Premier League returns to crowded fixtures and empty stadiums – but a fascinating season awaits

There is no club as excited about the start of the 2020-21 season as Leeds United, but no manager as plain-talking as Marcelo Bielsa, and that difference touched on a bigger contrast ahead of the big kick-off.

In his very first press conference as a Premier League manager, the Argentine asked about the fact his debut match is a “special” fixture. Leeds are away to the new champions, Liverpool. That statement alone should electrify everyone at Anfield. It’s what they’ve waited for. The prospect didn’t quite electrify Bielsa, despite Leeds’ wait.

“We’re going to play at Anfield,” Bielsa began, before adding a significant caveat. “But Anfield is only Anfield if it is full.”

It was of course a purist like Bielsa that was going to put this more concisely than anyone.

For all the excitement around Leeds about returning to the Premier League, there is an accompanying sense of regret within the club that supporters have to wait.

It’s actually impossible for anyone in football to completely let go right now, because they don’t have the fans driving them. Many at clubs say it doesn’t seem like a new season at all, but rather a continuation of Project Restart.

That feeling will never be more palpable than in the hours before kick-off at this weekend’s games. That is because there is no time in football like it. It is why the absence of fans is felt so much more sharply than for football’s resumption in June.

That was about football having to necessarily make do. This is about what actually makes football.

Its very sense of escapism is undercut by a tangible reminder of the reality of this situation, and how much this virus continues to take from us.

This weekend, it has taken that sense of hope. It has taken away one of football’s most life-affirming rituals.

That, after all, is what the start of a new season is really all about. It is about supporters excitedly heading along in the late summer sun, returning to meet old friends after a long break, but with new hopes. More than the game to be played, it is about the possibilities of the game as a whole. It is that rare period in football where reality has not yet intervened. Thoughts are solely governed by optimism, and what the imagination can conjure from new signings. That would have been best illustrated around Goodison Park, and the excitable chatter about a player like James Rodriguez, or Stamford Bridge with a star like Timo Werner. It’s the new signings, the new kits – again, just the possibility. It’s that unmistakable atmosphere.

Alas, the streets will be empty. The teams will just go out and play in that perfunctory manner that makes the sport feel that bit less a communal experience, that bit more a business.

And then you have the fixture list. Except, it isn’t so much a fixture list as a production line of football matches.

Covid-19 has ensured that the stands are for now empty, but that the calendar is more packed than it has ever been. The pressure to get every competition completed means there has never been a schedule like it. It has never been so intense. The Premier League’s internationals could feasibly have a fixture every three days from now until the end of the season, and just before Euro 2020.

Many will only avoid that because the calendar forces rests and injuries, while completely eroding clubs’ ability to compete on multiple fronts. Managers are going to have to pick and choose like never before.

That is another consequence of Covid-19, that is going to have a profound effect on how the Premier League actually plays out. It has already greatly affected finances, and squads.

The champions, Liverpool, have so far gone a second successive summer without signing a starting player. While it would be foolish to question their overall quality, it is fair to wonder whether they can sustain the same consistency and whether they need some freshening up, just to offer that different challenge to opposition.

It is telling that Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who knew more about winning repeat titles than anyone in history, never went so long without signing a first-team player.

Manchester United have had some difficulty in that regard as a consequence of Coronavirus right now, as they still strive to do a deal for Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho. The belief is they still need to strengthen their own first XI. How they must envy Chelsea. The situation has actually played into their hands. Their money, built up over two windows without signings, has never had more power. It has resulted in the biggest outlay of Roman Abramovich’s entire time in charge in purely financial terms. It could yet be the most influential outlay given everyone else’s constraints.

Squad depth will never be more important. It could well be decisive, even if there are still questions over Frank Lampard.

Pep Guardiola is meanwhile facing searching questions of his own, but also a rare unknown. This is the first time he has ever started a fifth season with a club.

The curious reality is we have no idea how he’ll adapt to that. It’s fair to wonder how he’ll handle it, especially as it is an issue that revolves around challenges like how good he is at refreshing a side, and how much players tire of his intensity. Jose Mourinho, for the first time in a while, would be able to educate Guardiola in one thing. He’s had these questions for some time, but that makes him eager to banish them.

The Tottenham Hotspur manager does look a bit sprightlier after his star turn in their documentary, and his club have so far signed well. Things look better. The questions as to how far behind the modern game Mourinho is remain, but are now being turned to Guardiola for the first time, too. City suddenly seem vulnerable, in a football world where German pressing now makes the best sides so vigorous. There is at least the possibility Guardiola now needs to reconsider how his sides play “against the ball”, as Ralph Hassenhuttl might put it.

The irony is that the new breed of manager still have much to prove. We still don’t really know how good Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Lampard are. The latter’s safety net has gone, as he is expected to fly. Mikel Arteta might benefit from the same excuses, as Arsenal’s squad does look the thinnest out of the big six.

That, of course, is if the “big six” still exist.

Last season threatened it, and Arsenal themselves finished eighth, behind Leicester City and Wolves. An emboldened Everton would now hope to finish above all of them.

The problem is that last season may have been a rare chance, and a window closed.

It’s difficult not to think that this situation will actually reinforce the financial gaps, and the Premier Leagie’s many tiers. The conditions inherently favour strength in depth, which the wealthier clubs have more of.

Within those differences, though, managers are going to have “manage” – in the most literal sense of the word – more than ever. This is going to be a test of how they use their players, where they allocate their resources, who they depend on.

There will be so little time for actual coaching, and to figure out any problems on the training field.

This will distort the season in unexpected ways. It makes it even more difficult to predict.

That is much like the returning club who have dominated so much of the build-up. Leeds are almost impossible to predict. Given the idiosyncrasies of Bielsa, and the relative inconsistencies of his career, it feels as likely that they could be in a relegation battle as take the league by storm.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that they’ll do well to replicate what Sheffield United managed. They aren’t the only club coming up, either. Fulham and West Brom are set to make that bottom half even more congested.

One of the differences is the tradition Leeds have, and the amount of rivalries they will restore. Bielsa’s modern tension with Lampard has already amplified their history with Chelsea. Even Manchester United supporters, meanwhile, are looking forward to a fixture they have missed.

It’s just a shame that, for the moment, it may be played without supporters.

That is worth recognising, ahead of a weekend that is about them more than anyone else.

A season has never at once felt so full and so empty.

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