Has the Premier League mistakenly opened up a Pandora’s box with its COVID postponement rules?

January 21, 2022

Following the recent Burnley vs Watford postponement, a total of 22 Premier League games have been called off for COVID-related reasons this season, with some clubs and the league, in particular, facing heavy criticism in recent weeks. But how did it get to this stage, and is there light at the end of the tunnel?


The integrity of the Premier League has been called into question throughout this season; from the very first game, in fact, when Arsenal lost to Brentford in August with Mikel Arteta saying he was “very surprised” that the game was allowed to go ahead with four of his players testing positive for COVID just 36 hours prior to the game. Arsenal’s recent postponement of the North London Derby against Tottenham Hotspur, on the other hand, was in all honesty a blatant abuse of the loopholes present in the Premier League’s current COVID-19 postponement regulations.

Arsenal are far from the first, and they definitely won’t be the last team to seek a postponement this season. The postponement of the North London Derby and the subsequent calling off of the Burnley vs Watford game mean a total of 22 games have now been called off due to coronavirus throughout the season, while there are clubs who have turned on the Premier League after seeing their own requests turned down amid calls of lack of ‘clarity’ and ‘transparency’ by the governing bodies calling the shots.


What do the rules state?

December marked the start of a downward spiral for the Premier League. Since the start of the season, the League has operated on the basis of its own written words and guidelines: “where a club has been unable to field 13 outfield players and a goalkeeper for a match due to COVID-19 infections, injuries, illness and/or those who are isolating from its first-team squad or its appropriately experienced U21 players, the match will be postponed.”

This has seen a lot of requests getting turned down, as a result, while some have managed to exploit the loopholes in it to circumvent the situation.


Premier League rules and factors taken into account by the PL Board

As the guidance shows, the Board will consider the following principal factors when making a decision:

  • The impact of COVID-19 infections on a club’s squad, as well as injuries, illness and those isolating, and the number of players available on the squad list and any Under-21 players with appropriate experience. Where a club cannot field 13 outfield players and a goalkeeper either from its squad list or its appropriately experienced Under-21 players, the match will be postponed.
  • The status of any COVID-19 outbreak within a club, including the number of individuals affected, the sequence and source of infections and their proximity to the match in question.
  • A club’s ability to safely prepare its players in the lead-up to a match.
  • Medical advice as to whether there is any unacceptable risk to the health and safety of players and staff by playing the match.
  • Any advice from the UK Health Security Agency and other public bodies.
  • Any other exceptional circumstances.


What’s causing this controversy?

Although it took the teams some time to comprehend the rules and understand the interpretation of each clause, when they eventually did, it became apparent that the League had driven itself into a ditch.

Tottenham Hotspur were the first to get their matches postponed, as the club reported that eight of their players and five of their coaching staff members were infected with COVID.

It is known to everybody that Premier League teams are required to submit a squad of 25 players. Besides, homegrown players who are 21 or under need not be registered; this is common practice and has been there for years.

However, given the sheer stupidity of the rules, teams only need to prove that five of their first-team players are either injured or unavailable for selection to get a game postponed — that’s how easy it is for clubs to call off games as per their convenience.

When Tottenham were left with less than 13 outfield players from the first-team squad, the Premier League had to accept their request for the postponement of their games.

Although all Premier League clubs have the same system in place (except Brentford), where they have U23 and U18 sides full of young and exciting players, those U21 players which the Premier League clubs can call upon in hours of need like these need to have appropriate experience playing either for the same club or another club—either English or foreign—at senior level during the current season.

However, any U21 player participating in a club’s FA Cup 3rd Round match that has not played in any other first-team competitions for that or any other club this season can not be considered by the Board as appropriately experienced; Wolves and Arsenal exploited this loophole in the rules and ran away with it clean.

Wolves called off their Boxing Day fixture against Watford followed by an away trip to the Emirates against Arsenal on 28 December. At the time, of the 23 first-team players available to them, 9 outfield players were out through various injuries and suspensions, thus Wolves only needed two COVID-19 cases to call off their fixtures. Since the number of COVID-infected players was not revealed, when I dug deep and looked at their injury record up until that point, the aforementioned figures emerged.

Arsenal’s case, on the other hand, is a more blatant one, and thus other clubs and fans have raised their concerns regarding the effectiveness of the rules in place.

The Gunners were already short on numbers before their game against Liverpool in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final as the club had offloaded the academy duo of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Folarin Balogun on loan to AS Roma and Middlesbrough respectively, but the suspension of Granit Xhaka followed by injuries to Bukayo Saka and Cédric Soares meant Mikel Arteta was only left with 10 outfield players (including Charlie Patino) along with the two goalkeepers.

