Jurgen Klopp’s staff and players will surely never forget it. Back on Sept. 20 when Liverpool went to Chelsea in the Premier League and walked away 2-0 winners, the absence of fans at Stamford Bridge, like in pretty much every stadium around the world, gave us a great insight of what happens on and off the pitch.
As half-time approached between the English champions and Frank Lampard’s new-look Blues, Andreas Christensen was sent off for rugby tackling Sadio Mane after intervention from the VAR. As referee Paul Tierney waved the red card, having originally issued a yellow, some of the Liverpool staff and subs, who sat in the stands behind the bench, celebrated the dismissal.
Klopp didn’t appreciate it.
“Are you mad?” he said, turning around to face the culprits. “We don’t do that, you understand me? We don’t clap when someone from the other team gets sent off!”
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The United Kingdom’s three-tiered system allows for fans to be at games depending on positivity rates with COVID-19 testing. Football will slowly return to something approaching normal and boast real fans, along with the organic sounds, in the stands. However, London will move into Tier 3 on Wednesday, which means fans will again be absent from games at Chelsea, Arsenal, Fulham, Tottenham and West Ham having been allowed back for a couple of weeks.
Eventually, the fans will all come back. It’ll mean an end to what we’ve seen over the past few months where, like in Klopp’s case, we were able to hear pretty much everything that was being said on the pitch and in the dugout.
Usually, this Klopp incident would have been missed by journalists or pundits given that the noise from fans would have drowned out the conversation. Yet at the Bridge that day, his loud voice could be heard clearly, almost echoing in the stadium.
Klopp has always been very animated on the touchline, intensely participating in every Liverpool game from his technical area. He shouts a lot at his players, though all is forgiven at the end of the game. Klopp is, in a sense, like the Duracell bunny. His big thing (other than not celebrating an opposition player getting sent off) is the press. He gets into such a state when he encourages his team to press high, put the opposition under pressure and either recover the ball or force a mistake. He celebrates it almost as much as he does a Liverpool goal.
Without fans, you could hear a lot of encouragement from the former Dortmund boss, like “Outstanding, Gini,” about Liverpool’s all-action midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum — something we heard a lot during Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Manchester City on Nov. 8. He’s also quick, and vocal, with criticism: whenever Jordan Henderson takes too long to play the ball forward, Klopp shouts: “Come on Hendo, what are you doing?” Meanwhile, Alisson in goal always says the same thing to his defenders: “Keep on working!”
After Arsenal travelled to Anfield on Sept. 28, one of the Gunners players couldn’t believe how much and how clearly Klopp could be heard. “I swear, even the people living in the houses around the stadium must be able to hear him,” he said, laughing.
That evening, between Klopp and Mikel Arteta, it was a symphony of voices; like Klopp, Arteta never stops. He speaks to Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe in French. “Allez Laca, vas-y, c’est bien!” (“Come on Laca, go ahead, that’s good!”) He talks to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in Spanish — “Auba, dentro, dentro!” (“inside, inside!” referring to his options in attack) — and for Hector Bellerin, Dani Ceballos, Gabriel and Thomas Partey, too, using English with the rest of the squad. Of all the Premier League managers, Arteta is often the one coaching the most. “Come here,” “move there,” “drop deep,” “pass it inside,” “press,” and “now you go” are all regular terms, delivered with big gestures and intensity.
When Granit Xhaka isn’t suspended, Arteta can say he has another coach on the pitch too. The Swiss midfielder is his absolute relay. He tells all his teammates what to do, where to move, how to play. (Though he could use some of that organizational savvy on his own game, having been foolishly sent off in the recent defeat to Burnley.)
Against Liverpool, after Arsenal took the lead against the run of play at Anfield, we could hear Xhaka tell his teammates as they were celebrating Lacazette’s goal: “We are not scared, we are not scared. We come here, we play, we are not scared!” A couple of minutes later, Liverpool levelled and went on to win 3-1, but the idea was there: Arteta wanted his team to go to the home of the champions and be brave, try to play out from the back and be authentic. Xhaka relayed the message.
