16 Conclusions: Tottenham Hotspur P-P Arsenal

Date published: Sunday 16th January 2022 11:49 - Ian King

An empty Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

16 conclusions, as Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal have their match postponed just over 24 hours before kick-off because Arsenal couldn’t raise a team…

 

1. There may have been some people who didn’t check, and who just turned up at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, as if by muscle memory. It does happen. But those who did turn up for the second North London Derby of the season without having checked a newspaper or website first will have been disappointed upon turning up to a largely empty ground.

 

2. The Premier League finally called the match off, early on Saturday afternoon. This followed a request to postpone made by Arsenal on Friday because they only had 12 fit players for the match. Within Premier League rules, clubs have to have a minimum of 14 players available. It should be pointed out that this is a Premier League rule rather than a ‘law of the game’. Under those, the minimum number of players required to start a match is seven.

 

3. The controversy over this postponement cannot be seen in isolation from other controversies over postponements that have been building up over recent weeks. This weekend’s postponement was a tinderbox of potentially flammable materials, a derby match between two fierce rivals, both of whom are seeking a highly lucrative return to the Champions League, with just a couple of points between them, and both of whose form has ebbed and flowed to wild degrees since the start of the season.

But the controversy over the North London Derby has to also be seen in a broader context. Since the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus became prevalent in December, its far higher transmission rates have forced more than 20 match postponements in the Premier League alone, as infection rates have soared amongst the general population. But as time has progressed, there has been greater ill-feeling over matches being postponed, with claims being made that clubs have been gaming the system by getting matches postponed for reasons that have little to do with the pandemic.

 

4. In the case of the Tottenham vs Arsenal match, only one of the absences was due to a positive Covid case (although a further positive test has also been reported by the club since), with the remainder of the absences being common or garden injuries or players who are unavailable due to their involvement in the African Cup of Nations, which is currently taking place in Cameroon.

In its statement on this postponement, the Premier League stated: ‘All clubs are able to apply for a postponement if COVID-19 infections are a factor in their request’. The argument runs that Covid is really a minor reason behind the postponement of this match, and that while the letter of the law has been adhered to, its spirit might not be.

 

5. There seems little doubt that the Premier League would only take the decision to allow a match to be postponed extremely reluctantly. There is still space to fit in the postponed fixtures and have the season finish on time, but the longer time progresses, the more postponements there may need to be, and the less time there will be to fit them in.

On top of this, the Premier League has a very lucrative set of television contracts, and it seems unlikely that Sky will have been very happy at having to fill a two-hour slot for a match which would have attracted a large audience, especially not at fairly short notice. There are competing pressures on the Premier League, both to postpone matches and to keep them going, and this should be recognised, regardless of what other criticisms might be made be made of the way in which this is being handled.

 

6. The official reaction from Tottenham to the postponement was extremely angry, with the club seeing fit to post a statement outlining their objections. In it, they point out that, ‘we ourselves were disqualified from the European Conference League after a significant number of COVID cases meant we needed to reschedule a fixture and our application to move our Leicester fixture was not approved – only for it to be subsequently postponed when Leicester applied’, that, ‘we do not believe it was the intent to deal with player availability unrelated to COVID’, and that, ‘we may now be seeing the unintended consequences of this rule’. Their wording does little to mask an apparent belief that Arsenal have been ‘gaming the system’.

 

7. This match certainly isn’t the first to face such an allegation. Indeed, just about every match that is postponed is now routinely accompanied by such allegations. The highest-profile have been directed at Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp over the postponement of their Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Arsenal, particularly after it emerged that this match was postponed over what turned out to be a series of false positive tests.

8. Trying to pick apart the specific reasoning why Tottenham might want this game to go ahead and Arsenal seems fairly straightforward. Tottenham would have welcomed the opportunity to play an under-strength Arsenal team, while Arsenal would rather all their players were back to full fitness first.

But beyond that, the picture is somewhat muddier due to both teams’ inconsistency. Tottenham might well have wanted this game to go ahead, but they’d still have gone into it off the back of a lacklustre performance over two legs in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup and underwhelming performances against Southampton and Watford in the League, and Morecambe in the FA Cup.

Arsenal’s inconsistency has been of a different hue to that of Tottenham Hotspur. They may have lost to Manchester City – who hasn’t? – but their performance in this match was more a continuation of that which had preceded it; a run of four straight wins, during which they scored 14 goals. They likely would have gone into this match as favourites to win, all things being equal, and those look in from outside might have been forgiven wondering why the team in the better form wanted it called off.

