On the face of it, the Premier League’s decision was an easy and an obvious one. Manchester City and Manchester United had finished last season late, thanks to their commitments in the summer’s European competitions.
To ensure that both teams would have a similar break between campaigns as all of their rivals, the Premier League decreed that they would start the new season a week later than everyone else. The league’s omnipotent fixture computer had drawn City against Aston Villa and United against Burnley for that first weekend of the season; those two games would have to be postponed.
All of this, so far, makes sense. What happens next does not.
Knowing that its teams were facing a compacted schedule anyway, the Premier League could have decided that Burnley and Villa might as well play one another on opening weekend. That may have raised some logistical challenges — policing, scheduling — but hardly insurmountable ones, particularly with fans still locked out of stadiums. The benefit, of having only one game, rather than two, to slot in later in a busy year, far outweighed the cost.
That is not how soccer works, though, not even in a pandemic. Burnley did not play Aston Villa. The two games from the first weekend of the season have not been made up. It took until Thursday for the Premier League to find a window: They now will be played in the middle of January, five months late.
That may seem a trivial issue, little more than a minor misstep, one that can doubtless be explained by the myriad complexities of scheduling a sporting season and will be easily resolved once the field in the domestic cup competitions is thinned a little. And, in some senses, that is all it is.
But it is also an instructive example of how the Premier League — and elite soccer as a whole — thinks, how pervasive is its belief in its own relentlessness, how delicate and vulnerable this season remains. The simple fact that Burnley did not play Aston Villa on opening day encapsulates soccer’s myopia, and its hubris.
The Premier League lost two more games this week. First, Manchester City requested the postponement of its trip to Everton after five of its players tested positive for coronavirus. Fearing a more widespread outbreak — and much to Everton’s surprisingly public chagrin — the Premier League acquiesced. (Pep Guardiola revealed Friday that City will be missing five players who had tested positive when it plays Chelsea on Sunday.)
About 48 hours later, Fulham had to make the same request, canceling its match with Tottenham on only a few hours notice; it, too, had recorded a spate of positive test results, and in the interest of public health, it was determined the game should be delayed, despite the unhappiness of noted Instagram influencer Jose Mourinho.
City and Fulham were not the first clubs to be hit by the virus. In November, Newcastle had to close its training facility and skip a game against Aston Villa after an outbreak that has left at least two players with the kind of persistent and debilitating symptoms doctors refer to as Long Covid. Those clubs will, it is safe to assume, not be the last. Sheffield United played its game against Burnley this week despite reporting a number of positive tests at the club.
The situation in the Football League, which governs the second, third and fourth tiers of soccer in England, is even worse. In League One, seven of the 12 games scheduled to be played on Tuesday had to be postponed because of coronavirus outbreaks. Five had been missed on Boxing Day, too. There have been calls from some medical departments for a two-week “circuit-breaker” pause to the season to avoid players’ being overloaded by a backlog of matches in the spring.
It does not feel as if any of this was especially difficult to foresee. Soccer cannot be blamed, of course, for failing to anticipate the scale of the second wave of the pandemic in Britain (or anyplace else), or for the appearance of a particularly virulent mutation of the virus in the southeast part of England.
But it should not have required the clarity of hindsight to project that cases might rise in the winter, that the long-anticipated second wave might have some impact on soccer, that the bubbles the sport was relying on to play through might not prove entirely impermeable, that some sort of contingency plan might be needed.
And yet soccer seems woefully underprepared for something that should have been wholly predictable. It is not just that there is little room in the calendar set aside to play postponed matches: just three weekends in the English season set aside for teams to make up games they have missed, but only if they are eliminated from the domestic cups first.
It is that — as the Premier League confirmed in a statement this week — the subject of what happens if the season is paused, or worse, canceled entirely, has not even been discussed.
(It is striking, though perhaps not vastly surprising, that two of the most ardent voices calling for cancellation on moral grounds in the spring, Aston Villa and West Ham, have been quiet this time. It’s almost as if they are keener to play now that they are fifth and 10th in the table, respectively.)
To be clear, at this point, there is no reason to believe the season should be curtailed: Soccer has proved, over the last nine months, that it is able to play on. It has not increased the burden on the country’s medical services, or deprived the general population of tests, or been responsible for a more widespread outbreak of the virus. Its protocols, for the most part, have worked.
But it is hardly outlandish to suggest that the Premier League — and most of its peers around Europe — might have looked at what happened in the spring and wondered if perhaps they needed to have a plan in place should the worst-case scenario unfold.
That need not have meant an immediate end to any season; other, more creative solutions were available. Something along the lines of the bubble tournament staged by the N.B.A., for example, or a shortened season — along the lines of what is already standard in Scotland and Belgium — might have served as an adequate break-glass course of action. Only if those workarounds were not possible would a nonsporting conclusion come into force.
And yet at no point did anyone seem to feel the need to have that conversation, not even after seeing the game brought to a screeching halt — and coming face-to-face with the truth of their own powerlessness — in March.
Instead, the Premier League — and European soccer in general — seemed to decide that last season was an isolated problem. Once the game was back up and running, they concluded, this season would look after itself. The show would go on, because the show always goes on. There was no need to do anything different to reflect the circumstances. There was no need to ask Aston Villa to play Burnley: That would be to change the way they do things, and nobody was prepared to change.
