The Premier League will hold emergency meetings next week with club owners and team managers to discuss the escalating disruption caused by Covid, with some clubs preparing to express their desire to “fire” matches at Christmas.
With the Premier League confirming that 19 of its 36 matches this weekend have been postponed, and with only five matches left in the top flight, more managers are expressing skepticism about continuing with a highly fragmented programme.
Managers will have the opportunity to discuss their concerns in a meeting after Monday, when club owners confront the league about the situation and the effectiveness of emergency measures, which were imposed a week ago but unable to stop the six-match postponement on Thursday alone.
League officials retain confidence in their procedures and the clubs’ willingness to implement them. “Breaking the fire” will not be on the agenda for Monday’s meeting, but it seems certain that this issue will be raised by some clubs given the depth of the Covid outbreak within some teams and public statements by some managers.
Eddie Howe from Newcastle has said he wants the Premier League to be suspended if half of the matches can be played safely and teams have lost players due to Covid. “I don’t think we want to play half the matches and half of the matches we haven’t played,” he said. “The league is really losing something if it becomes disjointed in terms of games played.”
Newcastle, who is in the nineteenth place, witnessed the postponement of the matches of its rivals from relegation. The Howe team lost 3-1 to Liverpool on Thursday and Sunday’s match at home to Manchester City is scheduled to continue. Doubts prevailed over whether Pep Guardiola might miss the match after he re-tested inconclusive Covid, but the Spaniard will train on Saturday after scoring two negative tests.
“When you start losing players to Covid, the concern is that the competition becomes a little unfair and I don’t think anyone wants to see that,” Howe said. “A decision must be made to ensure that integrity is maintained in the competition. I think it is on a knife edge.
“People want to see a fair league and not uneven matches and missing players. I desperately need to continue the program myself but the welfare of the players and fans must come first.”
Mikel Arteta also raised the issue of sporting integrity that carried Arsenal’s match with Leeds, scheduled for Saturday this evening.
“We need more clarity on why you don’t play these games and what you need to do so you don’t play a match, so you can maintain competition fairness,” he said. We were here on the other side of the table [at the start of the season] We had all the arguments in the world not to play a football match and we ended up playing it.”
Not every manager or club is in favor of pauses, with some believing that the Premier League’s strategy of playing as many matches as possible is the best approach, if the season is not overly crowded.
Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp claimed he was not against a brief pause but said: “I don’t see 100% benefit from that. The league being suspended means we’re off now for one to two weeks, that means [missing] Five to six matches. So when do you want to play it?
“We have a game on Sunday, then we have a game on Wednesday in the competition, then [in January] The FA Cup where, if I’m 100% right – and tell me if I’m wrong – the opponent doesn’t have a real testing system and the vaccination rate is really low. But we don’t know anything about it and we don’t get any kind of information because it’s football and we have to play against them.”
Vaccination levels among players are back on the game’s agenda after the Premier League published figures on Thursday showing 25% of its players do not plan to receive the vaccine. This aligns with figures in the UK more broadly, where statistics from October showed 68% of 18-35-year-olds experienced a double whammy. But they also contrast sharply with vaccination rates in other European football leagues, including Serie A where 98% of players are fully vaccinated.
Klopp this week stepped up his calls for players, staff and fans alike for a jab, saying on Friday: “From an ethical point of view it should be mandatory for everyone.” Spurs manager Antonio Conte took a different course, describing vaccination as a “personal choice”.
“Honestly, vaccination is a personal matter,” Conte said ahead of Spurs’ game against Klopp-led Liverpool, which is set to kick off tomorrow after the Covid-19 outbreak delayed Spurs twice in the past 10 days. I’ve been vaccinated and my family, my daughter and my wife, have done the same. But this is certainly a personal matter. I would like others to do the same but everyone has to make the best decision for themselves.”
Arteta has joined Steven Gerrard in acknowledging that the case for players to be vaccinated will be a consideration when discussing January transfer moves. The Aston Villa manager said this week that potential deal protections against Covid-19 would come into talks, and his Arsenal counterpart expressed a similar view.
“You have to look at everything before you make a decision to approach a player to join your club, and in the context we live in, that could be one of those factors,” Arteta said.