The opening day of the season and to Southampton which, in spite of tradition, was rather short on cliches. The sun didn’t really shine, fans didn’t dance merrily down to St Mary’s in a large, sunburnt throng, and there was none of the glorious chaos seen at other grounds around the country.
Virgil van Dijk or Gylfi Sigurdsson were also conspicuous in their absence.
While equally protracted, the two transfer sagas have a different mood. Van Dijk is actively trying to force an exit from Southampton, is no longer welcome at first-team training, and has puffed himself up with comedic levels of entitlement. Sigurdsson, by contrast, has been happy to sit and wait. His long implied move to Everton remains out of reach, but doesn’t appear to be being greased by any histrionics; Swansea are just yet to receive an offer which they’re willing to accept. The midfielder has admittedly had a reduced role in pre-season, but that doesn’t appear to be the consequence of any militancy.
This game was played under those shadows and again, begged the question as to why the season is allowed to start before the transfer-window closes.
Southampton and Swansea are really the ideal sides with which to make this point. They occupy slightly different places within the Premier League and harbour contrasting ambitions, but both have been stymied by flux at a time when progress is imperative. It could be argued that both teams might have solved their respective issues by agreeing to early sales, but to do that is to ask them to bend around a flawed system.
Mauricio Pellegrino will be content with how his side started the season. Southampton were bold at St Mary’s and, although profligate and ultimately goalless, their ability to create chances was encouraging. The disconnect between midfield and attack, so apparent in so many anaemic performances last season, appears to have been bridged; James Ward-Prowse played as far forward as he has at any point during his club career, with Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond zig-zagging aggressively up the field.
This is not the same club who used to drift on the Le Tissier thermals, but an upwardly mobile side on the bubble of the European places. A player here and there – add some luck – and Pellegrino could be reasonably expected to compete at that kind of level.
Swansea are further away and are very much still in a recovery phase. They created little at St Mary’s and certainly rode their luck, but Paul Clement will travel back to Wales grateful to the point. Southampton certainly helped them across the line – misses from Dusan Tadic and Maya Yoshida were particularly heinous – but there was enough rigidity about Swansea to merit a draw; Alfie Mawson made a couple of critical blocks, Leroy Fer was an obdurate and occasionally neat presence in midfield, and Jordan Ayew toiled with Tammy Abraham at the top of the pitch.
And yet, this felt like a dress-rehearsal. To have football back is a relief and the resumption of the Premier League will certain divert attention away from the transfer wrangles, but to pretend that these aren’t two sides caught in limbo would be disingenuous. What might van Dijk have been able to harvest from those many balls into the Swansea box? What could Sigurdsson have produced from that late free-kick thirty yards from the home goal? Or, to be more realistic, what might their replacements – bought, conditioned and properly integrated in time – have been able to contribute?
From the match previews, to the pre-game chatter, to the press-conference at full-time; the conversation was centred on players who weren’t available for this game. Clement was vehement and thorough in his dislike for the window’s timing and the harm it does to his preparation. Had Pellegrino had the necessary range of English, he would presumably have said much the same.
Football will always be full of that kind of regret, because every fixture is to some extent asterisked by injuries, suspension or form. There’s a clear difference, however, in those natural vagaries and the sort which was forced upon this one. Wilfully allowing games to be lost within the fog of transfer rhetoric feels distinctly unsporting – particularly so when it chokes the lungs of teams who are trying to move forward. Rather than moving down the road, these sides sit, wheeze and wait on the whims of clubs with greater resources – and then scramble to adapt whenever that moment arrives. It can’t be right.
The transfer provides theatre, discussion and, let’s admit it, a lifeline for publishers in the digital age, but those are characteristics which shouldn’t be allowed to leak into the season itself. The golden rule, which now seems adhered to less and less, is that nothing should get in the way of the actual football.