any help either financially or in terms of recruitment strategy.

 

Liverpool will still win the League but need to re-establish their momentum.

Even before the hiatus Liverpool hadn’t quite been hitting the very lofty heights that they had in the first two thirds of the campaign in which they tore through their opening 27 matches dropping just 2 points until they were beaten by Watford at Vicarage Road at the end of February. Elimination from the FA Cup and the Champions League followed at the start of March. While no one suggested that Klopp’s charges were running out of steam, the fact that the remainder of the title race was merely a coronation procession the only question being when and where they would win it, may have been having an impact.

Whether it was rustiness, loss of momentum or the lack of a creditable challenge, in reality probably a combination of all three, but Liverpool’s first match back, away at local rivals Everton, never really saw the Reds fully hit their stride. Understandably they seemed to lack the thrilling attacking play that had put just about every challenger to the sword before the Premier League was called to a halt.

It is surely only a matter of time until Liverpool secure their first league title in three decades but with Manchester City’s two wins since we resumed, they have managed to chip 5 points off the lead. With the top two due to meet a week tomorrow, this evening’s match at home to Crystal Palace would be a good time to get firing on all cylinders once again.

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