When rumors began to swirl last week, as postponements of games in the Premier League ramped up, that the league was considering taking a two week break in January to try and let teams recover from either positive tests or simply the oppressive schedule, the league quashed those whispers with “there has been no discussion of a break.” What’s becoming apparent is that the Premier League hasn’t had discussions about much of anything, in terms of a Plan B for this season.
Today, the news broke that there have been 40 positive tests among the league’s clubs, the highest since play restarted in June. Last week saw three matches postponed, and they are very unlikely to be the last. Earlier in December an Aston Villa-Newcastle match had to be delayed because of an outbreak in the Newcastle camp. The U.K. itself has gone into a total shutdown, which makes the optics of the Premier League continuing highly awkward at best. There have been more postponements farther down the football pyramid, and as those teams have less resources and smaller squads of players. Those are likely to continue, as well.
If you can get past the ethical and safety ropes course that this all is, and it’s highly difficult to do so, the simple scheduling nightmare that awaits the league is daunting enough. The league started a month later than usual in the middle of September, but teams that were finishing up their European tournaments from last season, like both Manchester clubs, started a week later than that. But thanks to the European championships waiting next summer, the league has to finish by May 23. So it’s the same number of games as a normal season, but crammed into a month smaller window.
Take Manchester City for example. They have 23 games left to be played in the league after last Monday’s game against Everton had to be called off thanks to positive tests in City’s ranks. But with their Champions League commitments — either the scheduled Round of 16 or possible rounds after that should they advance — they are as of now playing two games a week for the rest of the season. Any further postponement of just one match, and the calendar simply has no open spots for a rescheduling. Should they go out of the FA Cup early, maybe a weekend slot would open up, but that would depend on any opponent in any game they have to make up also not being due to play in the FA Cup. They’re facing the very real possibility of seeing a week or two in the spring where they might have to play on a Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, and then the following weekend again, and in various competitions perhaps in multiple countries.
Manchester United and Tottenham could be in the same boat with their various cup competitions if they see further league games have to be delayed. Even if not, having two games a week for four months straight, as looks likely, is going to reduce any sized squad to plasma by the end of it. Throw in that there’s a FIFA international date in March where a good number of players from all these teams might be playing two or even three games with their national teams, and pretty much every player is going to look like they were Jazzy Jeff’d out of a bar at closing time, lying face down on the ground come May.
England can’t expect much help from UEFA either. The U.K. is suffering horrendous spikes in the virus right now, but that hasn’t been the case in other European nations, yet. Still, both Italy and Germany are extending holiday lockdowns in their countries through January, and to get from there to having matches postponed in those countries isn’t a huge leap. But every league remains on track to finish in time for the Euros in June.
Still, it’s something of a mystery why Euro 2021 (as it is now) has to take place in its normal window of the middle of June to the beginning of July. Thanks to the completely asinine and corrupt maneuver of having the World Cup in November and December of 2022 in Qatar, the summer of 2022 is wide open. UEFA could have pushed back the Euros to give leagues more time later in the summer, knowing the 2021-2022 season is free to finish up later than usual as well with no summer tournament waiting as it would normally be. The 2022-2023 season is going to be mutated anyway thanks to a winter World Cup, so the chase for normalcy in scheduling was always a fraudulent one. Or at least would only achieve temporary success. UEFA would probably claim not wanting to clash with the Olympics. But seeing as how the Olympics are being held in Tokyo, if they are, which is either eight or nine hours ahead of most European countries, is that a real problem or a made up one?
Overriding this of course is the safety of the players. With no break and positive tests increasing, it’s only natural to assume that the virus is going to continue to spread through clubs (especially if the players can’t follow the rules). Several players have already seen their seasons disrupted by dealing with the virus, such as Paul Pogba and Kai Havertz. Closing training facilities has so far prevented a total wildfire, but has also left players more susceptible to injury when they do return to playing games thanks to not having their normal build.
It’s a total mess, and the Premier League’s response has basically been this. The league has made little concession to the oppressive scheduling, shying away from allowing teams five subs per game for fear it would give the bigger clubs with bigger squads an advantage. But as this season has become a battle of attrition with a conga line forming to the trainer’s table, the bigger clubs with bigger squads are favored anyway.
The hopes that teams would at least be able to play games in front of some fans in the spring seems to be fading fast, and so are the hopes that the league can do the minimum of just keeping everyone safe. And they don’t appear to have any answers for any other question you might have.