The return of Spain's La Liga has been well received and has gone, through two full rounds of matches, as well as could be expected. With Real Madrid and Barcelona locked in a tight title race, plenty to play for in the race for a top-four finish (and Champions League football) and a tight relegation battle -- the bottom five are split by just five points, with nine games remaining, and three teams will eventually go down -- there's still a lot at stake.
But equally, there are a lot of quirks to the restart when it comes to how games play out, how the players and coaches are handling the situation and what it is we're watching. ESPN's Sid Lowe rounds up some of the lesser-talked-about points through the first 10 days of La Liga's restart.
Jump to: Games without fans | Sounds in the stadium | Watching from home | Intensity of matches | Goalkeepers' struggles | Subs become supporters | Teams using five subs | Water breaks | Injured stars get another chance
Playing without fans will hurt some more than others ...
"It's hard without fans, especially in those last 10 minutes when [the crowd at] San Mames really pushes you," Athletic Club Bilbao manager Gaizka Garitano said, which of course made sense but which also can't be fully tested, at least not yet.
It's hard to judge how much difference playing behind closed doors will make, and although there were three away wins in the opening 10-game round of fixtures, there hasn't been a massive and sudden swing so far: eight home wins, eight draws, four away wins overall.
It does feel natural to suggest that some clubs will struggle more than others. In some cases, you imagined that before the restart. Alavés, perhaps -- although they won at an empty Mendizorroza in midweek against Real Sociedad -- and maybe Atlético too, where Diego Simeone is as much conductor as coach. Sevilla and Betis, certainly. And above all, Osasuna.
"I think if anyone is going to be hit by this, it's us," Osasuna's Roberto Torres had said. "Osasuna genuinely is a bit different. [Osasuna stadium] El Sadar's always been a slightly more 'English' ground; they used to say big teams feared coming here. We have a fan base that supports you when things go badly, that pushes you, that when you've got not strength left, a shout gives it back. So, I think [playing behind closed doors] will be bad for us. There may be some teams where it even helps, because when they don't play well, the fans are on their backs, having a go at them."
In Osasuna's case, it's not just support; it's an entire identity. This is a place where the players feel like an extension of the people and where the manager has explicitly built a style around that. "He told everyone there has to be a communion: with every run, every tackle, the fans lift you, they're the adrenaline you need," winger Rubén García says. Coach Jagoba Arrasate insists: "here the fans make you feel almost invincible." Without them, they are mortal.
On Wednesday night, without their supporters, Osasuna lost 5-0 at home to Atletico Madrid. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.
Games sound so different in the stadium
Why do birds suddenly appear? There's something surreal about sitting there watching a top-flight football match and listening to birdsong, sparrows and swallows providing an unexpected soundtrack. And that's not the only noise breaking the silence, of course: there's shouting and instructions and yes, swearing too. There are the calls that could come from any game on any given Sunday, a bunch of players on a park: hold, wait, time, and a series of first names not surnames, the players humanised by this return to a playground set of sounds. Leo! Leo! Leo!
But if that makes them normal, other sounds set them apart: the hard thunder of feet, as if they were running down a hotel corridor rather than soft grass, offering an appreciation of the athleticism and just how tough the players are. There's also the most basic sound of all setting them apart, underlining that physical power: how they kick the ball. There's the cleanness of the contact, the thud, just how loud it is. Every pass, even the short ones, are hit hard.
There is variety, though. Close your eyes and you can
The home viewing experience
What you're hearing on television might be different, of course, and it is different by the game. Mostly, the fake crowd noise or the CGI fans (a rather overblown title for a spot of colouring in) has been accepted and even welcomed, in part because it hasn't been overly invasive. But the false crowd noise is sometimes more convincing than others. It's a little uneven by the game, the rise and fall not always in step with the actual play, the volume levels fluctuating rather randomly.
A particular favourite was the huge cheer for a recent Real Sociedad goal that didn't happen. The ball went wide, although it wasn't immediately obvious at the time, forcing a sound technician somewhere to quickly silence the "fans."
The intensity is as it used to be
We feared that the pace of play would be slow. We worried it will be soft, the intensity and edge all gone. And then, bang! Granada and Getafe came back and went straight at it on June 12 in their first game back, committing a foul for every 10 completed passes and a yellow card every nine minutes in Granada's 2-1 home win. You're not supposed to celebrate that kind of thing, sure, but so soon after the restart it was actually quite nice to see.
It's been largely borne out by the other games, too. This is proper football and these are proper games; it's playing out like a real competition.
Goalkeepers facing a unique struggle?
Against Espanyol, Fernando Pacheco (usually such a steady goalkeeper) gave the ball away inside his own penalty area during the first few minutes, suddenly having to scramble to make a save. He got away with that one, but not the next just a few minutes later. Coming off his line, Pacheco leapt in the air and claimed the ball, but he was outside the area and got sent off for the handball.
