No crowds, no points… no hope! Project Restart is proving tough on the strugglers who are missing fans and are paying the price for having smaller squads with five substitutes now allowed
- The Premier League’s bottom four have struggled since the action restarted
- Norwich, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Watford find themselves in big danger
- Teams such as Villa are usually boosted by fans but now don’t have that backing
- In addition, teams with smaller squads are at a disadvantage over substitutes
The Premier League strugglers knew it would be tough. But not as apocalyptic as this.
Since the restart, the bottom four of Norwich, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Watford have picked up just three points and scored seven goals between them from the 17 games they have played.
But as well as anxiety some of those clubs are feeling a deep sense of injustice.
Team such as Aston Villa are struggling without their passionate supporters in attendance
After a 2-0 defeat at Anfield, Aston Villa manager Dean Smith repeated his view that the five-substitute rule is benefiting clubs with bigger squads and he certainly had a point.
Liverpool were able to make a triple change of Roberto Firmino, Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson, and then add Curtis Jones, who scored.
Smith’s options included two right backs, two players with a handful of top-flight games and a 19-year-old recently promoted to the Under 23s.
Smith felt even more bruised in a 2-1 defeat by Chelsea, who within seven minutes of Frank Lampard introducing Christian Pulisic and Ross Barkley had equalled Kortney Hause’s opener at Villa Park last month and then gone ahead through Olivier Giroud, who was promptly replaced by Tammy Abraham.
Norwich, who are bottom of the table, have lost all of their games since the league restarted
To rub salt into the wound, it was Chelsea who pushed for the increased number of substitutions in discussions over Project Restart. Those with smaller squads were against the change.
It leaves Smith trying his best not to dilute the quality when he makes substitutions. Wealthier opponents always seem to improve the quality with theirs.
Villa’s struggle for points — two from five games — belies some promising football from them since the resumption. They have certainly been superior to Watford, who face a critical match at home to Norwich on Sunday night.
Opta data shows Smith has influenced games with substitutions more than any other manager in the bottom six since competition recommenced, with one goal and two assists. But it is a world of haves and have-nots.
Nigel Pearson’s Watford know that they have much work to do if they are to stay up
Arsenal and Newcastle (three goals and four contributions) and Leicester (one goal and four contributions) have profited from substitutions while Norwich and Watford have had no goals or assists from them.
The view from some who face the threat of the drop is that the water breaks are enough. ‘That’s what makes the need for five subs baffling,’ said one source.
Yet not all of those at the bottom agree with that. The view from Watford, where manager Nigel Pearson is not opposed, is that five substitutions have been needed to cope with a punishing schedule. The team faced Southampton four days after starting out in 30°C heat at Burnley.
Some at the bottom feel that the course of recent weeks reflects the absence of fans, who would even things out in the tighter, older stadiums. In this respect, bottom club Norwich are particularly bereft.
Clubs like Bournemouth, who have smaller squads, have struggled and are in serious danger
Their fans brought the house down when the team beat Manchester City in September, and gave Tottenham and Arsenal a fright in December. Villa’s grand old stadium also lends itself to a riot of noise and that will be missed in home matches against Manchester United and Arsenal which could dictate their future.
Bournemouth also seem to be missing their home fans and face a brutal run-in and it feels as if Villa and Watford could be the two slugging it out for the third relegation spot. In the old world, Vicarage Road would have been rocking against Norwich.
‘The absence of fans has got to have an influence,’ Pearson said on Monday. ‘But it’s about detaching yourself from that. Now is not the time to talk about issues we cannot change. We have to find different ways of winning.’
So far, that has eluded the bottom four.
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