That familiar feeling, the one we hoped we had left long behind, is swelling once again. There is a precariousness in the air, a sense that everything is hanging by a thread, that the next step might be the one over the edge. March 2020 seems a world away, a lifetime ago, but we are here again.
In parts of Germany and in the Netherlands, the ghost games are back, those afternoons that offer an eerie simulacrum of sport’s emotion. When Feyenoord and Ajax meet for the most ferocious game of their seasons this weekend at De Kuip — one of Europe’s most intimidating, most evocative grounds — the stands will be empty, silent. The voices of the players will carry out of the stadium, into the still air.
In England, the games are starting to fall like flies. Tottenham’s trip to Brighton was first, last weekend, after an outbreak of Covid-19 among Spurs players. Then Manchester United had to close its training facility, and its meeting with Brentford was postponed. Burnley’s game against Watford and another Spurs match, with Leicester, soon followed.
This weekend, half of the scheduled games are already off, the result of ongoing outbreaks at Brentford and Watford and Norwich and Leicester. That is at the time of writing; it hardly requires some great leap of imagination to think others might follow. Liverpool was missing three players during its win against Newcastle on Thursday, all of them isolating after returning “suspected positive” tests. These are “at the time of writing” days.
It is that, more than anything, which has brought memories of the madness of March flooding back. Then, it was only one positive test, one suspended game, that brought the league to a halt. Now, as the cases rise and the fixtures fall, it is hard, at times, to see how it can play out with any other conclusion.
Now, as then, the Premier League is adamant it will bulldoze its way through. The product, the content, cannot be stopped. There have been calls for a pause, for an entire round of games to be postponed so as to “break the chain” of infection that has taken root at clubs, as the Brentford manager, Thomas Frank, put it on Thursday. “The path we are on, I am not sure how long we can stay on it for,” Graham Potter, his counterpart at Brighton, said.
The league intends to find out. “It is the league’s intention to continue its current fixture schedule where safely possible,” it said in a statement. Clubs have been instructed to restore the hygiene protocols they developed to allow soccer to restart last year. Players have been encouraged to limit their social interactions.
League officials will follow government guidance on whether games should be played behind closed doors; it is most certainly not going to make that decision unless it has absolutely no choice. This is the same language, the same stalemate, the same bullishness that sustained the league in March 2020, as it convinced itself that it was different, it was special, it was protected. It lasted right up until reality dawned, and the spell was broken.
There is no mystery why the Premier League should take that stance once more. There is no real logic behind a “circuit breaker” of a hiatus, not for a week. The Omicron variant is tearing through England, through the world. It will not take a break for the festive period, burn itself out by the time the Boxing Day fixtures come. These cases might clear up, but more would follow.
And besides, the Premier League — like all leagues in all sports globally — know that stopping is one thing and that starting again is quite another. Choosing the moment to return would be fraught with difficulty, with allegations of ethical failures, with questions of moral decency. Modern soccer’s business model is based on meeting endless demand with bottomless supply.
Stopping is not an option, especially not now, not with English soccer’s great pride and joy, its hectic schedule over Christmas and New Year, on the horizon. This is the Premier League’s calling card, the week when — with Britain at home, at a loose end, itching for something to do and something to watch — it takes center stage. Losing those TV slots, having to repay that lost advertising, is unfathomable.
So the Premier League will rumble on, the issue of when all these games will be played kicked down the road, each and every game laced with an added frisson of uncertainty, not just around the result but over whether it will happen at all.
Perhaps that is the right thing. Soccer has proved — to its credit, ultimately — that it can play on through the white heat of a pandemic, even if it is a pale, shallow, deracinated version of itself. There is no reason to believe it cannot do so again. The games that are lost can always be made up.
Or perhaps it is not. Perhaps this obstinacy, this money-driven self-regard, is putting the health of players and staff members and, while stadiums remain as full as a government Christmas party, fans in danger. Perhaps sensible minds would look at a fixture list pockmarked with absences and suggest that a few weeks off would not do any harm. The games that are lost, after all, can always be made up.
It is — and this is a rare sentiment to express to a sports league — a difficult, unenviable line to tread. Nobody wants a raft of cancellations and postponements, a season ruptured by uncertainty. Nobody wants a break, an indefinite pause. Nobody wants teams to be battling outbreaks or players, coaches and staff to be getting sick.
That is the most familiar feeling of all: the knowledge that, whatever comes next, there is no right answer, no clear way forward, that it will all be infinitely more fragile than it might appear on the surface, that it might all disappear in an instant, that it might never — or for so long that it might be never — feel the way it did, the way it should, again.
That sensation, of everything hanging by a thread, is not some dim echo of March 2020. It is familiar because it has been with us ever since, below the surface, a dull ache that we cannot quite shift. It has not come rushing back. It just never left. It has become how we live, ever since we went tumbling over the edge.
Spot the Difference
The danger of nostalgia is it tricks you into believing there is a right way for things to be, rather than just a way things were. Milk should come in bottles. Children should stare open-mouthed at a television screen, not open-mouthed at YouTube. The F.A. Cup should mean something.
We should not, then, fall into that trap when asking if there are, now, too many penalties in soccer. The raw facts of the matter are straightforward: There are more penalties than there used to be. In the first decade or so of the Premier League, somewhere between 60 and 70 spot kicks were awarded each season.
