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Postponements in English Soccer: Make it Make Sense!

The ways in which each Premier League postponement has been dealt with have been, to put it nicely, wildly inconsistent and ridiculous.

Emirates Stadium, London by Dave Pearce is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Postponements in English Soccer: Make it Make Sense!

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Speak to a fan of English soccer, and you’re likely to encounter some level of resentment around postponement of matches over the last several months. The rules are opaque, at best, and seem to be constantly changing. Once could define this constant change as continuous improvement – refining the rules based on the current situation; however, from a fan’s perspective it more often appears as if the rules are changed to accommodate certain clubs, while others are forced to forfeit, or reschedule.

Adding to the chaos is the fact that nearly every Premier League team is engaged in multiple competitions that have rules that are specific only to them. Three of those competitions – the Premier League, FA Cup, and EFL Cup (Carabao Cup due to sponsorship) – are run solely among English (and a few Welsh) clubs. With significant overlap in participants and stakeholders, why can’t the rules be simplified and aligned? Why are they different?

These differences cause confusion among the fans, players, and even the media. Last week saw numerous articles written explaining those rules, and detailing the reasons why some fixtures were played while others were postponed. The most common situation discussed was why Liverpool couldn’t play Arsenal in the EFL Cup semi-final but was able to fulfill their fixture against Shrewsbury in the FA Cup despite the matches being scheduled just 3 days apart (more on that to come after today’s bombshell that the positive tests that resulted in the postponement were false positives).

Let’s discuss the rules…

The Premier League, recently has updated and made more widely available the criteria used when determining whether the application for postponement will be accepted. You can find the list of items required to request a postponement on the Premier League’s website.

The following factors are considered when a postponement is considered:

  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 any 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. (For those wondering, an Under-21 player with “appropriate experience” is a player who has participated, whether as a starter or substitute, for the club in a first-team competition this season)
  2. The status of any COVID-19 outbreak within a club, including the number of individuals affected, the sequence and source of infections and their proximity to the match in question.
  3. A club’s ability to safely prepare its players in the lead-up to a match.
  4. Medical advice as to whether there is any unacceptable risk to the health and safety of players and staff by playing the match.
  5. Any advice from UK Health Security Agency and other public bodies.
  6. Any other exceptional circumstances.

The factors listed above, as I read them, could lead to the postponement of nearly any match. Point 6, “any other exceptional circumstances,” gives the league too much latitude to make a decision that could appear to favor one team over another.

The English Football League uses similar, but not the same criteria when determining if a fixture should be postponed. The EFL changed their rules governing fixtures this summer to allow for rescheduling fixtures, rather than forcing teams to forfeit, as they did last year. Sorry Leyton Orient! Additionally, the breakdown of players required to participate is slightly different, being 11 starters, and 3 subs; however “…the EFL will review each circumstance on its own merits.” The EFL doesn’t define whether the players need to have participated in a first team competition to be considered, as the Premier League does.

As if those differences weren’t enough, the FA Cup uses a third set of criteria, stating that teams must have 14 fit players, including registered players at the youth level.

What does this all mean?

Ultimately, it means that teams will continue to have a fixture pile up even after one of the busiest portions of the season. The period prior to, and immediately after Christmas and New Year is the busiest time for English soccer. Unlike many other leagues in Europe, the Premier League does not have a traditional winter break to allow teams to rest and get ready for the second half of the season. Instead, matches are played every 2 to 3 days – those Boxing day fixtures need to happen people! This fixture pile up is hard to navigate in the best of times, with teams relying on heavy rotation of players to ensure that injuries aren’t picked up. Now that entropy will be extended through a larger portion of the season.

Who benefits most from postponements?

Simply, those teams that would have otherwise had to play with a depleted squad due to non-Covid related absences (I’m looking at you Liverpool), and those that will be able to do business in the January transfer window to strengthen their squads prior to rescheduled fixtures (hello Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund United, sorry, I mean Newcastle). Liverpool might be the most impacted in this department with 5 nominally first team players – Takumi Minamino, Nathaniel Phillips, Divock Origi, Harvey Elliott, and Thiago – out with injuries, and 3 first teamers – Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, and Naby Keita – away at the biennial African Cup of Nations.

Before we start feeling bad for Red Sox United Liverpool the injured players listed have a total of 24 appearances in the Premier League for a grand total of just over 1000 minutes (most of those by Thiago). It looks to me more like they wanted matches postponed in the hopes (no matter how slim they might be) that their AFCON contingent could be back to play.

The latest news

As you might have guessed, I was skeptical of Liverpool’s postponement against Arsenal, partially because I’m an Arsenal fan, but partially because of how cagey the club was about the circumstances surrounding the supposed “outbreak.” Details on the number of positives were scant, and very little information was given on why the team closed their training ground, something that likely contributed to the postponement. Not being able to train would have impacted the club’s ability to safely prepare for the match, a criteria for postponement under both Premier League, and EFL rules.

Just as I was finishing this piece, The Athletic dropped a bombshell detailing that “…the EFL has received complaints from some of its clubs over the postponement, following Jurgen Klopp’s admission that all but one of the club’s positive tests were ‘false positives’ — meaning later tests showed those players did not actually have COVID-19.”

Per that article, Liverpool underwent three rounds of testing. The first two rounds, using two different methodologies – lateral flow device (LFD) tests, and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests – resulted in a number of positive cases prior to the postponement. A third round was completed after the original match against Arsenal was to have been played. Nearly all the players who tested positive in one or both of the prior tests were negative. The only positive recorded was England international left-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold.

These revelations alone would likely raise a few eyebrows; however, the more interesting bit of information for me were the following lines, “‘False positive’ LFD results are considered highly unusual, with analysis by NHS Test and Trace showing LFD tests to have an estimated specificity of at least 99.97 per cent. The chance of a succession of ‘false positive’ results is therefore considered extremely unlikely.” I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but this information, combined with the information on the tests seem indicate that there may have been some shenanigans happening on Merseyside.

My final thoughts

The rules for postponements need to be simplified and aligned across competitions. They should be clear, and widely available.

Teams should have to report the number of Covid cases impacting that players and staff, and that information should be made available to the fans and media. There should not be room for gaming the system as it appears Liverpool may have done.

I respect the privacy of the individuals so I don’t need to know who is out and for what reason, but rather the number of cases. As much as I hate to admit it, Manchester City did an excellent job of detailing their Covid cases without breaching people’s privacy. They also played their FA Cup match with a bench, except for Scott Carson and Aymeric Laporte, made up entirely of 18 and 19-year-olds.

Non-covid injuries or absences due to international duty, suspension, or other reasons shouldn’t be taken into account when postponements are determined. All teams are dealing with those, and have dealt with those for years.

Postponements should also be announced as far in advance as possible. I’m sure people will argue this point because in baseball, for example, games are called due to rain right up until the first pitch, but these are entirely different circumstances where the information required to make the decisions is often known days in advance.

Elmer is originally from Pennsylvania, but for the entirety of the Patriots dynasty has had to put up with their insufferable fans from his current home in Massachusetts. As a long suffering Philadelphia sports fan, he knows more pain that joy, but still loves the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers. Somewhere along the way he developed a love for the best team in North London - Arsenal FC. Aside from cheering for his largely underperforming favorites, he is a father of two, a history nerd, and an occasional youth soccer coach.

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