For a weekend when there was the least football played yet, it might end up the most consequential period of the season. It is certainly difficult not to think it could be decisive in the title race, when three probably became two, and one went clear.
Chelsea fell a massive six points off top because they didn’t have a big enough squad to weather so many first-team players being out. Liverpool were missing most of their midfield as well as their star defender, Virgil van Dijk, so could only draw against a Tottenham Hotspur that often overwhelmed them. Much of their 2-2 draw involved a lot of debate over whether Spurs’ own Covid-enforced break actually benefited them.
Then there was Manchester City, the best-resourced club in the land. Their team of apparently interchangeable starters cruised past Newcastle United, to go a full three points clear at the top.
It’s similarly impossible to escape the feeling that the pot luck of how Covid affects any individual squad is directly influencing the season.
That is quite an aggravating notion, because it cuts against the founding – if often misguided – idea that any season is on a completely level playing field, everything is settled on the pitch, and the final positions are ultimately deserving. This is the asterisk that people talk about. It feels wrong that a success as sanctified as the English title is potentially decided by blind fortune, and like something else – anything else – can surely be done.
To which the only answer is “what?”
The Premier League can wait for the perfect situation until it all settles but, well, good luck with that. This is an ongoing pandemic, where the Omicron variant is playing havoc with our lives, let alone football. It is probably more than likely that we won’t get the “perfect” situation in some time. In the meantime, all football can do is adapt, and that is something all the more pressing when the very playing of games is so lucrative.
That may seem crass, and an element of double-think does underscore this entire debate. The Premier League sells itself on its competitive vitality, but a live argument – and one that is being made by many within the competition’s meetings – is that the current circumstances are damaging its competitive integrity; that the very selling point is being negated.
The deeper problem is that this is what everyone signed up to, in more than one sense.
The immense wealth of the game partly comes from the glamorous scale of the show, which meant Qatar wanted a World Cup, and that World Cup had to be put in winter. That leaves very little space in the calendar, which only increases the pressure on debates over when fixtures can be played.
The Premier League is still counting the costs of the initial 2020 pause. The bottom line is that players potentially earn a lot less if the show comes to a stop or is curtailed. This was something made abundantly clear to squads in all of the discussions around Project Restart. It involves a lot of compromises, undeniably, but ones that most will ultimately accept.
There’s then the very rules on postponement that the clubs signed up to. When you lay them out, they do look as fair as they can be.
Every case is judged on its own merits, because the circumstances are bound to be so different in each one. They come down to the number of players available, whether a training ground was closed when a team required it and whether an outbreak was controlled or “uncontrolled”. The latter is the most likely to see a game postponed because there is the danger of the whole squad being infected, as well as the opposition and everyone else involved.
All of this is similarly set against health and safety, which is the number-one priority, and the necessity to play games where they can be played.
That was one of the other ironies of the last game on Sunday at Spurs. The circuit-breaker that had been discussed earlier in the week might have meant this game getting needlessly called off. And, sure, Tottenham Hotspur were still recovering from their own outbreak, while Liverpool were missing a core of players. It still produced a classic “great advertisement” for the Premier League because the game was so good.
There is a further irony in that it may do long-term damage to the title race, as a below-strength Liverpool weren’t capable of keeping full pace with City. But that’s the other thing about this whole situation. It is entirely unpredictable. It is eminently possible that it could bring another turn.
Waiting on that obviously isn’t perfect. But waiting on perfect conditions is obviously impossible.
It is far from neat, in the way we football fans that are naturally sporting purists would demand. But it’s never going to be neat, when the pandemic is causing such chaos – and misery – in the real world.
It’s just a case of adapting, which the Premier League has probably done pretty well so far.
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