Soccer

How Premier League's empty stadium games will force players to adjust

Soccer

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The Premier League will look and sound much different when the season resumes Wednesday.

Every match for the remainder of the season will be played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fans watching at home might not hear much of a difference, as broadcasts produced by NBC Sports and the league's global broadcast partners will feature "enhanced audio" from EA Sports that has sampled previous audio from the stadium in which each game is played.

The players won't hear that, of course. They'll take the pitch and look into empty crowds in massive venues like Old Trafford, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and Anfield. Players train behind closed doors all the time and crowd-less friendlies are quite common, but playing meaningful matches in the absence of rabid supporters -- on both sides -- will take some getting used to.

"It pretty much rewrites the way that you prepare, rewrites the way you think, your mentality," NBC Sports soccer analyst Robbie Earle told NBC Sports Bay Area while the season was paused. "It almost feels like a practice game. So, I was watching a few of the (empty-stadium Europa League) games, saw the [Manchester United and Wolves games], and I remember thinking how difficult that must be for the players because, whether the crowd are for you or against you, whether they're cheering or they're booing, that noise is part of the show. It's part of the experience and when that's sort of taken away, it almost feels a little bit like a substitute, really. That it's not quite the real thing. It's almost like a fake game in some respects."

 

Manchester United and Wolves both played meaningful matches behind closed doors immediately before the Premier League season's suspension, as the former beat Austrian club LASK 5-0 and the latter drew Greek giants Olympiacos 1-1 in Europa League ties on March 12. No other club can say the same, though many of their Premier League peers have recently played closed-door friendlies ahead of the restart.

It has been over three months since any Premier League side played in a game with points on the line, in front of fans or otherwise. That alone will require players to adjust to playing in matches again, but Earle said the absence of fans could disrupt players' on-field rhythms and even lead to a gap in intensity compared to games with supporters in the stands.

"[There are] little things I always say to people that sometimes they don't maybe pick up," Earle said. "If you're playing at home and you go in and make a good challenge, generally, there will be a certain set of supporters who will cheer and clap and say, 'Oh, well done! Get in there!' ... and that pumps you up. Likewise, if you're playing away from home on the road and somebody does that tackle on you, you get kind of wound up yourself because the crowd is cheering the opposition you're playing against and that gets your blood pumping."

The lack of atmosphere could, in turn, almost completely eliminate home-field advantage if the Bundesliga is any indication. In the six sets of fixtures entering Tuesday, away sides had won or drawn 47 of 54 possible matches. That's a staggering split, and one that could have major ramifications for the chase for European contention and the race to avoid relegation.

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Premier League clubs will do what they can to create an environment that's distinctly their own, with each home side allowed to play music at "key trigger moments," including when they score and make substitutions. Seats in the lower tiers of every Premier League ground will also be covered by a wrap that is unique to every club.

 

The new normal will still require adjustments, especially as it looks to be the status quo for the foreseeable future. Dr. Mark Gillet, the Premier League's medical officer, said last month that the league's coronavirus restrictions could be in place through next season in the absence of a vaccine.

Players, then, will have time to get used to the new normal. But that won't make it any less strange when they return to the pitch this week.

"There's all these elements, there's all these little nuances that fans are involved in the game," Earle continued. "Sometimes when they're not maybe aware of it, [these moments] are motivating the players, that are getting the players up, that are getting you to a level where you sometimes play beyond what your normal capabilities would be because it's the adrenaline and that sort of intensity of the game that takes you to that sort of top level of expertise."