We knew the teams in the dead zone of the Premier League were probably bad — the table doesn’t lie, after all. But this bad? Since Project Restart, the bottom four teams have taken three points from a possible 39. Above them, it took West Ham three games to secure their first victory. And yet the mood music from Norwich, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Watford before this nine-game mini series was of a fresh start; a chance, perhaps, to mirror Leicester’s miraculous great escape in 2015, where they somehow won seven of their last nine and survived. So what’s happened?
The obvious answer, mooted by Norwich’s Daniel Farke, is that these struggling teams are missing their fans. After their defeat against Everton, Farke maintained that had Norwich supporters been at Carrow Road, they would have drawn the game, perhaps even won it. People at Carrow Road that day said there was a noticeable hush after Michael Keane scored, as players retreated into their shells amid the silence.
But it’s not as if the bottom teams weren’t warwned. The evidence from Germany’s Bundesliga was very much that home advantage had been lost. There was rushed physical preparation for this mini-season — but how mentally ready were the players?
Paul McVeigh is a former Tottenham and Norwich midfielder who, since retiring from football, has carved out a successful career in sports psychology and performance, the lessons from which he now applies to business situations in worldwide keynote speaking tours that have stopped off in Dubai in the past. Does he think the players in this situation need a crowd to perform?
“Well, it’s a very different experience for them, but the last thing they should be doing is letting that be an excuse,” says McVeigh. “Fundamentally I would tell them the game has not changed, so you should be doing the same you were before — working hard, trying to press the opposition, opening up goalscoring opportunities and so on. They’re still playing for their Premier League status, their careers, their livelihoods — it’s just that there’s no one physically there watching them do it.”
McVeigh points out that games without crowds either backing or barracking the players should in theory make performance better, rather than worse,” he says.
“When you’re an athlete performing in front of a crowd, you’re always trying to minimise your emotions, stay calm and cool in that pressured environment. Without a crowd it should become easier to focus on your internal motivation.”
It is interesting, though, that when Norwich and Watford both lost in similar fashion to Southampton, fans and pundits perceived a lack of collective motivation. So perhaps the real impact of lockdown on these players might not be the lack of fans in the stadium for 90 minutes, but the lessening of valuable human contact the rest of the week.
Players didn’t see each other for two months at a crucial point in the season, and when they did, they were — and still are — training and having team meetings in bubbles. Teams have become fragmented and it’s become too easy for players to start to focus on their own futures. Some, as in the case of Ryan Fraser at Bournemouth, even decided they didn’t want to play after June 30.
“A team dynamic is built up and forged over time with physical interactions,” says McVeigh. “You train with people, you bond with them, you argue with them, you win with them,” says McVeigh. “You can build a really valuable culture that way. But it can dissipate really quickly.”
And that might be crucial in a relegation battle. Bryan Gunn has seen it all, from goalkeeper for Aberdeen, Norwich and Scotland to manager in an unsuccessful battle against the drop, and now as director of talent recruitment at a sports agency. He thinks he would have been more likely to perform at his top level in a full stadium with the pressure that brought, but is also certain that a strong team culture is difficult to foster at this time.
His son Angus plays for Southampton, and they always speak after a match. Angus called him, literally ten minutes after the final whistle of a recent game, and was already driving home — due to the social distancing protocols surrounding match day.
“The players are getting on with it, but the only time they can really bond is when one of them scores a goal and they celebrate. Obviously that makes teamwork off the pitch really hard to build. Particularly if you’re not scoring.”
Gunn also points to bigger clubs benefiting from the extra substitute rule allowing them to rotate their better squads. “It’s also the obvious case that the bottom teams are down there for a reason; they hadn’t won enough games before lockdown,” he says.
“However, the Southampton games I’ve watched were interesting because they have produced three good performances by really going for it from the start; they energised themselves rather than getting a crowd to do it for them.”
So how do the bottom four build their way out of this rut? It might take a few more games yet.
“Footballers are creatures of habit and once they’re out of that habit, it is hard to get it back,” says McVeigh. “So for me, it’s going to be the ones who pick up that team dynamic and cohesion quicker than anyone else who will see the benefits — and it is partly the manager’s role to make that happen.”
Norwich City v Brighton (3.30pm)
Leicester City v Crystal Palace (6pm)
Manchester United v AFC Bournemouth (6pm)
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Arsenal (8.30pm)
Chelsea v Watford (11pm)
Burnley v Sheffield (3pm)
Newcastle United v West Ham (5.15pm)
Liverpool v Aston Villa (7.30pm)
Southampton v Manchester City (10pm)
Tottenham v Everton (11pm)
Crystal Palace v Chelsea (9pm)
Watford v Norwich City (9pm)
Arsenal v Leicester City (11.15pm)