The Premier League returns to our screens on Wednesday and the table is unusually compressed, with six teams in the hunt for two Champions League spots and six still fighting against relegation.
If that didn't make things interesting enough, the financial impact of the division's three-month hiatus has made the 2019/20 Premier League table more important than ever; surviving the drop and qualifying for Europe provides a financial windfall that could have huge ramifications for each club.
Football will not look or feel the same, no matter how much is invested in fake crowd noises or animated overlays in the stands. In Germany, playing in an empty stadium has eliminated home advantage while removing a psychological aspect of the sport that has benefitted a calm and methodical approach. The tactical landscape of the Premier League will shift. The outcome could be era-defining.
Champions League Race
Manchester City's looming ban means fifth place should bring Champions League football, putting almost the entire top half of the table in the race. Liverpool and Leicester City are safe, but those other two spots are definitely up for grabs.
Chelsea will have benefitted from the opportunity to reset. Frank Lampard's young side raced out of the blocks in August but tired – emotionally and physically – as the season went on. They should rediscover that early-season form and make a good go of clinging onto fourth.
Manchester United are an unknown entity, and without the home crowd will either be able to play their preferred counter-attacking football more regularly than before or will not be able to rely on the intimidation of Old Trafford, and crumble. How Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes work together looks set to define Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tenure, starting this week.
There is no reason to believe Leicester will be drastically affected by the changes, and while Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United are in the race the Premier League's new order hinders their chances. The Bundesliga has shown that empty stadiums create training ground-style matches, with the technically superior players grinding their way to victory.
Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are the two clubs to watch closely. Mikel Arteta has already implemented detailed positional tactics in the style of his mentor Pep Guardiola, but before the break he was let down by Arsenal's emotional volatility; no fans in the Emirates can significantly help their cause.
Spurs, meanwhile, failed to win any of their last six matches and looked completely lost under Joe Mourinho. He is fortunate to be given a second chance, and as a master of pre-season can be expected to have used the extra time to implement his tactics, erase memories of Mauricio Pochettino, and form his own cliques.
At the other end, Norwich City have been badly hurt by the loss of their supporters. They won 15 of their 21 points (71%) at home, and with some big six-pointers left to play at Carrow Road were dreaming of a great escape. That seems unlikely now - unless Daniel Farke's progressive football actually improves in the laboratory conditions of the final nine rounds, when they will be allowed to play their possession game both home and away.
Bournemouth have been gradually sliding down the league table for a long time, but the welcome return of David Brooks offers Eddie Howe a lifeline. Brooks, who amassed seven goals and five assists last season, hasn't played a single minute in 2019/20. He re-joins the squad with five winnable games remaining, including against several mid-table sides with nothing left to play for. The increased risk of injuries and the lack of encouragement from the stands means games against mid-table clubs have never been easier.
That should see Bournemouth survive, while Aston Villa may also climb out of the bottom three before the end of the campaign. John McGinn, the beating heart of the team, is back from his injury and along with Jack Grealish should inspire Villa to repeat the performances that characterised the first third of their season. Games against Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Everton, and West Ham are all weighted in Villa's favour.
That leaves two relegation places left, and arguably the most likely to go down is West Ham. David Moyes failed to inspire any kind of upturn in form before the break and his dreary defensive football isn't suited to the emotionless void of the new normal. A tough run of games only compounds the problem.
Watford don't have the strongest squad and are certainly in real danger of going down, particularly given that the Nigel Pearson factor has already worn off. There is nothing new to learn about the club; no players returning or earlier form we can anticipate being revived. Their best bet is simply not being quite as bad as Brighton, who lack a goalscoring threat and play Arsenal, Leicester, Man Utd, Liverpool and Man City in their first six games. They might be dead and buried before the fixture list eases up.
Prediction: Norwich, Brighton, West Ham
Keep an eye on…
Everton might not have anything to play for, but it will be interesting to see if Carlo Ancelotti can build on a promising start to life at Goodison Park. The only major flaw in his tactical battle plan was a softness in central midfield that could be fixed by the return of Jean-Philippe Gbamin, and so a climb into the Europa League spots is not out of the question.
Southampton are the other mid-table club that could make headlines, but not for the right reasons. The subtly demotivating factors of increased injury risk and crowdless venues could leave them flat, gradually sucking Ralph Hasenhuttl's side into the relegation battle. Their dreadful form in the first half of the season tells us they are capable of switching off and falling away. In this peculiar year, Saints could yet go down.