James Sharpe unpicks the problems with postponing games.
Q How many games have been postponed so far?
A The number of postponed games is up to 21 after the North London derby became the latest top-flight fixture to be called off.
The Gunners submitted a request to the Premier League on Friday evening due to the large number of unavailable players among their squad.
This decision comes just a day after Leicester City’s game against Burnley was also postponed following a Covid outbreak at the Clarets. Leicester have had their last three fixtures called off.
Q How does the PL decide to postpone a game?
A It’s just for Covid, right? Wrong. This is what’s causing such a kerfuffle. Premier League will call off games, according to their guidance, ‘where a club has been unable to field 13 outfield players and a goalkeeper for a match due to Covid infections, injuries, illness’.
Arsenal only have one confirmed positive case — Martin Odegaard — the majority of the rest are just injured.
Managers like Brendan Rodgers claim the rise in injuries is a knock-on effect of Covid outbreaks, meaning less squad rotation and recovery. Many others just think the rules are open to abuse.
Q Surely the AFCON doesn’t count as well?
A Yup, that too. The Premier League’s statement confirming the postponement read: ‘The decision is a result of a combination of Covid, existing and recent injuries and players on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations’.
The same went for Leicester’s successful appeal to have their Everton match postponed.
Arsenal have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Thomas Partey, Nicolas Pepe and Mohamed Elneny at the AFCON.
Incredibly, players that have departed to participate in a regular, esteemed, pre-arranged international competition that everyone knew was happening are also being taken into account.
Q Can’t they just play the kids?
A Don’t be ridiculous. All those big clubs who have spent years stockpiling youngsters, you don’t now expect them to play, do you? Premier League guidelines state that only ‘appropriately experienced Under-21 players’ count.
Arsenal’s Under-23s played on Friday night. One of them, Marcelo Flores, is a Mexico international. So, what is appropriate experience? The Premier League say it’s any Under-21 who has ‘played for the club, another Premier League or EFL club, or an overseas club in the current season’.
But what about Leicester? They beat Watford in the FA Cup with a bunch of kids and still had their game against Everton called off three days later. That’s because, despite all that, the Premier League told clubs the FA Cup third round didn’t count for sufficient experience.
Q What’s it done to the integrity of the competition?
A Not a lot. Clubs are suspicious others have pushed for games to be called off simply because they can’t field their strongest side. ‘It’s got to stop,’ said Gary Neville as he demanded that clubs be forced to play on. ‘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.’
The Premier League insist that their medical advisers review supporting evidence to verify the status of each unavailable player.
Q When will they be rearranged?
A In any nook or cranny left in the football calendar and there’s not many left.
Take Burnley. Their game against Watford on Tuesday night is now also under threat after their fresh Covid outbreak. If that gets postponed, they will have five games left to rearrange.
There’s an international break coming up for all countries other than Europe. A bit of a winter break ahead of the fourth round of the FA Cup. Some may have to be squeezed in there. In extreme circumstances, the season could be extended.
P.S. It was much less easy to get games called off in the past. Former Spurs boss Martin Jol was forced to play his side’s final game of the season against West Ham in 2006 — the infamous Lasagne Gate — despite the near entirety of his squad coming down with food poisoning and their defeat costing them a place in the Champions League.