Thus, the Gunners got their wish, and their match against Tottenham on Sunday was postponed with barely a 24-hour notice following an official request. In a press release, Arsenal blamed injuries, COVID-19 and AFCON international duty for their appeal to call the game off.


What do the managers have to say?

Chelsea were one of the first clubs to report a big COVID outbreak at the peak of the Christmas fixture congestion after seven positive cases had depleted their squad, but their request for postponement was turned down.

“When we arrived in Wolverhampton we had a big case and had actually seven positive, who were positive. We thought we had the possibility to postpone one match,” Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said.

“Decisions were taken. You know my opinion about it but I will not comment on other club situations. We struggled, we still can struggle at any time like anybody can.”

However, Tuchel called on the Premier League to be more transparent in its decisions over games getting postponed due to COVID-19 after Leicester City managed to get their fourth postponement of the season—a match against Everton—last Sunday. Leicester had a depleted squad due to COVID-19 cases, injuries and players on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations, making their match against Everton the 19th Premier League match to be postponed this season.

“I doubt you can postpone a match because of the Africa Cup of Nations, that would be a big surprise.

“All the details in the regulations, I have to admit, I am not aware of. Transparency most of the time helps and in these positions it would help to make people understand why… It would be nice for everybody.”

When asked to comment on Jürgen Klopp’s statement that said the club had false positives for all the doubtful barring one, Tuchel said, “I believe him and people will look into it. It can happen. We had one false test in Wolverhampton, one false result of a test to send Jorginho straight home.”

Runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City are no exception either, as their manager Pep Guardiola, who, too, was sidelined with COVID, returned to conduct his first training session in over a week on Thursday before the Chelsea fixture.

“If we have 11 or 12 players, it’s enough, we play,” Guardiola said. “We have Cole Palmer, James McAtee and other players we try to play.”

“In many cases, we had just 12 first-team players available plus the keeper and we played. We had 13 or 14 first-team players in the FA Cup. We had 11 players against Aston Villa plus the keeper, the rest were academy. We played.

“The other clubs, I don’t know. Is it just COVID or injuries? Injuries happen all the time,” said Guardiola.

City had actually named 14 first-team players under Premier League rules at Aston Villa in December as both Palmer and McAtee had previously made appearances for the club this season.

Phil Foden and Jack Grealish were on the bench, although neither of them would ordinarily have made the trip due to injuries.

Moreover, despite their recent postponement of the North London Derby, Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta said in a press conference following the postponement: “We have already reached a point where postponing games is damaging the integrity of the Premier League.

“You talk about a team like Burnley that is behind by those numbers (5 games), it’s not the same level of competition, it’s not the same level of availability.

“I don’t know when they’re going to have to play those games.”

“It changes things. It’s not the regulations we are used to. We are trying to adapt, everyone is trying to do their best, but it’s a big question mark.”

Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhüttl questioned earlier this month whether teams should be allowed to play January signings in games that were originally scheduled to take place before they had been registered with their new clubs; teams like Aston Villa and Newcastle United will now be stronger for their rearranged clashes after adding the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Lucas Digne and Kieran Trippier and Chris Wood to their respective ranks.

When asked about this, Arteta had a clear answer: “That is the minimum of the problems that we have at the moment that’s what I think, because then you can ask, okay, how many COVID players you had.

“Six? And someone else had zero. Or the manager is sick. It is difficult. Next time you can say okay you have three positives, so these three cannot play, or the manager was sick so he cannot sit on the bench for the coming game.

“You can argue for anything that is there. Already this is extremely difficult for me and this is the less of the problems we have at the moment.”


Should the teams be forced to field a team regardless?

Before one can make a sensible judgment on this, it is important to take into consideration the factors in play.

Why was the Premier League not calling off games earlier? Why is it now postponing fixtures in clusters? Who will be responsible for the backlog of fixtures?

Let’s look at two examples.

Leeds United and Leicester City are two cases that have been handled quite differently.

Leeds United’s squad was stretched to its bare bones, with injuries and COVID ravaging through the first-team and youth set-ups, but since they somehow met the required criteria to play, their games against Manchester City and Arsenal went ahead, but the performances and results were so one-sided that even the opposition fans felt bad for them. Finally, Leeds got their wish and had their next two games against Liverpool and Aston Villa called off.

Leicester City were also one of the first clubs who were granted their wish to have their matches postponed, with their fixtures against Tottenham (17 December) and Everton (19 December) getting called off. However, the club requested again for the postponement of their game on New Year’s Day against Norwich City followed by a couple of fixtures against Everton and Burnley.

