A night at Selhurst Park that often felt more like an existential exercise rather than a football match, and posed similar questions. How much football is too much football? Is this the inevitable end point of playing in front of empty stands: that nothing actually happens, because there is nobody there to see it?
The worsening fog, for those that were there, almost felt a symbolic blessing in that regard.
And above anything else, is it possible for “nothing” to even happen? This 0-0 draw between Crystal Palace and Manchester United certainly tested that, with few moments of anything beyond a fine late save by Dean Henderson from Patrick van Aanholt and a few long shots.
From that, the two teams did get something out of the game, even if the point from this 0-0 will be much more valuable to Roy Hodgson’s side. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team only have two wins from the last eight in the league now, and a putative title challenge has all too quickly become a fight for the top four. That is the danger of this situation for United, as they seem to have gone on yet another of those streaks – a good run immediately followed by an underwhelming one.
Through that, elements of this game posed questions beyond the philosophical, of Solskjaer but also the sport as a whole. This match emphasised the toll on the players from this seemingly endless slog of games. It has been an increasing trend, as the players accumulate increased fatigue. That is both mental as well as physical. More and more of the games have had less and less life. There’s just a lack of energy and intensity, which was inevitable given this calendar.
It goes without saying that the situation is infinitely preferable to what we were about to enter into this time last year, when we had the longest break ever seen in the professional game, but it’s still impossible to feel it didn’t have to be like this.
We do come back to the recurring question of why the schedule wasn’t adapted for this abnormal season. Everyone in the sport wanted their piece of the pie to stay as big as possible, and it has resulted in a situation that is to the detriment of the game as a whole. Many around the Premier League would previously have rolled their eyes at the prospect, but some are now openly saying it: The competition could badly do with an international break.
Most of the players just looked like they could do with any kind of mental break. There was such a lethargy about it all. It is why it’s actually more difficult than usual to put much stock into these performances, even as Solskjaer now accumulates the 0-0s. It is why one Bruno Fernandes’ pass straight to a Palace player felt more like it was from a general jadedness than any kind of fodder for discussion over whether his good form is now shot. Solskjaer may face a few questions about overplaying his star, though. Was there really much need for him to start against Real Sociedad last Thursday?
Palace’s approach, it must be acknowledged, can sap the energy out of a lot of games. It is what works for them. There is a lot to admire in it, and it warrants real respect, but it doesn’t exactly crackle or entertain. Eberechi Eze stood out all the more because he offered a bit of life. Even he, however, was ultimately just absorbed into the general attrition of the occasion.
Solskjaer belatedly attempted to add some spike to the game with his subs, but it almost summed up much of the match that they finally put in a good cross after Edinson Cavani had gone off.
Some around the sport believe this is one of the Norwegian’s weaknesses – that he is too slow to act in matches like this.
It’s just that “matches like this” poses a different issue altogether.
Manchester United are seeing more of them. The Premier League is seeing more of them. They are looking like a trend, which is why many players need some kind of break.
Right now, it is as if the Premier League is just going through the – just being, rather than doing what it usually does.
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