Remember the weekend before last? Remember Manchester City conceding five at home to Leicester City and everybody sucking their teeth and shaking their heads and wondering how a defense like that could ever hope to win the league? Then this past weekend, Leicester itself let in three at home to West Ham, Manchester United conceded six at home to Tottenham and Liverpool was beaten 7-2 at Aston Villa, and suddenly nothing made any sense any more.
There have been 3.78 goals per game this season in the Premier League against an average of 2.72 per game last (and that was pretty standard: the season before it was 2.82, the season before that 2.67). Clubs are only four games into the season, and some regression to the mean is probable, but something unusual appears to be going on. There’s also the magnifying impact of influence, usually seen in football when a team previously considered invincible starts losing: what once seemed impossible suddenly becomes plausible and behavior changes. It feels as though Barcelona’s 8-2 defeat to Bayern in the Champions League quarterfinals and Bayern’s recent 4-1 defeat to Hoffenheim are part of the same story; this is not just a Premier League phenomenon.
High-level football has probably never been played in such a strange environment. The end of last season was compressed, the offseason was curtailed and this season has been compacted. There is no proper time for preparation, either in terms of the basic foundational work clubs usually do in preseason or for match-to-match analysis. That will have an effect, physically, tactically and probably also psychologically. It’s no coincidence that the form of the four Premier League sides who played in European competition in August has been notably poor, despite them being given extra time off. Chelsea has seven points from four games, Wolves six from four, City four from three and United three from three.
The lack of fans, perhaps, has an impact, although exactly what that comprises is harder to say. When football first returned behind closed doors, former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher suggested some might benefit from what he termed “Monday to Friday footballers,” those players who excel in training but find themselves tightening up before a huge and often hostile live audience. Perhaps there are players who are more relaxed, more prepared to try the audacious, in front of empty stands. But equally some players need the live audience, the rush of adrenaline that provides, to perform. As we adapt, that adds an element of the unknown.
And perhaps, although this is very speculative, when a team feels a game slipping away, as United and Liverpool did on Sunday, it is more inclined to fight if there are fans present to offer, actually and symbolically, a reminder of what and for whom they are struggling.
But there is also a sense that the unusual conditions have exacerbated pre-existing trends. Each club is slightly different–certainly United’s dismal showing, coming after it had been outplayed by both Crystal Palace and Brighton, built on doubts about the board, recruitment, the composition of the squad; the managerial capacities of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the attitude and ability of certain players–but a staggering number of goals this season have come from teams being caught trying to play out from the back and from operating a high line that opponents get in behind.
Playing in that way, as so many sides now do, is high-risk. Jurgen Klopp acknowledged that in his spiky discussion with former Man United midfielder-turned-TV-pundit Roy Keane after Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Arsenal. Keane suggested Liverpool had been “sloppy.” Klopp, meanwhile, was adamant that an acceptance of risk was inherent to how his side plays. The consequences were apparent on Sunday. If there is no pressure on the ball, a back four playing on the halfway line is vulnerable. Without Sadio Mane, one of the two leaders of the press, and Jordan Henderson, the midfield organizer, Liverpool (also weakened by the absence of its starting goalkeeper, Alisson) was exposed to a team that had clearly worked on exploiting the high line.
That is hard to correct. Pep Guardiola, not trusting his central defense, played with two deep-lying midfielders against Leicester to protect them, but the impact of that was that the second line of the press was delayed in getting to Leicester’s two deep midfielders, Nampalys Mendy and Youri Tielemans, who then had time to turn and play passes in behind City's defense. When mechanisms are this precise, this interlinked, a fault in one area can have profound knock-on effects elsewhere.
Liverpool’s signing of Thiago Alcantara felt like an acknowledgement from Klopp that the frenetic football of which he was the pioneer had reached an end point, that it was in danger of boiling over. The pandemic has placed that bubbling pot in a very strange environment, the impact of which nobody entirely understands.
Precedent suggests things will calm down, but these are unprecedented times.