9. So, what of these injuries, suspensions, and withdrawals, then? Well, Martin Odegaard had tested positive for Covid-19 prior to Thursday’s rescheduled Carabao Cup semi-final first leg at Anfield and Granit Xhaka was suspended after getting himself sent off in that match, while Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny, Nicolas Pepe and Omar Rekik are all on AFCON duty (as was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, though his involvement in that has been curtailed by Covid, and he’d have been unlikely to feature in Mikel Arteta’s plans anyway). There have also been eyebrows raised at this happening not long after Arsenal had loaned Ashley Matland-Niles to Roma and Folarin Balogun to Middlesbrough.

 

10. The only statement that Arsenal have made on the matter is confirmation that the match was postponed on their official website, along with an explanation that, ‘we know how much this match means to our fans around the world, but the Premier League has made the decision to postpone the match, due to many players across our squad currently being unavailable as a result of COVID-19, existing and recent injuries, in addition to players away with their countries at AFCON.’

The bare facts are the bare facts. If Arsenal did only have twelve fit players for this match, there was little question that this match would be called off, providing they could verify that to the Premier League. Critics have argued that football clubs have vast pools of their players at their disposal, and youth, reserve or academy players could be called up if the situation is desperate enough, but why should Arsenal be punished when they’ve stayed within the rules and other clubs have also been accused of ‘gaming the system’ too?

 

11. But it’s not difficult to see all sides of this debate, and Tottenham are probably justified in their unhappiness over the cancellation of this fixture as well. In December, they had to forfeit a decisive Europa Conference League fixture against Rennes despite having a Covid outbreak, and when they tried to rearrange it for the following week (because UEFA rules state that all group matches must be played by the end of the year) the Premier League then said no, because they couldn’t move Tottenham’s scheduled match against Leicester.

The match ended up being postponed anyway upon Leicester’s request, but by this time it was was too late for Tottenham to reschedule their match against Rennes. Tottenham were effectively expelled from the Europa Conference League, but the Premier League would likely counter by saying that Tottenham’s issue with this should be with UEFA rather than them.

 

12. It has also been noted that, despite there having been 32 matches to play over the course of a long weekend, there were no Covid-inspired cancellations of FA Cup third round matches a week earlier. A cynic might argue that Premier League clubs have little interest in postponing fixtures if they can play a quarter of a first team padded out with squad, reserve and youth team players instead.

 

13. It probably shouldn’t be that surprising that requests for the postponement of matches are met with such cynicism when society in a broader sense seems to be having a crisis of confidence over taking anything in good faith any more. Add that the the inherent tribalism in football and the internet’s tendency to put everybody in an echo chamber, and you have a culture in which Liverpool requesting the postponement of a match one week and Arsenal requesting one the next causes allegations of corruption to emanate against everybody involved, regardless of whether they may be true.

 

14. With only just over half the season played, there’s no way that anybody can say for certain how the second half of this season plays out, either. It seems likely that we are at or are near the top of this wave of the pandemic, but no-one can say with 100% certainty what will happen between now and the end of May, with regard to public health, new waves or new variants of the virus. And there remains little no chance of there being any further changes to the rules before the end of this season. It would take something that we can’t predict right now for this season extended, and curtailment seems out of the question.

 

15. There is a growing body of opinion which believes it now inevitable that Covid will become endemic within our society, and that we will have to adapt in time to manage it as we would the flu or the common cold. It certainly seems inconceivable that we won’t still need protocols of some description in place for the start of next season. The Premier League’s Annual General Meeting in June will be the time for this to happen. It’s also worth remembering that ‘the Premier League’ is ultimately little more than a collection of its twenty clubs. Everything has been voted through, and Premier League clubs have every opportunity to tighten the rules come the end of the season, should they wish to.

 

16. It should be absolutely clear that this is not an issue that is a problem of one, two or more clubs. This whole mess is a failure on the part of the Premier League. Looking forward to this season, it shouldn’t have been difficult to foresee that there were likely to be new flare-ups of the virus, and that circumstances could change extremely quickly.

The Africa Cup of Nations was a known variable. Clubs knew that it would be played in January. It was also clear that the compacted nature of the previous two calendars meant that injuries through wear and tear were likely to be higher this season. They did look at the rules and they did change them, but it is clear that in an era when the financial costs of dropping a single point can run to tens of millions of pounds, those rules need to be watertight.

The very reason we have rules in the first place is partly because clubs can’t be trusted to run their own affairs. There’s nothing unusual about that. It’s just human nature. But the rules that the Premier League put in place should have been watertight and flexible, while being impossible to game. Instead, over much of the last few weeks they’ve looked as though they’ve been winging it. The empty seats at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for this match probably couldn’t have been avoided, but the rancour that has accompanied it probably could.

 

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