Football Nerd Weekly Ramblings: Reflections on Liverpool’s dominance, VAR, Leeds United’s return, relegation and football without fans.

So that’s it! After more than eleven months, the most bizarre, surreal and frankly weirdest season that English football has ever known is all but done and dusted. With just the FA Cup Final tomorrow and the Championship Play-off Final next Tuesday to be decided before the campaign can be called complete, what have we learned?

The Title Race was in fact almost a one-horse race

After running Manchester City so very close last time out, this time around Jürgen Klopp’s simply brilliant Liverpool side were even better: reeling off a staggering 26 wins from their opening 27 matches to all but seal their first title in 30 years before football was shutdown as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic in the middle of March. City for their part were not at the level they had been over the previous two seasons, failing to replace Vincent Kompany and the injury to Aymeric Laporte, which also necessitated shifting Fernandinho into the back four and losing his tactical discipline from the base of midfield, are the generally cited reasons for that, but even though they finished a whopping 18 points behind the Champions they were still 15 points ahead of the ‘best of the rest’(sic).

With Liverpool already augmenting their squad with the acquisition of exciting forward Takumi Minamino from familiar source RB Salzburg, and strongly rumoured to be in pursuit of experienced midfielder Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich, it seems as if Klopp and his charges will be doing anything but rest upon their laurels going forward.

City’s escape from their European ban and their seemingly endless financial resources have seen them active in the transfer market already with deals for defender Nathan Aké from Bournemouth and Valencia winger Ferran Torres reportedly all signed and sealed. One can imagine this may only be the start of their rejuvenation of a squad that has seemingly past its very high peak. Can we therefore expect these two clubs to be in their own stratum once again when hostilities resume in just 6 weeks’ time?

Manchester United and Chelsea did enough in the end to secure the final two Champions League spots, thanks in no small part to Leicester’s capitulation after the restart but do they have the means or managerial experience and know-how to truly challenge the top two?

VAR seems like a good idea in concept but the application needs a lot of work

Back in the heady days of late summer and autumn last year, before anyone had ever heard of Wuhan or Covid-19 there was one topic of irritation amongst football fans: the newly introduced Video Assistant Referee (VAR) which we were assured was going “To rectify clear and obvious mistakes or serious missed incidents in certain key match-changing situations”, then we saw it in action!

Instead of it being a technological support for the on-field officials it has become a source of annoyance at best but downright controversy at its all-too-often very worst. According to stats from ESPN “a total of 109 goals or incidents [have been] directly affected by the video ref” this season, which either suggests that referees were beyond incompetent previously if there have been that many “clear and obvious mistakes”, or that it has been nit-picking in the extreme in its application. No doubt we all have our specific gripes with decisions that have affected our own clubs, but the impact has unquestionably been hugely detrimental on the spectacle of watching matches.

Personally, I grew sick and tired of the drama being paused so we can watch the merry whistle-blower with his hand to his ear awaiting a decision on whether someone’s big toe had been offside. Rather than ensure the correct decision was made in the majority of cases, VAR has caused almost as much controversy as it has cured. Bournemouth fans will no doubt suggest, with some justification, that VAR relegated them when it failed to give the goal for Sheffield United at Villa Park that wasn’t picked up by the Hawkeye goal-line technology, when Aston Villa’s ultimate survival was on the basis of a single point.

It seems unlikely that VAR will be scrapped completely for the 2020/21 campaign, given that ahead of Project Restart the International Football Association Board (IFAB) gave permission for Leagues to suspend its use in order to complete the season without too many stoppages in the remaining matches, but the Premier League opted to persevere with the technology. We can only hope that in the future it is used to support referees effectively rather than trying to do their job for them by using 15 different angles to try and find a mistake.

Leeds United return to the promised land after 16 long years

Even though I am not a Leeds United fan, far from it in fact (sorry Steve, Molly and Morten!), there does seem to be something right about their return to the Premier League after all this time. As we all know, three years after reaching semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001, Leeds United were relegated thanks in no small part to the impact of ludicrous levels of over-spending. Since their fall from grace Leeds have had 15 managers, 5 owners, have flirted with financial extinction and have endured 3 seasons in the depths of the third tier. Even when they returned to the Championship in 2010 they showed no real signs of getting back to the top table, until that is they appointed the idiosyncratic managerial maverick and mentor to such luminary modern coaches as: Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, the one and only “El Loco” Marcelo Bielsa, two summers ago.

Bielsa’s impact on Leeds over the past two seasons has been quite simply phenomenal, based on his beyond obsessive analysis of his team’s and opponents’ matches which saw him allegedly watch all 70 hours of Leeds’ 2017/18 campaign in full before even meeting with the club’s representatives about taking the job. Bielsa’s tactical approach, which still seems innovative today, was honed and fine-tuned back in the early 90’s and he has brought ground-breaking approaches to fitness, training and preparation including the installation of beds at the club’s Thorp Arch training ground so that the players can rest in between sessions.

Going forward the key priority for all connected with Leeds is that Bielsa will stay for at least another season with the hope they can, in a similar vein to the recently promoted Wolves and Sheffield United, establish themselves as a bona fide Premier League club. If he does stay it is going to be fun watching him and his charges in the top-flight. Expect sales of blue buckets to skyrocket in West Yorkshire and beyond!

Watford, Bournemouth and Norwich City exit the stage

At the foot of the Premier League table Norwich City were seemingly doomed even before the restart and eventually garnered the sixth lowest points total in history with just 21. They were joined by Bournemouth and Watford thanks to Aston Villa’s point at the London Stadium, as much as all three will be hoping to bounce back as quickly as possible, whether they  can or not will depend for a large part on whether they can keep their squads together. With several departures already and the likelihood that the Premier League vultures will increasingly circle their higher rated players and perhaps the managers, that in itself may be no small feat.

 Football without fans is really not the same

We have all had to get used to watching football behind closed doors since the restart but it really isn’t the same. It feels like you are watching some form of over-inflated training session and it is difficult to get truly into the swing of the dramatic denouement of the match. Tomorrow evening my own team Arsenal will take part in their fourth FA Cup Final in six years but it feels so incredibly different this time. Gone is the excitement of the build-up, the mad scramble for tickets, the colour and the carnival-like atmosphere that the fans bring that make Cup Final Day so incredibly special. In the words of the late, great Jock Stein “Football without fans [really] is nothing”.

 

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