By Charlie Eccleshare, The Athletic
This was the weekend when the patience of much of the Premier League community snapped.
When weeks of frustration about postponements, about alleged hypocrisy, about supposedly gaming the system, came to a head.
The Premier League’s decision to accept Arsenal’s request to postpone their match against Tottenham Hotspur despite only having one positive COVID-19 case has brought simmering tensions to the boil.
Spurs were said to be “incandescent” at the decision, their chairman Daniel Levy enraged, but this went far beyond the north London derby. “This always had the potential to get out of control and now it’s embarrassing,” one Premier League executive tells The Athletic.
Tottenham versus Arsenal was the 20th Premier League postponement because of a lack of player availability this season, all of them coming in a five-week period when the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant has played havoc with the schedule. The constant postponements had already led to paranoia and backbiting among Premier League clubs because, as one senior figure in English football puts it, no two situations are entirely the same.The Premier League’s COVID postponementsORIGINAL DATEMATCHDecember 12, 2021Brighton vs TottenhamDecember 14, 2021Brentford vs Man UtdDecember 15, 2021Burnley vs WatfordDecember 16, 2021Leicester vs TottenhamDecember 18, 2021Man Utd vs BrightonDecember 18, 2021Southampton vs BrentfordDecember 18, 2021Watford vs Crystal PalaceDecember 18, 2021West Ham vs NorwichDecember 18, 2021Aston Villa vs BurnleyDecember 19, 2021Everton vs LeicesterDecember 26, 2021Liverpool vs LeedsDecember 26, 2021Wolves vs WatfordDecember 26, 2021Burnley vs EvertonDecember 28, 2021Leeds vs Aston VillaDecember 28, 2021Arsenal vs WolvesDecember 30, 2021Everton vs NewcastleJanuary 1, 2022Leicester City vs NorwichJanuary 11, 2022Everton vs LeicesterJanuary 15, 2022Burnley vs LeicesterJanuary 16, 2022Tottenham vs Arsenal
The combination of injuries, suspensions, COVID-19 positives, COVID-19 exposures and now even unavailability because of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has meant so many variables and the potential for claims that are deemed far less legitimate than others. This is “a toxic cocktail”, the source explains, adding how difficult it is for the Premier League to make judgments that are met with universal approval.
Arsenal’s one positive COVID-19 case (a subsequent case was picked up after the Premier League had made its decision) has prompted almost universal disapproval, however. And we’re now in a position where there is suspicion, mistrust and bad-mouthing of one another everywhere.
But there is an acceptance among many that the issue is not with Arsenal, or indeed any one club, but with the Premier League’s rules that it is felt are ripe for exploitation. Arsenal, after all, technically met the Premier League’s criteria for postponement since they did not have the minimum of 13 outfield players and one goalkeeper available for the game.
And while they did not have a large number of COVID-19 cases in this instance, the argument put forward was that their consistent positives over the last month (11 at the time of the request — now up to 12 — since December 21) has put a strain on the squad that led to the rash of injuries they have recently suffered. This is understood to have been taken into account by the Premier League, which requires at least one positive COVID-19 case to consider a team’s application for a postponement.
Many have very little truck with this argument and across the Premier League’s clubs, there have been varying degrees of rage at the situation. The next Premier League meeting is not until February 10 unless an emergency one is called to address postponements. Some executives believe an emergency meeting is possible given how high emotions are running right now.
There is, it should be said, some sympathy for the Premier League given the monumentally complicated issues that this season has thrown up. Dealing with such an infectious COVID-19 variant was always going to be a challenge and, for all the complaining, the Premier League clubs voted to approve the rules that determine whether games can be postponed.
The question now is whether there is any chance of the rules being changed. This is understood to be very unlikely midway through a season but is one of the issues being debated in the corridors of power at Premier League clubs.
What happens next and how we got to this point form the crux of this very messy situation.
Here, The Athletic seeks to answer these key questions and more in an environment that is increasingly characterised by fear, loathing and anticipated legal battles.
What’s been the fallout from the north London derby?
First of all, Arsenal don’t feel remotely guilty about the situation. They feel justified — they felt very hard done by at the start of the season when they had to play Brentford and Chelsea when heavily depleted by COVID-19 cases. Their request to postpone the Brentford match on August 13 was rejected on the day of the match and they lost 2-0.
Arsenal were beaten on the opening night of the season at Brentford (Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
More recently, they point to how they’ve continued despite suffering from COVID-19 issues. The most high-profile example of this was when Mikel Arteta and some of his coaches were absent from the bench for the home defeat to Manchester City on New Year’s Day. Arteta and some of his staff also had to self-isolate during the days leading up to the game, which affected the team’s preparation.
