A total of 20 Premier League matches have been called off for Covid-19 related reasons this season, with the league and some clubs taking criticism in recent weeks. Why has it got to this stage, and does something need to change?
What’s causing the controversy?
The credibility of certain matches has been called into question throughout the season, dating back to Arsenal’s opening-night defeat to Brentford back in August when Mikel Arteta said he was “surprised” the game was allowed to go ahead despite four positive Covid-19 cases in his squad.
Fast forward five months, the Gunners got their wish against Tottenham on Sunday with the north London derby postponed with barely 24 hours’ notice following an official request and accompanying press release from Arsenal, in which the club blamed injuries, Covid-19 and AFCON international duty for their appeal to call the game off.
Spurs were less sympathetic, and in a statement of their own said they were “extremely surprised” the request had been granted and that the league was facing the “unintended consequences” of its Covid policy.
Arsenal are far from the first, and unlikely to be the last, team to seek a postponement this season, however. Others have been criticised, while, conversely, some teams have turned on the Premier League after seeing their own requests turned down.
The rescheduling of the north London derby brings the total number of games called off due to coronavirus to 20 across the season. Several of those have been given the chop at only a few hours’ notice, in some cases leaving fans out of pocket and facing long journeys home, such as Watford’s postponed game at Burnley in December, which was called off less than three hours ahead of kick-off.
It already risks creating a fixture backlog in the second half of the season and further accusations of teams requesting postponements out of desire, rather than necessity – so does anything need to change?
What is the Premier League’s stance on Covid postponements?
Since the start of the season, the Premier League has operated on the basis that, in its own words: “where a club cannot field 13 outfield players and a goalkeeper either from its squad list or its appropriately experienced U21 players, the match will be postponed”.
That has seen a number of requests turned down as a result – with Tottenham, Chelsea and Brighton among those denied by the officiating Premier League board, made up of chairman Gary Hoffman, CEO Richard Masters and non-executive directors Kevin Beeston, Mai Fyfield and Dharmash Mistry.
Premier League guidance in full
“The Board will consider the following principal factors when making a decision:
1) 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.
2) 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.
3) A club’s ability to safely prepare its players in the lead-up to a match.
4) Medical advice as to whether there is any unacceptable risk to the health and safety of players and staff by playing the match.
5) Any advice from UK Health Security Agency and other public bodies.
6) Any other exceptional circumstances.”
However, successful requests have caused controversy more than once – in the run-up to the north London derby Arsenal had reduced their squad size by allowing two players out on loan, and earlier in the week Burnley had also been criticised for successfully requesting the postponement of their fixture with Leicester only days after selling Chris Wood to Newcastle.
Before Christmas, there were calls for a ‘circuit-breaker’ break in fixtures with the Omicron variant leading to a rapid rise in case numbers, but these were rejected by the Premier League with Sky Sports reporting most wanted to continue playing. Despite conversations about Covid policy, no new guidance was announced, and The Times reported this weekend that remains the Premier League’s policy in the immediate future.
Nev and Carra: Teams should be forced to play
Gary Neville says the Premier League must force teams to fulfil their fixtures after Arsenal requested to postpone Sunday’s north London derby, while Jamie Carragher believes clubs are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I honestly believe that all teams, not just in the Premier League but the EFL now, must be made to play their fixtures,” said Neville.
“If it was purely down to Covid in extraordinary circumstances where there was 10 or 15 players out, but we’re now talking about teams for the last few weeks where there’s no doubt they’ve been calling games off based upon whether they think they’ve got the best squad or team to win a game. It’s got to stop.
“That’s not a dig at Arsenal – I should’ve spoken about this three or four weeks ago. Manchester United and other teams have got 30 to 40 players in their squad – I’m not having they can’t get 13 to 16 players together.”
Carragher added: “No other league in Europe is doing this, certainly not in those big leagues. Bayern Munich played a 16-year-old in their last game and that tells you exactly where they are. Why can’t we do that? Why can’t the young players be given an opportunity in these circumstances?
“Everyone’s in the same boat and I’m exactly with Gary. If it’s an outbreak of Covid and it’s decimated the squad I can understand that, but players being in the AFCON tournament and just normal injuries, that’s got nothing to do with it.
“You’ve got U23 squads and younger players, and this is an opportunity where they can get a chance.”
What have the managers said?
Managers have come out on either side of the fence with regards to the situation. West Ham boss David Moyes told a press conference last week he felt managers had to “trust that the Premier League are doing things correctly”, while Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel said he would be “very angry” if it came out that rival clubs were using the system to make up for players lost to injury.
Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl, whose side have seen games pushed back twice for Covid postponements, said people “cannot be surprised people are walking through when [the Premier League] have opened the door” on calling games off, and that “new signings should not be allowed to play in rescheduled games”.
Pep Guardiola expressed his own desire that Manchester City’s game with Chelsea, played on Saturday lunchtime, should go ahead regardless of his side’s Covid situation, saying: “We try to play, if we have 11 or 12, we play. We have Cole Palmer, we have James McAtee and others who can play. We never ask [to postpone] because we have enough players.”
Which Premier League games have been called off?
Brighton vs Tottenham – Sunday December 12, Premier League
Brentford vs Man Utd – Tuesday December 14, Premier League (now January 19, 8pm)
Burnley vs Watford – Wednesday December 15, Premier League (now January 18, 7.30pm)
Leicester vs Tottenham – Thursday December 16, Premier League (now January 19, 7.30pm)
Man Utd vs Brighton – Saturday December 18, Premier League
Southampton vs Brentford – Saturday December 18; Southampton won re-arranged game 4-1 on Tuesday January 11
Watford vs Crystal Palace – Saturday December 18
West Ham vs Norwich – Saturday December 18; West Ham won re-arranged game 2-0 on Wednesday January 12
Aston Villa vs Burnley – Saturday December 18, Premier League
Everton vs Leicester – Sunday December 19, Premier League
Liverpool vs Leeds – Sunday December 26, Premier League
Wolves vs Watford – Sunday December 26, Premier League
Burnley vs Everton – Sunday December 26, Premier League
Leeds vs Aston Villa – Tuesday December 28, Premier League
Arsenal vs Wolves – Tuesday December 28, Premier League
Everton vs Newcastle – Thursday December 30, Premier League
Leicester vs Norwich – Saturday January 1, Premier League
Southampton vs Newcastle – Sunday January 2, Premier League
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, Premier League
Tottenham vs Arsenal – Sunday January 16, Premier League