Although the fixture against Burnley was called off by the Clarets themselves, the postponement against Everton was requested by Leicester.

Now, the reason why I’ve brought this up is, with the Norwich game postponed, four of Leicester City’s first-team players were spotted among a 3000-strong crowd at the World Darts Championship on New Year’s Day.

Darts star Michael van Gerwen, who was ruled out of the tournament after contracting the virus, described the event at Alexandra Palace as a ‘COVID bomb’, but it went ahead anyway. Moreover, van Gerwen was the third COVID case among darts players, with both Vincent van der Voort and Raymond van Barneveld testing positive and pulling out of the competition midway through.

The four Leicester City players in question were James Maddison, Harvey Barnes, Hamza Choudhury and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall. And while three of the four players were part of Leicester’s FA Cup 3rd Round win against Watford, the club called off their next fixture citing they were unable to field a team.

Thus, the question that arises is: who should be held accountable for this? The Premier League, the clubs, or the players themselves?

The rules set by the Premier League, especially for COVID, basically allow the clubs to get away with murder. Any modification of the rulebook midway through the season is definitely out of the equation, since for the teams that have been allowed a backlog of fixtures, any modification would only hamper those clubs later on in the season in case of any COVID outbreaks.

Moreover, another factor that has been completely overlooked is the broadcasting viewership and the subsequent revenue generated from it. The Premier League prides itself on being the most glamorous and competitive league in the world. So if in the North London Derby, which is arguably the biggest derby in the land, a full-strength Tottenham Hotspur were to play a C-string skeleton Arsenal side, it would not look good for the exposure and appeal of the Premier League — the best league in the world.

At least, this is what I see.

Forcing teams like Leeds United and Chelsea to play their games initially, despite a large chunk of first-team players missing through various injuries or COVID cases, was an experiment to see the reaction of the footballing community and the level of competitive football it produced before pulling the plug.

You see, at the end of the day, this is a business and, as it stands, it looks like the Premier League is open to facing criticism in the short term to provide what it refers to as ‘the most competitive and compelling football’ till the end of the season.


Is the Premier League missing the plot completely?

The direction in which the Premier League has set itself on is a slippery slope, to say the least. There is already a backlog of fixtures, and it is only going to increase in the coming months. Matches will continue to be delayed in hopes that they will be played out at a time that is currently not guaranteed, with the league looking at the situation hoping that it will sort itself out.

Moreover, 2022 in itself will pose a different challenge, with a winter slot reserved for the 2022 Men’s FIFA World Cup. This is also the main reason why the 2022/23 Premier League season is scheduled for an early start, as early as 6th August, with the current season due to end on 22 May 2022.

After two seasons of chaos with an European Championship in between, one would think that the Premier League and the FA would learn from their mistakes of the past and put the health and safety of their players at the forefront. However, the pace at which things are moving could turn out to be a complete nightmare for the players and the management by the time we get to Qatar in December.


Which Premier League games have been called off thus far?

Brighton vs Tottenham – Sunday, December 12

Brentford vs Man Utd – Tuesday, December 14; Man Utd won the rearranged fixture 3-1 on Thursday, January 20

Burnley vs Watford – Wednesday, December 15; was previously rescheduled for January 18, but postponed again

Leicester vs Tottenham – Thursday, December 16; Tottenham won the rearranged fixture 3-2 on Thursday, January 20

Man Utd vs Brighton – Saturday, December 18

Southampton vs Brentford – Saturday, December 18; Southampton won the rearranged fixture 4-1 on Tuesday, January 11

Watford vs Crystal Palace – Saturday, December 18

West Ham vs Norwich – Saturday, December 18; West Ham won the rearranged fixture 2-0 on Wednesday, January 12

Aston Villa vs Burnley – Saturday, December 18

Everton vs Leicester – Sunday, December 19

Liverpool vs Leeds – Sunday, December 26

Wolves vs Watford – Sunday, December 26

Burnley vs Everton – Sunday, December 26

Leeds vs Aston Villa – Tuesday, December 28

Arsenal vs Wolves – Tuesday, December 28

Everton vs Newcastle – Thursday, December 30

Leicester vs Norwich – Saturday, January 1

Southampton vs Newcastle – Sunday, January 2

Everton vs Leicester – Tuesday, January 11; as above, this game had already previously been postponed from its original Sunday, December 19 date

Burnley vs Leicester – Saturday, January 15

Tottenham vs Arsenal – Sunday, January 16

Burnley vs Watford – Tuesday, January 18

Rahul Saha

An engineer taking the road less taken. I love writing, live and breathe football, and am always up for a tactical conversation.

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