Later that same day, Leganés goalkeeper Pichu Cuéllar came out of his area for a ball that he misjudged, watching defender Chidozie Awaziem head it past him to gift Valladolid the opening goal. There have been daft penalties too, from Valencia and Betis in particular. Could it be that some players have struggled to find the reference points, especially goalkeepers? Leganés manager Javier Aguirre believes so.
"I think for goalkeepers, the distances are difficult; I was very insistent that my goalkeeper coach be alert to that," he says. "For a goalkeeper, the daily work is so different, and it couldn't be done at home, not like for outfield players. The position is so specific, and they have found it hardest: the distances to cover, the speed of the shot. For a goalkeeper the distances, the communication, the judgement coming off the line; for them it's been hard to be able to do the work and be at the level the situation demands with the specifics of their job.
"Is it about reference points? Yes, I think that's true."
Substitutes become supporters
For every game, every team has the whole of the squad in the stands, not on the bench. And
"They all had a part to play: players, staff, doctors, players in the stands. When you see them up there helping their teammates, correcting them -- and from a position where they can see better -- it makes you proud," Valladolid manager Sergio said. At last: a "fan" handing out free advice who actually knows what he's talking about.
Teams can now make five subs, but will they keep doing it?
After their first game against Athletic Club in Bilbao, Atlético manager Simeone said that being able to make five changes gave his team "energy" that allowed them to "keep up what we had been doing." Following Sevilla's 2-0 win against Betis, manager Julen Lopetegui insisted: "if there hadn't been five subs, we would have ended up nine against nine." Players were dropping with exhaustion towards the end, after all. But that game, the first, is the only one where fatigue has been so notable; players have generally coped well. In La Liga, the extra two subs have played a part, but has it all been a bit exaggerated? And will managers continue to use all their available changes?
Of the 10 changes allowed (five each) in the opening round of games, La Liga's managers made 10, 9, 9, 10, 10, 10, 9, 10, 10 -- and 7. Is the fact that the last one (Real Sociedad vs. Osasuna) is such an outlier partly due to having seen what came before, or is it chance? The second round of games continued the theme: 10, 10, 10, 10, 9, 9, 9, 6 (Valladolid-Celta, a 0-0 draw where a huge game for both teams was on edge until the end), 9, and 7. The last one was, strikingly, Real Madrid, who made only two changes against Valencia (who made 5 and totally lost control).
Managers seemed so tuned into the idea that there are 11 games in five weeks and that getting through it will be tough, clearly conscious of keeping everyone active and protecting players, that they were determined to make changes, even if many of those were so late as to make little difference. Or perhaps they did so just because they could, and as that Celta-Valladolid game suggests, they won't make so many substitutions when the result is in the balance, especially if they don't trust the quality of what's on the bench.
As weeks pass, could they change their minds? Could they decide it's actually counterproductive? Could they judge that it was a measure for the first few games as everyone found their feet and their fitness, but not for the whole (mini)season? After Sevilla lost control of their second game, settling for a 1-1 draw at Levante thanks to an 87th minute goal for the hosts, Lopetegui admitted that making so many changes had ended up not being a good idea. "I didn't handle the five substitutions well," he said. Maybe next time, he won't make them at all?
Some things never change. Some people never do either. All those subs and two men who, perhaps more than anyone else, are irreplaceable haven't been protected or withdrawn: Lionel Messi and Casemiro are still playing every second so far.
Water breaks are essential although subject to shenanigans
"Technical Time Out" might be a better title. Imposed in the 30th minute of every half of every game now, the idea of a cooling/hydration break was logical enough. It's summer, it's hot, and players are vulnerable after the long break. But summer hasn't hit properly yet in Spain -- maybe we should revisit this in two weeks' time -- and the impact doesn't feel entirely positive so far. It's being leapt upon by managers to make changes and offer instructions -- should they be told they're not allowed to talk to players, that this is a drink break and not a team talk? -- and it's certainly serving to break up the flow of matches.
The (original) rules suggest hydration breaks are necessary when it's over 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius). In Pamplona, Osasuna and Atletico Madrid stopped play for a drink with the thermometer showing 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius).
A second chance for once-injured stars
"That's how you make a return!" someone said as they ran over to Marco Asensio on Thursday night, and the fact that you could hear them say it was an enjoyable part of the new normal. The Real Madrid winger had been out of action for 11 months for a torn cruciate ligament in his knee; now at last he was back. Zidane had whispered something in his ear when he went on and they had laughed. Knowing both of them it was probably: you'll score now and, sure enough, 30 seconds later he did, with his first touch.
Much had been made of Madrid and Barcelona "signing" Luis Suárez and Eden Hazard, two injured stars handed a second chance thanks to the extension of the season, and now there was Asensio as well. It's nice to have football back; it's nice to have them back, too.