Since 2006, that number has been drifting in the general direction of upward: into the 80s, the 90s and then, last season, to 124. That is a significant change: There are now almost twice as many as there used to be; or, to put it into context, a penalty is now awarded roughly once every three games, rather than once every six.
Whether that is good, bad or indifferent depends, really, on taste. It is certainly not necessarily the case that 60 penalties a season is the right number. To younger viewers, it would seem far too few. To much older ones, it probably seemed too many. There is, in reality, no Goldilocks number, no sweet spot, no objective truth.
What we can say, with some certainty, is that such a steep increase in the number of penalties means that the game itself is now recognizably different. The frequency with which penalties are awarded means that players have changed the way they behave in the penalty area. Teams attack in such a way as to make a penalty more likely. Defenders find themselves constricted as to how they might do their jobs. All of these changes, needless to say, benefit the teams that attack the most.
The deception of nostalgia means that it is difficult to say, with any certainty, that something must be done about the rise in penalties. Perhaps the game is better this way, not worse. But it does seem that, at least in some cases, the punishment no longer fits the crime.
To give an example: Mateusz Klich definitely fouled Antonio Rüdiger in the final few minutes of Leeds’s defeat at Chelsea last week. He swiped right through him, aiming for the ball but finding only a leg. Rüdiger, as players are currently incentivized to do, collapsed like a lovelorn teenager, and gleefully watched as Jorginho earned the European champions a narrow win.
The problem is the foul took place on the edge of the box. Rüdiger, a central defender, had his back to goal. He was not about to score. And yet the consequence of Klich’s poor judgment was that Chelsea had a penalty. The data suggests that a penalty is worth 0.85 of a goal. They are converted 85 percent of the time. More, now that Jorginho doesn’t just roll them down the middle.
The reward, in other words, is disproportionate. Fortunately, there are ways to do something about that. Penalties do not have to be reserved for fouls in a particular area of the field; they could be deployed to punish something else: serious foul play, for example, or the denial of a goal-scoring opportunity.
That might avert the problem of penalties being not only a frequent feature, but to some extent the defining point of the game. Change does not have to be bad. The danger of nostalgia, after all, is that it tricks you into believing there is a right way for things to be, rather than just a way things were.
A Draw Without Borders
While we are busy changing things, one further suggestion. The chaos of the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League on Monday might have been thoroughly enjoyable — who among us, after all, has not secretly wanted there to be a problem with one of these absurdly prolonged affairs for years? — but at its root was an issue of UEFA’s own making.
According to UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, the error involving whether Manchester United could play Atlético Madrid that meant the whole thing had to be redone came down to a glitch with the “external software” that dictates which teams might face each other.
Now, you might well point out that the amount of software required to tell three people how to pull a ball out of a pot should be no more complicated than that found in a long-forgotten Tamagotchi, but that is not quite right. UEFA insists on having an open draw that is not, in fact, open — teams cannot play opponents they faced in the group stage or rivals from the same country — and that makes the whole thing unnecessarily complicated.
It makes some sense to keep teams that have already met in the competition apart. It does not make sense to maintain what UEFA calls “country protection” for a single round of games: It is abolished, after all, for the quarterfinals. Like away goals, it is a hangover from a different era, from the days when there were just a couple of teams from the same league.
That is not the case any more. The vast majority of the teams in the knockout rounds come from Europe’s five major leagues (though well done to Portugal and the Netherlands for providing three this time around, including one quarterfinalist). Keeping them apart in the round of 16 does little but distort the draw, and marginally increase the chance that two domestic rivals will meet in the final.
As Monday proved, it is in UEFA’s interests to abolish this carveout. Without country protection, there would be no need for an external software provider. UEFA could simply get some people to pick some balls out of a pot. And that, surely, is not beyond their wit. Surely.
As ever, last week’s newsletter managed to leave a trail of aggrieved dissent trailing in its wake. It is of some solace to me, at least, that my infractions were many and varied.
Sebastian Royo, for example, quite rightly pointed out that Porto’s meeting with Atlético Madrid was “a tough game, and both teams were at fault” for the crackling tension that ensued. He also felt that the performance of the referee was, as they say, suboptimal. “To address that gamesmanship, you need good referees, and this one did not meet the standards.”
I agree with Sebastian to a point. Porto most definitely was not merely an innocent bystander as the game boiled over, though I should stress that Atlético is such a repeat offender that you have to assume, eventually, that it is a deliberate strategy. As for the referee not being up to scratch: the fault for a burning building lies with the person who strikes the match, not with the firefighter who cannot extinguish it.
Sarah de la Motte, meanwhile, feels I was too dismissive of the Bundesliga. “I’m a longtime Manchester United fan, and my husband a lifelong Bayern Munich fan,” she wrote. “We watch a huge deal of both the Premier League and the Bundesliga. As much as I hate to admit it, the Bundesliga is better: technically, for entertainment value, for competitiveness. There is less haphazard defending, uncertain pressing and rushed passing all around.”
This is a subject that fascinates me. My instinct has long been that, in general, the top four or five leagues are all basically the same: One might be marginally stronger than another for a fleeting moment, but the differences are so slight as to be imperceptible. I feel — and fear — that is starting to change.
For now, that the Bundesliga is more competitive is incontrovertible. Technically, as discussed last week, that may not be especially relevant. Whether it’s more entertaining depends, I suspect, on your emotional involvement. I would suggest, though, that there is definitely more haphazard defending in Germany than in England. That is in part what makes the Bundesliga fun.