A glimpse across Europe demonstrates that was not a sentiment limited to England. For all that the game’s great and good spoke loftily of a new spirit of unity forged in the adversity of the pandemic, the season went ahead only because, ultimately, nobody had to make any sacrifices.
UEFA decreed its European Championship would take place in June, and that both the Champions League and the Europa League would be played under the same format as ever. FIFA ensured there would be as many international breaks as normal; several national teams have played seven games since the summer. There have been minor alterations to a few domestic cup competitions, but beyond that, nothing. The season would be shorter, chronologically, but the amount of work for the players would be just the same.
That balance has held for four months. It has not been easy — there have been a welter of injuries and a litany of complaints and, now, the postponed games are starting to pile up — but soccer has made it to the new year. The leagues remain bullish that they will get through from here.
It is to be hoped that they do, and that they do not have cause to regret their failure to learn from the spring. But what happened in England this week is a reminder that this season remains a fragile, finely poised thing, that soccer is not immune to the world around it, and that, these days, the worst-case scenario is never too far from the door.
The Future, Part II: Stadiums
Among all the discussion of set pieces and data and fighter pilots in last week’s piece on soccer’s new frontiers, there was one element of the game’s future that I did not quite have chance to address: the environments in which we watch it.
It seems likely, now, that much of the rest of this season will be played out to a backdrop of empty stadiums. Fernando Carro, the chief executive of Bayer Leverkusen, told me a few weeks ago that his club is assuming fans will only return next season, and even then only at severely reduced capacity for the first few months, at least.
But that does not mean the pandemic will not have an impact on the stadiums it has stripped of life. They will, according to Christopher Lee, the managing director of Populous and the architect of Tottenham’s new stadium, be more sustainable in the future, with more thought given to natural ventilation and light.
They will, most likely, be larger spaces — in terms of footprint, if not capacity — to allow people the space to which they have unwillingly become accustomed. They may combine in-person experience with a “virtual crowd,” too. “The pandemic has accelerated so many changes that were happening anyway,” he said.
“The integration of a remote audience with a live audience is one of them. What teams like Aarhus did with Zoom screens was cute, but it did not add much as a replacement for atmosphere. But as a supplement, in addition to people watching the game live, it can work really well to unite fans from across the world.”
Most of all, though, Lee said that the silence of the last year has not only given clubs reason to try to maximize the economic benefits that will accrue when fans are back in stadiums, but to get the most of out of the spectacle they bring. “They have a role in on-field events,” he said. “The fans are who you are performing for.”
Mauricio Pochettino’s Win-Win Situation
And so now it falls to Mauricio Pochettino, it would seem, to solve soccer’s most impossible riddle: How does a coach build the sort of modern, attractive system that might yield both trophies and acclaim for Paris St.-Germain while simultaneously not asking Neymar and Kylian Mbappe to do anything they don’t want to do?
Plenty of others — most recently Thomas Tuchel, dismissed by P.S.G. on Christmas Eve, four months or so after he took the club to its first Champions League final — have found it beyond them. Tuchel was never an easy fit in Paris: a coach who prizes his system above all else trying to build a team around two immensely gifted, but slightly maverick, individuals.
There is, on the surface, little reason to believe Pochettino will fare much better. (And that is said as a huge admirer of his work at both Southampton and Tottenham.) He is at his best when he can build around young players. He expects everyone to submit themselves to the collective effort. He works his teams hard. He will expect that everyone, Neymar included, buy into his approach.
But then, ultimately, it does not really matter whether he succeeds or fails. Pochettino will leave Paris at some point in the next few years, almost certainly with a couple of league titles in the bag and with some more experience of the sharp end of the Champions League. His resume will be enhanced, and no matter the circumstances of his departure — whether he has delivered to P.S.G. the European crown it craves — his reputation will not suffer. Everyone gets fired by P.S.G., after all. Nobody can be expected to make it work, because nobody knows what the club itself considers success.
It is, in that sense, a little like the Chelsea job was a decade or so ago: a place where a manager can go, earn some good money, win a few titles, and then leave safe in the knowledge that his departure will not count against him when it comes to getting another job. It is a staging post on a road to somewhere else. What happens while Pochettino is there will not change his ultimate destination.
A special prize — well, I say “prize,” when what I mean is “public affirmation” — for both Wouter Marissen and Gavin MacPhee for spotting the reference to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in the newsletter a couple of weeks ago. I hope you’ve both had the song in your head throughout the festive period, as I have. Consider that my gift to you.
And a good question from Shawn Donnelly, who asks why so many teams persist with launching the ball from kickoffs. “It seems inconsistent,” Shawn writes. “The brightest minds pass their way out of a goal kick, but launch it long from the center circle.” It’s a good point: The number of teams who go long from kickoff is, I think, higher than you’d expect.
My (reasonably educated) guess is that it’s to do with instituting a press: If you can get the ball into an area where you can exert pressure on your opposition, it’s worth the risk of them having the ball. As Jurgen Klopp, among others, would tell you, the best creator is one of your opponents making a mistake. It is strange to watch, though.
That’s all for this week. All questions and ideas and tips should go to firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter, if you’re that way inclined. Set Piece Menu is here, too, in case you’ve got a dog to walk or some ironing to do. Most of all, though, thank you so much for reading — and responding to — this newsletter, and I hope 2021 brings you more joy and peace and happiness than 2020 has. For most of us, anyway. It is, I suppose, theoretically possible that you’ve had a great 2020. But it seems a stretch.
Happy New Year!