Amarachi Orie recaps a year like no other…
“Lads, c’mon!” shouted David de Gea in Manchester United’s 1-6 defeat to Tottenham this season. “What did he do?” asked Paul Pogba to the referee when Anthony Martial received a red card in the game.
While fans have largely had to stay away from stadiums this year – with Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson even ordering fans to “stay at home” to celebrate the long-awaited trophy lift – 2020 has given us new insight into the game and the interactions on the pitch. In a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and global protests for racial equality, football has come to mean more than just sport, and players have connected to communities beyond just their fan bases. The world has undergone change and so has the league. From Video Assistant Referee to taking the knee, the Premier League has given us an unforgettable year.
Before the pandemic took hold in the UK, there had already been rule changes that affected the league. VAR was being used for the first time in the 2019/20 season with mixed reviews. While the most marginal of offsides were picked up, some decisions were not challenged at all.
The most notable incident was the ghost goal in the first match of Project Restart, when the Premier League returned after a 100-day hiatus with Aston Villa versus Sheffield United. Villa keeper Orjan Nyland fell behind the goal line with the ball in his hand after a United free kick. Goal-line technology did not register the goal and VAR did not review it. The game ended 0-0. This was the first time that goal-line technology had failed in over 9000 matches, and yet the new VAR was not used to fix the error. Bias and controversy can never fully be removed, even when technology is being used: the league has spent the year coming to terms with this.
Black Lives Matter
The same match saw the start of players taking the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the death of George Floyd in the USA. Players’ names on their shirts were briefly replaced by the “Black Lives Matter” slogan when they returned to playing again. There have been instances in previous years when players have worn different names on their kit – for example, Manchester United’s use of their mascot’s name in support of the Chevrolet Beautiful Possibilities programme. However, there has never before been an initiative of this scale. While the taking of the knee is under review by the PFA, it is still being done by players across the league and has become almost as innate as the first blow of the whistle.
Football’s significance has stretched beyond the stadium this year, with players showing solidarity with causes which reach beyond the sport. This is the year, after all, in which Marcus Rashford was awarded an MBE for his campaign to end food poverty. He managed to encourage over a million people to sign a petition for free school meals to continue throughout the Christmas holiday and, eventually, he influenced a U-turn in government policy: Prime Minister Boris Johnson was persuaded to provide a £170m Covid Winter Grant to help support the poorest families with food and bills this winter. To be a Premier League star means more than just performing well on the pitch this year. Rashford has become a household name because his actions off the pitch have made a difference.
The diminishing power of the ‘Big Six’
Holding power to account has happened within the league too. A proposal by Manchester United and Liverpool to reduce the Premier League to 18 clubs, scrap the Carabao Cup and the Community Shield, and shift the power to the biggest clubs was unanimously rejected in October. After the restart of the league, teams were allowed water breaks and five substitutions.
However, the 2020/21 season saw a return to three substitutions. While the league’s top clubs voted for the return of five substitutes per match, ten clubs voted against it and so the request was denied. Such proposals have been rejected because they seem to favour the Premier League giants. While many variables have not been consistent, with some clubs having been able to invite fans back and others not, it is clear that clubs want to see a fairer league.
This is the year in which Sheffield United finished ninth in their first season after returning to the top division. Pre-Covid, they were in the race to finish in a European-qualifying position: that is, until the league took a break and they returned only to win three of their last ten games. This season, they are bottom of the table with just two points from 14 games. However, they are not alone down there. Arsenal have also fallen from grace, hovering only a few points above the relegation zone. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang suffered a goal drought after signing a new contract in September. He went 797 Premier League minutes without scoring a goal from open play – though he did score an own goal for Burnley in that time. Mikel Arteta’s managerial inexperience means that he is unable to deal with the crisis and the season is not going to get any easier.
There is no manager that has been as vocal as Jurgen Klopp in condemning the relentless fixture schedule this year, which has impacted the biggest teams who also compete in European competitions. The Champions League group stages in 2019 took place between September and December with matches being played every two or three weeks. This year, the group stages took place between October and December with games being played every week. Football took an unexpected break last season and now it is playing catch up. This has undoubtedly affected player form: while Chelsea appeared to cruise through the group stages, finishing at the top of group E, they have not won any of their Premier League games since doing so.
Klopp – FIFA’s men’s coach of the year – might have been loud in complaining about tight fixtures schedules and playing at 12:30pm on a Saturday, but behind all the noise his team silently climbed to the top of the table. It was in a 12:30pm fixture, the last before Christmas, that Liverpool defeated Crystal Palace 7-0 away from home. The year has come full circle. Liverpool went into Christmas on top of the table, as they did last year and the year before that.
They finally lifted the Premier League trophy in July for the first time in 30 years after having been on top at Christmas and having stayed there until the end of the season. Despite a 1-1 hiccough against West Brom at the weekend, next year Liverpool could do the same. Klopp’s team – which has been deservedly named BBC’s team of the year – has remained consistent even as the football landscape transformed in 2020. As we go into a new year with new challenges, Liverpool will likely be the team that deals with them the best.
Follow Amarachi on Twitter @iamarachii