Arsenal defender Rob Holding is usually quiet on the pitch, but against Wolves at the Emirates on Nov. 29, he was not happy with what he considered to be an Adama Traore dive, telling the referee “[Traore] is built like a brick s—house, how has he gone down like that?”
Some players who spoke to ESPN off the record referred to the scale of the changes without fans, given how their managers are able to be far more involved in the minute-by-minute action. “Before, you could catch something of what the manager would say but now, you and him both know that you hear every word he says,” a Premier League player noted. “It is a nightmare! Now, the managers talk much more than before, more advice, criticism, shouting. It is so different.”
Arteta confirmed it recently on Spanish radio: “Without attendance, we are lucky the players hear us more, but if you ask any player, I am sure they would like to hear us a lot less!” said the Arsenal manager, before commenting on his use of different languages.
Without fans in the stands, Spurs boss Jose Mourinho has been notably more vocal than his counterpart at Man City, Pep Guardiola. He has so much energy, whether encouraging his players or endlessly shouting at them, like when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg would sit too deep in midfield against Chelsea in their dour 0-0 draw on Nov. 29. That said, Mourinho doesn’t always get it right. There was an amusing moment in the North London derby against Arsenal on Nov. 6 when Mourinho shouted “back pass, back pass!” at the fourth referee after Ceballos passed the ball with his thigh to Bernd Leno, before realising that it actually was allowed.
Guardiola has a different approach. He talks much more to his bench and his assistants than to his players. In the defeat at Tottenham a few weeks ago, he repeated three or four times to them: “How can we concede a goal like this?” after Son Heung-Min’s opening goal during which his defence, especially Joao Cancelo, fell asleep.
When he does have a message to deliver, though, Guardiola is crystal clear with his team. In the 2-1 defeat at Chelsea back in June, everything was running through Kevin De Bruyne in midfield, meaning that every time one of the City players was on the ball, Pep shouted “Kevin, Kevin, Kevin!” to make sure the Belgian was the first option for a pass. Richard Wright, who used to be City’s third goalkeeper and is now an assistant goalkeeping coach, shouts on a loop in each and every game “be ready” and “can we squeeze?”
Another big change without big crowds is how much more the subs are getting involved. During the Manchester United vs. Arsenal game on Nov. 1, midfielder Nemanja Matic started warming up in the 30th minute along the touchline behind the goal United were defending. He never stopped talking and was dabbling in some coaching, more focused on repositioning his United teammates than actually warming himself up. He told Lindelof: “Vic, tell Fred to come inside,” before directing the Brazilian. “Fred, deeper.” Then it was Pogba’s turn. “Yes, Paul, play, again, off the ball.” Rudiger does the same at Chelsea.
There’s also the litany of nicknames we heard during games behind closed doors. At Tottenham, “Tonton” (“uncle”) is Serge Aurier, while Sergio Reguilon is Regui, Harry Kane is H. At Chelsea, there’s Chilly (Ben Chilwell), Jorgi (Jorginho), NG (N’Golo Kante) and Zoum (Kurt Zouma). There’s also Ritchie (Richarlison), Shaq (Xherdan Shaqiri) or Willy (Willian) and many more.
We can also hear a lot more swearing. Take Newcastle goalkeeper Karl Darlow, who was furious with how his side started the Sept. 20 home defeat against Brighton & Hove Albion, screaming “Wake the f— up!” to his teammates on a loop after just five minutes. Mind you, that’s nothing compared to the Watford vs. Luton game in the Championship on Sept. 26, when Luton midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe could be heard yelling “you selfish piece of s—” at his teammate James Collins when he took a shot instead of crossing the ball. (Unfortunately for Collins, Watford won 1-0.)
We could have written a book about all the things we heard and keep hearing without capacity crowds, which might not return for some time in many leagues. But perhaps the image that best sums up the “closed doors” era is what happened at Metz on Dec. 6 when Lyon came to town. Rudi Garcia, the Lyon manager, was suspended after being sent off in the previous game. He was not allowed to be on the bench and had to sit in the stands, yet he was still able to coach his team from as there was no one in the Stade Saint-Symphorien, and all his instructions could be heard clearly on the pitch. Lyon won the game 3-1.