On a wider scale, Arsenal point to the multiple COVID-19 player cases over the last few weeks and the knock-on effect they, and the Premier League, believe this has had. Players have had to return too quickly from knocks, and others have had to play through injury to cover those missing, which led to the point where they met the Premier League’s threshold to have the game postponed.
Some at Arsenal also felt the process over postponing Sunday’s game was unduly protracted — taking from late Friday afternoon until mid-afternoon on Saturday before a decision was reached. This, some felt, created more time for a backlash to build up against the expected decision. In the end, they met the threshold and postponement was the only realistic decision.
Outside of Arsenal, there is a suspicion of a growing sense of teams feeling they are “due” a postponement. The refusal to be granted one against Brentford coupled with Liverpool’s successful request ahead of their Carabao Cup semi-final first leg is seen to have emboldened Arsenal to make the request (their position of course is that they simply met the threshold for a postponement). Arsenal’s game against Wolverhampton Wanderers on December 28 was also postponed at their opponents’ request, and they made no complaint.
From the Premier League’s perspective, this notion of being “due” a postponement is not something that is taken into account. Its position is that all applications are filtered through a range of experts, including medical and football, to see if the club has a case before it reaches the board. The north London derby was no exception.
Tottenham, though, are furious. When the request went in on Friday, Spurs sources expressed their surprise and some at the club felt it wasn’t fair they were left to prepare for the game on Saturday without knowing if it was on or not. As for the Tottenham players, Eric Dier articulated the view of many with a tweet that appeared to endorse the stinging statement that was released by the club on Saturday night.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-0&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH19&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1482402386022912002&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Ftheathletic.com%2F&sessionId=5153b24fe8d9ae702151aeedd76df1c79d098c1b&theme=dark&widgetsVersion=86e9194f%3A1641882287124&width=550px
“We are extremely surprised that this application has been approved,” the statement read, before adding that “we do not believe it was the intent (of the Premier League) to deal with player availability unrelated to COVID.
“We may now be seeing the unintended consequences of this rule.”
Spurs also expressed their frustration at the fact they had to forfeit a decisive Europa Conference League fixture despite suffering from a COVID-19 outbreak, and when they tried to rearrange it for the following week the Premier League refused, as it couldn’t move their scheduled match against Leicester.
In the end, the match was postponed anyway because of unavailabilities in the Leicester squad but it was too late for Tottenham to reschedule their match against Rennes and they were essentially disqualified from the Europa Conference League. The competition may have been derided but the loss of revenue is still a blow for the club, and the fact it came after a genuine COVID-19 outbreak made Spurs having to forfeit the game even more frustrating.
The postponement of the north London derby will also carry a cost, and it’s been observed at some other clubs that moving the game from a Saturday to a midweek evening in February will be a financial blow to Spurs, with the home team losing huge revenue and adding costs.
Outside of north London, there has been widespread fury at the situation. Most accept COVID-19 and injuries as legitimate reasons for having a game postponed, but the AFCON absences and recently loaning two players out (midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles joined Roma and striker Folarin Balogun went to Middlesbrough) have been particularly galling.
“Arsenal put two players out on loan and then cancelled a game,” says one Premier League executive. “They’ve got away with it because the rules are black and white. They shouldn’t be, but they are. But when have games ever been called off because players are competing at AFCON? It’s nonsense.”
Some executives wish the Premier League had made the point about having just loaned two players out to Arsenal and forced them to play, but they know this is unrealistic because the rules are quite clear. It also could be argued that the development of young players through loans should not be compromised just for the sake of them playing the odd game in case of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Tottenham trained as normal on Friday morning before the north London derby was postponed on Saturday (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
More broadly, many have expressed dismay at the fact that academy prospects are not deemed viable options even when a squad is so stretched. It’s been pointed out that Marcus Rashford only got his chance at Manchester United when they had 13 injuries.
In Spain, by contrast, the rule in La Liga is that if a team has five senior players available, and can add youth teamers, they have to play. There has yet to be a postponement this season, and Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, has made it a priority that the show must go on. Largely, this stance has been accepted by the clubs.
Just how rancorous is the mood among Premier League clubs, and what are their complaints?
The view of one Premier League club executive — that there’s no transparency, no consistency and total abuse of the rules — is shared by many, and gives an idea of the mood music right now. Another is still sore their club was denied a postponement that, in their view, was completely warranted while watching other clubs seemingly get games postponed more easily.
The clubs are united in their anger, though, even if they are coming at it from different angles. For some, there is frustration at the perceived inconsistency of the decision-making.
Southampton, for instance, were incensed by Newcastle successfully appealing to have their match on January 1 postponed. “There were times where we had nine (players) out and we played academy players,” said the Southampton manager, Ralph Hasenhuttl. “Injuries are not COVID cases. They (Newcastle) had seven or eight players on the bench during their last game. They should still have 13 players plus one (goalkeeper).”
