In the wake of the now-postponed North London Derby, granted by the Premier League after Arsenal appealed due to a lack of players from injury, suspension absence, and (kinda) COVID-19, Tottenham released a statement on their website. The club stated that they were “extremely surprised” by the decision to postpone the match as Arsenal only had one positive COVID case, and noted that the league’s decision would have “unintended consequences.”
We are extremely surprised that this application has been approved.
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.
The original intention of the guidance - here - 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.
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.
— Excerpt, Tottenham Hotspur statement
Arsenal are generally accused of taking advantage of a major loophole in the Premier League’s guidelines for COVID related postponements. Some call it “cheating,” others callit a violation of the spirit of the rule. But first, what does the Premier League’s current actually say? Here’s the relevant passage.
With Arsenal's list of unavailable players growing, here's a reminder of the regs:— The Extra Inch (@TheExtraInch) January 13, 2022
'A guide to Premier League match postponements due to COVID-19'https://t.co/RsAc7MKjVA https://t.co/RIM3ij1dRM pic.twitter.com/V0W681CJWI
The most important part is that first bullet point:
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 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.
Arsenal had 12 outfield players available as of yesterday — three players (Cedric Soares, Bukayo Saka and Calum Chambers) out with injury, one player (Granit Xhaka) suspended, four players (Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe) away at the African Cup of Nations, and two players who departed in the last week on loan. They also had one single COVID-19 positive test — Martin Odegaard (although a second player tested positive as of Saturday morning).
The argument Spurs are making here is that Arsenal appealed to the LETTER of the Premier League’s law, but not the SPIRIT. This, according to the club, was not what the Premier League intended when they implemented these guidelines — they were clearly made with the intent of giving clubs with actual COVID outbreaks a chance to postpone, not clubs with minimal or no COVID outbreaks but a swath of injuries and absences. The guidelines don’t specifically address loans and other absences, but the ruling sets a clear precedent that they will be considered so long as the number of first team players fall below the 13-outfield threshold.
That is the “unexpected consequence” Tottenham speaks of based on the Premier League’s ruling — it opens the door to other clubs who have injuries or players out for other reasons to postpone if they don’t have the team they want available. It’s a loophole big enough to drive a semi-truck through.
And the Premier League let them get away with it.
Now look — contrary to most Spurs fans today I’m very much in the “I’m not mad, this is actually funny to me” camp regarding this issue. I tend to think that all clubs, even mine, will try and get away with exactly what they can get away with, no more and no less, and that any club in Arsenal’s situation would have attempted to postpone the match under these guidelines. Arsenal didn’t technically break any rules — they exploited a loophole caused by asinine and not-very-well-thought-through COVID guidelines. And it’s also not clear to me that Spurs really had an advantage playing Arsenal today, considering Tottenham’s own absences and injuries.
But Spurs (and Spurs fans) have every right to be furious here. It’s true that they ended up being ousted from the Europa Conference League because the Premier League (and, to be fair, Rennes) were not willing to be flexible when Spurs were dealing with a very real COVID outbreak in their training ground. Leeds United was also forced to play a match with just nine healthy first team players (against Arsenal no less!) in mid-December during a COVID outbreak of their own, a match that ended up an easy win for Arsenal. It’s incredible that two years into a global pandemic that the Premier League hasn’t been able to establish clear and consistent rules for how and when matches are played in the midst of COVID-19. That’s very, VERY much on the Premier League’s head and they should be pilloried for it.
There’s nothing really to be done — the League has made up its mind. However, I suspect that the Premier League has seen the writing on the wall and will “clarify” its guidelines eventually for future postponements in order to prevent a swath of nominally COVID-related postponements in the future. Which means once again, common sense comes to the Premier League... but only after Tottenham get the worst of the deal.