Freak show or the new (ab)normal?
Almost a week after that wild weekend – and a slightly more restrained transfer window closing day – we are still wondering.
So, too, are the two managers whose teams were most at sixes and sevens last Sunday as they wait before the bulk of their squads return from international duty.
Yep, players are criss-crossing the western hemisphere passing through borders, airports, going in and out of hotels, to play for their countries at this time.
And many are bursting their bio-secure bubbles just to play friendlies!
With the pandemic getting a second wind, it makes you wonder if Uefa and Fifa also organise Trump’s Covid parties.
So, what to make of it all?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has more reason to fear it is normal. After all, this is the third match in a row that United have been rubbish, their central defence reminiscent of Keystone Cops and it has not been sorted by the new recruits.
Jurgen Klopp, as manager of the all-conquering champions, has many more reasons to regard it as an aberration.
Yes, Liverpool were also hapless at the back while the front three and midfield underlined why they needed refreshing.
But with Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota signed to do just that, the champions are unlikely to be anywhere near this bad again.
Although the Reds and the Devils were the headline acts, the current uncertainty in the game goes far deeper than these two clubs: There are ominous signs that things will never go back to the old normal.
Feedback from players suggests there are two main reasons for the strange goings-on – and a vaccine can only fix one of them.
The consensus is that the absence of fans has a lot to do with it. Players have admitted their concentration can waver when they don’t have 20,000 screaming into their ears at a throw-in.
This is the same for everyone, but the effect appears to be a levelling up in performance.
While the stars suffer in silence, missing the adrenaline rush that adulation can bring, the lesser lights may just be freed of inhibitions. As we know, audiences can have a polarising effect.
The other factor is the lack of a proper pre-season. Due to the late finish of the last one, players didn’t have their usual summers – beach, training and pre-season tours in that order – to recover, digest new tactics and gel with teammates.
The effect is the same across Europe: Even Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and PSG having already suffered shock defeats in their domestic campaigns.
In the EPL, the title race – almost universally predicted to be a two-horse affair between Liverpool and Manchester City – looks as if it might be more open.
Ditto the battle for the other top four slots with Arsenal and Everton likely to challenge after some astute signings.
We always knew the absence of fans would reduce home advantage – not least because referees wouldn’t be intimidated – but no one anticipated quite such an impact.
We have to assume they will be back one day although perhaps not in such numbers if the widespread disillusionment with the game is to be believed.
English fans are finding other things to do, saving money and are fed up with the disdain with which they are often treated.
They rail against high ticket prices to subsidise obscene salaries, player antics, unfriendly kick-off times and the apparent willingness to allow small clubs to die.
What is driving managers to distraction is the heavy workload and injury risk to players in an ever more crowded fixture list.
This season is being squeezed to accommodate the postponed European Championships but next season will be worse because of a two-stage shuffle to accommodate the 2022 World Cup smack bang in the middle of the 2022-2023 season.
All this while the insane new World Club Championship, postponed from 2021 and expanded from seven to 24 teams, is still to be shoe-horned in. To be held in China, this will take another month out of the calendar for top clubs.
If you thought there might be a respite after all that, in 2024, Europe’s Champions League will see an extra four group games. The game’s greed knows no bounds.
If that’s not enough to have players – and managers – pleading for mercy, by then they could be playing a much faster game anyway with fewer natural breaks.
In his new role as Fifa’s Head of Global Football Development, Arsene Wenger is proposing radical changes to keep the game flowing.
Among them are kick-ins instead of throw-ins, corners ignored if the ball comes back into play and free-kicks where a player passes to himself.
Nope, there will be no respite. If what we are seeing is a recipe for chaos, we’ve seen nothing yet.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT