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 set to express their desire for a Christmas “firebreak” of fixtures.
As the EFL confirmed that 19 of its 36 fixtures this weekend had been postponed, and with only five matches still standing in the top flight, more managers expressed doubts over continuing with a programme so heavily fragmented.
Managers will have a chance to discuss their concerns in a meeting after Monday, when club owners will confront the league over the situation and the effectiveness of emergency measures, imposed a week ago but unable to stop six fixtures from being postponed on Thursday alone.
League officials retain confidence in their measures and the preparedness of clubs to implement them. A ‘firebreak’ will not be on their agenda for Monday’s meeting, but it seems certain that the issue will be raised by some clubs given the depth of Covid outbreaks within some squads and the public remarks of some managers.
Newcastle’s Eddie Howe said he wanted the Premier League halted if only half the games can be played safely and teams are missing players because of Covid. “I don’t think we want half the games played and half not played,” he said. “The league really loses something if it becomes disjointed in terms of games played.”
Newcastle, who sit 19th, have seen relegation rivals have matches postponed. Howe’s team lost 3-1 at Liverpool on Thursday and Sunday’s fixture at home to Manchester City is also scheduled to go ahead. There were doubts whether Pep Guardiola could miss the match having returned an inconclusive Covid test but the Spaniard will take training on Saturday after registering two negative tests.
“When you start losing players to Covid then the worry is the competition becomes slightly unfair and I don’t think anyone wants to see that,” Howe said. “A decision needs to be made to ensure integrity is maintained in the competition. I think it is on a knife edge.
“People want to see a fair league and not disparity in games and players missing. I’m desperate to continue the programme myself but the welfare of the players and supporters has to come first.”
Mikel Arteta also raised the issue of sporting integrity bore Arsenal’s fixture with Leeds, scheduled to go ahead on Saturdaythis evening.
“We need more clarity on why those games are not being played and what you need to not have a game played, so you can maintain the fairness of the competition,” he said. “We have been here on the other side of the table [at the start of the season] where we had all the arguments in the world to not play a football match and we ended up playing it.”
Not every manager or club is in favour of a pause, with some believing the Premier League strategy of playing as many games as is possible is the best approach, if the season is not to become overwhelmingly congested.
Quick Guide Football fixtures hit by rising Covid-19 cases Premier League: 26 December Burnley v Everton, Liverpool v Leeds, Wolves v Watford. 28 December: Arsenal v Wolves, Leeds v Aston Villa Championship: 26 December Barnsley v Stoke, Cardiff v Coventry, Fulham v Birmingham, Hull City v Blackburn Rovers, Millwall v Swansea, Peterborough v Reading, Preston v Sheffield United. 29 December: Swansea Luton, Birmingham v Peterborough League One: 26 December Bolton v Morecambe, Crewe v Wigan, Portsmouth v Oxford, Sheffield Wednesday v Burton, Wimbledon v Charlton, Wycombe v Cambridge. 29 December: Burton v Bolton, Charlton v Gillingham. 30 December Cambridge v Doncaster League Two: 26 December Bradford v Harrogate, Bristol Rovers v Sutton, Colchester v Leyton Orient, Exeter v Swindon, Newport v Forest Green, Northampton v Walsall, Port Vale v Salford, Stevenage v Crawley. 29 December Forest Green v Exeter, Leyton Orient v Newport, Salford v Carlisle, Scunthorpe v Northampton, Walsall v Bradford National League: 26 December Barnet v Boreham Wood, Halifax v Grimsby, Wealdstone v Maidenhead, Weymouth v Eastleigh, Wrexham v Solihull Moors. 28 December Boreham Wood v Wealdstone, Grimsby v King’s Lynn, Yeovil v Weymouth Scottish Championship: 26 December Greenock Morton v Queen of the South, Inverness CT v Partick 29 December Raith Rovers v Queen of the South Scottish League One: 26 December Queen’s Park v Dumbarton
Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp claimed he was not against a brief halt but said: “I just don’t see 100% the benefit of it. Stopping the league means we stop now for one to two weeks, it means [missing] five to six games. So when do you want to play them?
“We have a game on Sunday, we have then a game on Wednesday in a competition, then [in January] the FA Cup where, if I am 100% right – and tell me if I am wrong – the opponent has no real testing regime 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.”
Levels of vaccination among players is back on the game’s agenda after the EFL published figures on Thursday showing 25% of its players had no intention of receiving the vaccine. This conforms with figures in the UK more broadly, with statistics from October showing 68% of 18-35 year-olds were double-jabbed. But they also contrast significantly with vaccination rates in other football leagues in Europe, including Serie A where 98% of players are fully vaccinated.
Klopp this week stepped up his calls for players, staff and supporters alike to get the jab, and on Friday he said: “From a moral point of view it should be mandatory for each person.” The Spurs manager, Antonio Conte, took a different path, describing vaccination as a “personal choice’.
“Honestly, this is a personal matter the vaccination,” Conte said before Tottenham’s match against Klopp’s Liverpool, scheduled to go ahead tomorrow after a Covid outbreak led to two Spurs postponements in the past 10 days. “I’ve been vaccinated and my family, my daughter and wife, they did the same. But for sure, this matter is a personal matter. I’d like that other people do the same but every single person has to take the best decision for himself.”
Arteta has joined Steven Gerrard in admitting that players’ vaccination status will be a consideration when discussing January transfer moves. Aston Villa’s manager said this week that potential signings’ protection against Covid-19 would “come into conversations” and his Arsenal counterpart expressed a similar view.
“You would look at everything before you make a decision to approach a player to join your club and in the context we are living in that can be one of those factors,” Arteta said.