1) Lack of crowds mean concentration needed
We already know this from other sports and other countries, but removing a real crowd and its reactions make it necessary to concentrate fully all the time. If you are washing the dishes or scrolling through Twitter you won't get the usual prompt to look up by heightened excitement being picked up and audibly transmitted. The ersatz crowd noise can run to the odd crescendo, if you have it switched on, but it comes after the event, not before it. When Dean Henderson saved from Conor Hourihane early in the game there was a belated cheer, which was a bit weird considering Villa were at home.
2) New TV views still need a bit of work
Cameras in the tunnel are new, and so is their presence within earshot of the toss for ends before kick-off, though on the evidence from Villa Park the viewing experience is not greatly enhanced. Jack Grealish merely grunted to affirm that Villa were happy to play the way they were facing, while what little drama was engendered by the two sides walking out separately through Villa's plushly spacious portal was downplayed by the editorial decision to cut to a specially prepared Black Lives Matter clip between the arrivals on the pitch. No complaints about that in the circumstances, and tunnel vision will presumably come into its own at the end of games rather than the beginning, when there might be the odd score to settle or argument to continue.
3) Noises off
Dean Smith ventured the opinion pre-kick-off that the most noticeable aspect of crowd-free football would be that everyone would hear everything. That may be true inside the stadium, though even with the crowd noise muted not a great deal of interest came over on television. Martin Tyler apologised in the City game for something that might have been heard when Kevin De Bruyne was denied a corner, but it was indistinct.
The experience is just like walking past a park game, or being a spectator at a swimming baths. What might have been an interesting conversation between John Egan and Michael Oliver when Ørjan Nyland carried the ball over his own line at Villa Park was not picked up in detail, mainly because rather than offering a verbal explanation the referee merely pointed to his wrist technology and shook his head.
That may be standard procedure for a normal Saturday afternoon, but when the usual sound effects are missing the last thing anyone needs is a mime show. Lip readers could catch Oliver apologising to Blades players at the end, but too late. Most of the coronavirus risks seem to have been covered, but disputed goals are still out there.
4) Nine-man benches tell you something
Mesut Özil could not make a 20-strong Arsenal squad, while forgotten man Jack Rodwell appeared, or rather did not appear, as a non-playing – it's been three Premier League years now – substitute for Sheffield United. The initially overlooked David Luiz came on eventually, only to leave Gary Neville lost for words. "Some patterns never change," was all the commentator could say, as the defender handed City both their opening goals before completing one of his last Arsenal cameos with a red card.
Perhaps that’s just telling us something about the financial equality within football. Talking of which, the ads for online betting are back. We’ve all really missed those, haven’t we? After this lukewarm resumption of hostilities, all the money at the weekend will be on a low number of goals. At least until David Luiz comes back.
5) A gesture that goes around the world
At both games all players and match officials knelt in honour of the Black Lives Matter campaign, right at the point of kick-off. If every club has agreed to do this in every opening fixture it will be a gesture that goes around the world, but without taking anything away from the earlier game the scenes during the minute’s silence at the Etihad, with the incessant hiss of pouring rain the only soundscape, were almost as sombre as footage from the first world war.
While City incorporated a tribute to former player Glyn Pardoe in their minute, the cameras lingered on Pep Guardiola, who lost his mother to the virus during the pandemic. At Villa a steward's jacket signifying Dean Smith's similarly lost father indicated the seat from where he used to watch matches. Et in Arcadia ego would be appropriate, if only anything in football or life at the moment were remotely idyllic.