Many, if not all, Premier League clubs will consider the remaining weeks of the 2019-20 campaign as a season unto itself, and certain sides look more prepared to make the most out of ‘Project Restart’.
Wolverhampton Wanderers, Crystal Palace and Southampton stormed out of the blocks with away wins over the weekend, a glimpse at who’s reacted best in the wake of a lockdown lasting more than 100 days. Wolves pounced late to beat West Ham United 2-0 away, while the Eagles replicated that result at Bournemouth and the Saints lay waste to Norwich City in a 3-0 drubbing, bagging all of their goals in the second half.
Watford too showed resilience in a 1-1 home draw against high-flyers Leicester City, a well-fought point that puts the Hornets just above their fellow relegation contenders near the base of the table.
Manchester City have also impressed and booked two one-sided wins in the space of five days—at home to Arsenal (3-0) and Burnley (5-0)—but of course, the team in second were expected to flourish on return.
It’s still premature to make conclusive forecasts on what’s to come between now and the scheduled season’s end of July 26, but first impressions could count for a lot in the condensed campaign to come.
So, what factors are playing into the hands of those clubs making the fastest start, and will it bring lasting change for the remainder of 2019-20 ?
More Management, Less Mania
One significant tweak that’s been discussed regarding games being played without crowds is the role of the manager, specifically their newfound ease in delivering directions to players mid-match.
Instead of contending against the thousands who usually disrupt those tidbits being drip-fed to those on the field, squads are now well-nourished for intel coming from the sidelines, free from distractions that may otherwise break the chains of communication. Without that noise to battle, it's also likely some touchline presences will simply be able to analyse play and effect change in a more efficient manner.
It worked well for Wolves chief Nuno Espirito Santo and Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl, whose teams dealt more damage in the second halves of their respective victories over West Ham and Norwich.
Espirito Santo spoke in particular of the impact his substitutes made on Saturday, with the number of maximum changes being increased to five players following the coronavirus lockdown, via Football Daily:
Hasenhuttl’s newfound ability to reach players when their minds wander was also mentioned by the Austrian in his post-match interview at Carrow Road on Friday, per The Athletic’s Carl Anka:
Still, that tool is only of use to the coaches who know how to use it. Any manager can, and will, shout instruction at their players through the cacophony at any football match; it’s delivering concise, actionable pointers that count most of all.
Some tacticians will make more of this newly straightforward contact than others in the weeks to come, placing pressure on the ‘bigger’ bosses to not hide behind squad talent.
It must be mentioned that the three teams praised in particular for their rambunctious restarts—Wolves, Palace and Southampton—each had ‘easier’ opposition in front of them in Week 30+. West Ham, Bournemouth and Norwich were all in or around the relegation zone when play was paused, but they too have had as much time to improve during the break as others have had to decline if that time hasn’t been used well.
That difference in opportunity being seized upon was perhaps no more evident than in the clash between Bournemouth and Palace, where it was Roy Hodgson’s side who flew out of the gate:
Granted, the Eagles were soaring on a three-win streak prior to the suspension. However, this was the first time since January that Hodgson’s side have scored twice in one game and their first time scoring more than one first-half goal since May 2019.
Player availability is also a major factor moving forward for Palace, one club who have been besieged by injuries over the course of the 2019-20 season.
By contrast, Bournemouth—who won’t play Ryan Fraser again as he prepares to leave the club on a free transfer—looked disjointed in all areas and well worthy of their current bottom-three status.
The 2-0 performance was so slick for Palace that Jurgen Klopp had to take notice over the weekend, sending his Liverpool players a warning ahead of their clash with Hodgson's men on Wednesday:
Southampton look to have benefited from the extra time off in getting better-acquainted with Hasenhuttl’s press-oriented system, too. This became more apparent in their second half at Norwich when a more analytical approach to their pressure was adopted, knowing when to push and when to hold back.
Brighton & Hove Albion’s close-knit system also eventually paid dividends in a 2-1 comeback win over Arsenal, an early sign that Graham Potter’s side stand to gain from an extended period adapting to his methods.
It’s impossible to gauge from the outside how well each squad has trained over the lockdown period and how fit players are compared to when play was postponed, but suffice to say those who have eased off during the interim will suffer as a result.
An absence of supporters was always bound to have an impact on home success when football returned, but the results so far have been affected even more so than many might have predicted.
Only three of a possible 10 teams won at home over the course of Week 30+—Manchester City, Brighton and Newcastle United—while four outfits managed to win on the road upon returning to play.
Statman Dave broke down the dramatic shift in favor of travelling teams witnessed since the Bundesliga started back up in mid-May, begging the question as to whether the same can be expected in England:
Skeptics will attribute some officials’ decision-making to being heavily influenced by pressure felt from the stands of some grounds more than others. While there’s bound to be some truth to that logic, it’s also the case some teams simply are inferior on the road compared to when playing on home field (Arsenal being the most widely used case among the Premier League's upper echelon).
The number of away victors might have also been one more were it not for Craig Dawson’s injury-time overhead-kick equaliser for Watford against Leicester City. The Foxes went one up in the 90th minute thanks to Ben Chilwell’s fizzed finish across goal, and Nigel Pearson was happy to finish with a share of the points against his former employers:
It was argued by some teams prior to the restart—largely reported to be those in the lower-half of the table—that the effective removal of home advantage was an unfair step too far. Squads who might have relied on those external matchday factors are otherwise left leaning more heavily on their own ability and those of their manager.
The result could be interpreted as a more level playing field as far as individual matches are concerned, where the best team on the day should come out on top with fewer distractions permitted.