The Southampton manager thought his side’s match against Newcastle should have gone ahead (Photo: Nick Potts – Pool/Getty Images)
The idea that clubs might be gaming the system has caused considerable discord, according to one Premier League chief executive. The bad feeling has spread around the league because clubs thought they were in it together only for some to be perceived as trying to find an unfair advantage.
Another fear club executives have is over the integrity of the competition, with some teams having so many games in hand. In the relegation zone, for instance, a team like Burnley having played so few games compared to its rivals (just 17 compared to Norwich City’s 21) could create a situation where they know exactly what they need to do in the run-in in a way that could be seen to give them an unfair advantage. The flip side is they are facing a fixture pile-up they are not equipped to deal with.
Across the board, the feeling is that there needs to be a higher bar for postponements. Some saw validity in Hasenhuttl’s idea last week that clubs should forfeit games if they can’t put a team out. Hasenhuttl also talked about the need for greater “transparency”, which is also a recurring gripe of some clubs.
In fairness to the Premier League, though, it has been transparent about the criteria needed for a game to be postponed — it’s just that some don’t agree with those criteria.
What are the clubs’ views on testing?
To get a sense of how much paranoia and mistrust there currently is among Premier League clubs, we can also examine some of the gripes that exist around how players are tested.
The Premier League recently moved away from PCR tests to lateral flows, and at the recent Premier League meeting on January 7, one executive went as far as suggesting that the testing by Prenetics at training grounds give some clubs an unfair advantage. There is no evidence to suggest this has been the case, but it gives an insight into how clubs fear they are losing out to their rivals at every turn.
The January 7 meeting was said to be “emotional” and there are other contentious issues around testing at play. For instance, how many staff need to be testing positive for this to really affect a team’s preparation? This can be harder to quantify than the “13 available outfielders plus one goalkeeper” rule.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s recent spate of what Jurgen Klopp called “false positives” ahead of their Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Arsenal led to the English Football League, which is in charge of the competition, being urged to open up an investigation by some of its clubs.
The bottom line, according to one Premier League medic, is that no games should be getting called off given the size of the team’s squads and availability of back-up players from the youth ranks.
Burnley against Watford was postponed in December (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
There is some sympathy for the Premier League, which is caught in a difficult position. Clubs are demanding transparency, but as one Premier League chief executive points out, this is complicated by the fact that medical confidentiality comes into play.
When the Premier League assesses the 14 players available for a game it doesn’t get the names, just confirmation from the clubs of the positive tests. So, in fairness to the Premier League, it is flying blind to a degree (unless a club decides to name which players have tested positive).
On the one hand, you’ve got clubs asking for more transparency, such as over the weekend demanding that Arsenal publish who they had available, but the Premier League cannot do that because of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
What happens next?
At the last Premier League meeting, a month-long hiatus was suggested but it’s been clear throughout the season that the league want to continue as much as is possible.
If matches keep being postponed, though, the clubs may decide they need to meet sooner than the next scheduled meeting on February 10 to try and thrash out some solutions. These problems don’t seem to be going away — despite a hope among clubs last week that, with Omicron cases declining, the worst of the postponements might be over.
Supporters hoping for rule changes to the postponement criteria should not hold their breath, however. Doing so mid-season is fraught and has the potential for legal action and, according to one well-placed source, the Premier League will do anything to avoid a mid-season rule change.
“Integrity of the competition” is a term we often hear relating to the Premier League and postponements, and it would surely undermine the competition if rules that were applied and benefitted certain teams in the first half of the season were removed to the potential detriment of others.
Some also argue that there is some justification to the Premier League’s rules given that if one of the smaller teams had to face Manchester City with a decimated squad they would likely receive a hammering that could also be seen as doing little for the league’s integrity.
There doesn’t appear to be a big appetite, meanwhile, for Hasenhuttl’s suggestion that January signings shouldn’t be available for rearranged matches if they weren’t available for the original fixture. Clubs who were forced into postponements against their will don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to use additional players they bring in to bolster their squad in January.
What appears increasingly likely, however, is that we could be in for legal battles at the end of the season. Multiple sources have said they anticipate this happening, especially when relegation and Champions League places are involved. There is precedent for this, with West Ham agreeing an out-of-court settlement of around £20 million to Sheffield United in 2009 after Carlos Tevez’s goals helped keep West Ham up at their expense — despite West Ham having been found guilty by the Premier League for breaking rules on third-party player ownership.
There have already been murmurings of legal action when teams have looked to get matches postponed that their opponents did not feel was justified.
With so much at stake, and so little chance of everyone being satisfied by whatever the Premier League does, tensions are likely to get worse before they get better.
(Top photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)