Premier League 2020-21 review: gripes of the season


Social media abuse
It’s much more than a gripe, yes. Manchester United announced shortly before English football’s social media boycott that online abuse aimed at their players had increased by 350% since 2019. It’s a staggering rise and speaks to the lack of moral and social responsibility taken by the big tech companies in properly rooting out and removing those who use football as an excuse to abuse other fellow humans online. News that footballers had suffered racist abuse during the boycott and soon after it was depressingly inevitable. Facebook has said “no single thing will fix this challenge overnight” but Raheem Sterling, one of those targeted with post-boycott abuse, perhaps summed it up better than most when he said: “I’m increasingly questioning if there is the will.”

Brutal punditry
There’s just no need to call a footballer an “idiot” as Roy Keane did when analysing Kyle Walker’s display for Manchester City against Liverpool last November. He also used the term “car crash” and “disgrace”. In an era when footballers are being abused more than ever before (see above), pundits need to show a little more restraint themselves when choosing what colourful language to use. One clip going viral can lead to a toxic pile-on.

The ‘big six’ owners
It will not come as news to anyone but a closed-shop European Super League is an appalling idea. That the attempted breakaway came in the midst of a pandemic, with the justification that it was necessary to enable the Premier League’s richest clubs to recoup the money they have lost because of Covid, was staggeringly misjudged. The surprise expressed by the owners of Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham towards the depth of anger shown by anyone who cares about football – and more generally sporting merit – showed just how far removed these men in suits are from the game they are gradually ruining with every false step they take.

Fake fan noise
At some point we all should have demanded that the plug be pulled on the canned noise being pumped into our living rooms. By passively sitting by as TV companies tried to make the Premier League product as realistic as possible, we were all complicit in lessening the value of match-going supporters. Much was made of the return of substantial numbers of fans for the last two rounds of Premier League fixtures and the positive effect they had on the feel of the game for players, managers and those inside stadiums. Had TV companies only broadcast the players’ shouts echoing around stadiums for endless months, the true worth of match-going fans would have been felt in armchairs, too. Instead, sound engineers made owners realise matches can be played in soulless stadiums anywhere in the world and be made to feel real enough to entertain the Premier League’s “digital consumers”.

The ‘draught excluder’
Yes, yes, it probably is a clever tactical evolution but the sight of talented players such as Thiago Alcântara and Oleksandr Zinchenko being picked up and dumped lengthways on the ground behind the wall to help block a low free-kick is still a weird one. It’s hard to know how useful they are because the prone player has done their job if the free-kick taker doesn’t strike the ball low. On average, only around 6% of direct free-kicks within range are scored. The “draught excluder” just feels a bit NFL … and pointless.

Not being able to celebrate goals
Or VAR, for short. You really should be able to lose yourself when your team scores but instead we’re all Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall these days, looking around with wide eyes and fearing the VAR nitpickers are going to kill our buzz. And let’s be honest, it’s the marginal offsides that are jumping all over our joy more than any other decisions. The offside rule was introduced to stop goal-hanging, but here we are in 2021, where all-but-redundant assistant referees run up and down the touchline as beautifully worked goals are chalked off in Stockley Park because a striker’s nose is too big.