The impending return of football feels a uniquely strange occurrence to be contemplating currently. In truth I didn’t think football would be able to return so to some extent it is a nice bonus to look forward to over the summer months. Yet given the back drop of the death rate not dropping in line with other European countries (there are days where the UK records more deaths than the entire of the EU27 countries combined) alerted to reports that the R rate is now teetering at about or above the 1 rate in most of the country it feels a bizarre occurrence to be contemplating football returning.
While the consequences are relatively small- there shouldn’t be any mass gatherings we do now know the crowd at Anfield for the CL game spiked cases in the North West. Any sort of repeat of that and lives will be lost needlessly. It feels that message somehow gets a little lost when football pushes straight ahead with the re-start, and some of the anger and blame being attributed to the government gets re-directed into the sectarian angst that underpins modern football. It’s little wonder the government were so keen to re-start football. It is increasingly the the 21st century equivalent of a 19th century idiom of an opium for the masses.
In truth aside from the governments own willingness to try and push us back to “normality” (and thus end what has been a harrowing period for the country) I sense there are 3 main reasons why football has been able to restart in the manner it has, The first is that the proposed peak that was said to be arriving in May/June actually arrived during the earlier part of April. The rise in deaths was far quicker than many initially predicted, and while the reduction has been much slower than the rise it has given some much needed space to finish at the back end. Push the timetables back 4-6 weeks and consider a restart beginning in mid to late July and it starts to become unfeasible. However the incompetency early into the outbreak has probably helped football slither into a position where it can the re-start.
The second reason is that clubs have got more desperate than some may have predicted. I’m sure some will make the case that it has been done to allow Liverpool to win the league. There have also been (at times ludicrous) suggestions it was Everton and Manchester United trying to hold it up. It’s simply untrue and for different reasons (Everton’s financial, Manchester United’s more competitive) both clubs-alongside many others had a real stake in ending the season. Some projections have shown the loss if income Everton see is trebled if the season is cancelled. For the club it is an easy decision.
The final reason is that the resolve of the bottom 6 teams- who have most to lose essentially broke down. The (in my mind) very reasonable position that you cannot have relegation in a fundamentally and structurally distorted and altered competition seemed to be dropped. Whether the sleuth of pressure that reigned down on them (primarily from the Rupert Murdoch owned Sky empire) forced the crumble or an acknowledgement of the dangers of cancellation we don’t know. It will be interesting to see when the dust settles if any will seek legal avenues. If you are Aston Villa, who has the best home record and 6 games left to play without fans, or Brighton, who have to take on many top teams without fan support at home, or Norwich who had a set of home fixtures that looked very winnable and you are relegated on a tight margin it may be you seek damages from the league. While I hope that eventuality is not sought, being objective I could hardly say it was unfair if they did.
As for Everton it is now a campaign with a lot to gain and little to lose. The way the table works they are 5 points above 14th placed Southampton but only 6 behind 6th placed Wolves. They also have an appealing run of fixtures, with only 1 of last seasons top 6 to play in the final 8 games. Infogol give them between a 6-7% of finishing in the top 6, which while a long shot is not completely impossible with a couple of big wins. The performances and form against the sides outside the conventional top 6 has also been good under Ancelotti. They are scoring at well over 2points per game in these fixtures. If this is maintained and they score 14-15 points from the remaining 7 “none top 6” games they are going to be really in the mix for a surprisingly good finish.
It is worth noting those differences in fixtures. The league table presently is a little distorted, but I sense we will see a lot of injuries from the remaining fixtures. The Bundesliga is reporting nearly treble the injuries than regular, and the PL is returning from a longer absence and playing games in a much shorter time frame (before cup games are even factored in). There are certain inevitabilities that flow from this. The obvious one is those with the biggest squads will perform best. The 2nd is that as the season wears on, those with the smallest squads will begin to get really stretched at the back end. In general the “big 6” squads will fare best from this period, with squads big enough to rest and rotate, while those outside of it may struggle the most. It’s not to say many of those outside of the big 6 dont have comparable or even superior 11’s, but the squad depth is just not comparable. Everton’s last 5 games they play against 5 sides outside of the conventional big 6 and there may be opportunities that present themselves as a result.
That is obviously all of the positives. One of the glaring negatives is that our own squad is now looking wafer thin before the restart. We will start back, to my mind having only 2 fit centre halves and 2 fit central midfield players. It is a major concern for the club and we are running increasingly on the bare minimum number of players. It presents a difficult problem for Ancelotti going into the next set of fixtures.
This leads to an obvious conclusion that the club will have to rely heavily on the under 23 players. In a recent inter team friendly I made it that 6 players from last seasons under 23’s were involved (Simms, John, Adeniran, Banningime, Braithwaite & Gordon). When you factor in that Jonjo Kenny and Lewis Gibson have impressed on loan while Tom Davies, Calvert Lewin and Mason Holgate were also involved you are getting to the point where 10+ players involved in a 25 man squad could have come from our academy and been brought in. While there are many legitimate criticisms of the academy, it to me shows small stems of growth in the sort of self sufficient club Marcel Brands wants to build- where opportunities are viable for younger players
They all have a big opportunity over the coming weeks. In general younger players will respond more quickly from layoffs and breaks away so they have a real opportunity to make a claim for the first team. While it’s unlikely all 6 will be able to make the jump up to the first team, the hope might be some of them can potentially surprise fans with their capabilities.
The final elephant in the room is of course the Merseyside Derby that will be played behind closed doors and thus any home advantage that may have existed has been greatly reduced. For all the positives you can make for Everton, the game will be a very difficult one. It is not just a Liverpool team who will shortly be crowned deserved champions that they face, but a side that has shown a ruthless efficiency in winning games few other teams have matched. Without fans present as a variable, you do sense more often the better players will come out on top. Even with a full squad available few could objectively argue Liverpool do not have the superior squad, and this is only heightened by the impending injury crisis Everton seem to be suffering. The only crumb of comfort may be that Liverpool tend to start a bit slower when returning from mid season breaks, and Everton have to hope that they take a little longer than normal to get back to their best.
It is difficult to make too many detailed predictions on the run in. We are dealing with numerous variables and unknowns that we haven’t seen before. How do clubs respond to a period where their players have gone 3 months without a competitive game? How fit can the players be with a period of only 3-4 weeks where any sort of group training was permissible from a prolonged lay off? How much activity if any could the players do while on lockdown? What impact do empty stadia have? What impact does multiple substitutions and playing in the searing heat of June and July play? In all cases I would suggest there is volatility added to each game and I would not be surprised if some unusual results were thrown up as a result.
From an Everton perspective though, there remains more to gain than to lose. As a worst case scenario we probably slip a couple of places and find out a lot about a set of younger players. Best case scenario there is a credible chance of making a late dart for European football and we potentially discover a number of younger players are able to make the step up and make the summer recruitment easier and able to be more targeted. While my own sadness felt towards the death figures for Coronavirus approach a level comparable with the civilian casualties in both WW1 & 2 combined means I can’t over overly enthusiastic about footballs return, for the professionals who play the game there are certainly opportunities and favourable circumstances that Everton can utilise. In what has been the bizarrest of seasons, it could be a somewhat fitting end.