Premier League will not adjust rules for controversial Covid postponement system

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The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was supposed to play host to the much-anticipated north London derby on Sunday - AFP
The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was supposed to play host to the much-anticipated north London derby on Sunday - AFP

The Premier League will resist calls to overhaul their controversial Covid postponement system despite increasing fears that the competition’s integrity has been compromised following 21 rearranged fixtures.

While other major European leagues have got by this season without postponing fixtures, and have significantly higher vaccination rates among their players, fans of Premier League clubs have been repeatedly inconvenienced by sudden announcements.

The latest postponement was Sunday’s north London derby after Arsenal had their request accepted by the Premier League only 24 hours before kick-off despite having only one known Covid case.

Other clubs have persistently called on the Premier League to provide more transparency over their decisions, and to also disregard absentees for non-Covid issues, especially suspensions, when they decide whether clubs have the required 14 available players.

Club representatives met last week but the next scheduled Premier League shareholders’ meeting is not until February and there is a feeling that concerns over the competition’s integrity would only increase if the criteria for postponing matches was suddenly now adjusted mid-season.

Tottenham, like Southampton previously, demanded more “clarity and consistency” from the Premier League after Sunday’s match was called off.

Clubs are required to provide a detailed availability list to the Premier League but each case is then considered on its own merits by the league’s board following dialogue with medical departments. There is deep frustration, however, that no breakdown of Covid cases, even without identifying individual players, is then publicly released.

The system also depends on considerable good faith, especially as a large percentage of players will be carrying injuries of varying severity at this stage of the season.

Spurs expressed dismay at Sunday's postponement, saying they were “extremely surprised" at the match being called off 24 hours from kick-off and will send food deliveries to local food banks "to avoid unacceptable waste".

Spurs had pointed how "we ourselves" were disqualified from the European Conference League after failing to field a team against Rennes last month because of a Covid outbreak. Tottenham had then also had an application to call off their fixture against Leicester City rejected.

"The original intention of the guidance was to deal with player availability directly affected by Covid cases, resulting in depleted squads that, when taken together with injuries, would result in the club being unable to field a team," Tottenham said. "We do not believe it was the intent to deal with player availability unrelated to Covid. We may now be seeing the unintended consequences of this rule. It is important to have clarity and consistency on the application of the rule.”

Arsenal, however, are understood to have played on despite 10 Covid cases during the past month and so could argue that subsequent injuries were still linked to the pandemic and the difficulty in rotating their squad during the busiest period of the season. It is understood that Arsenal would have been unable to field a squad of 14 players against Tottenham even if Granit Xhaka was not suspended or Ainsley Maitland-Niles had not gone on loan to Roma. They also suffered further Covid cases after the game was postponed.

The current transfer window should in theory ease the burden on playing squads, as should a general community fall in Covid cases. The Africa Cup of Nations also finishes early next month. Arsenal have four players away competing at the tournament, which is being staged in Cameroon.

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