Premier League clubs will meet on Monday to discuss solutions to the escalating Covid-19 crisis catalyzed by the new Omicron variant. Over half the 20 EPL clubs have had significant outbreaks in December with six matches called off in gameweek 17.
Brentford manager Thomas Frank has called for a circuit breaker, but Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp wants to keep on playing.
“Stopping the league is probably not the right thing but with the schedule we have to be more flexible,” said Klopp. “If the virus will be gone then I am the first that stops and goes home and waits until it is gone. But that is probably not the case, so where is the real benefit of it?”
With clubs clearly split on the most prudent approach, we take a look at some possible challenges and solutions to keep the England’s top flight going and safe over the festive period and beyond.
Why is changing the schedule so hard for the Premier League?
Whereas other European leagues take a winter break, and have a higher number of vaccinated players, the Premier League has a congested festive calendar and 19% of its footballers are unvaccinated. In addition, the stringent EPL testing regime — including lateral flow tests on matchdays just hours before kick-off — lead to last-minute positives and potential call offs. This is particularly problematic for visiting teams who risk making the trip to play a match, before finding it postponed at the last possible minute.
It is sensible to have robust testing, but the unfortunate and unfixable byproduct of it is matchday surprises and disruption to both broadcast schedules and fans. The Premier League will clearly want to put health first, but also face the worry stopping the league now, with an anticipated Omicron wave in January, might make it impossible to restart easily and complete fixtures in time.
Even a small suspension could delay up to three match weeks (19-21) with no obvious window when those 30 fixtures would be rescheduled. Finding gaps in the 2022 calendar may depend on how far clubs go in the Champions League and FA Cup. But the season must end on May 22 and there are only are two spare midweeks with no matches in them between now and then.
The other issue, if the EPL just continues as is, is clarity over the criteria for when a game can be called off. According to
Appendix 17 of the Premier League’s handbook, a match can be postponed when a club can’t field 14 players.
But the Leicester’s match against Tottenham on December 16 saw two failed applications for postponement before finally additional positives tests from the Foxes resulted in the game not going ahead.
Spurs experienced similar uncertainty with their Europa Conference League tie with Rennes, which was also eventually postponed. The rules for calling off a game differ between leagues and federations across Europe and Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta is not alone in asking for “more clarity” and consistency. No one wants a situation like in Portugal where Covid-hit Belenenses were forced to start their match against Benfica with nine men and were 7-0 down at half-time before the game was abandoned, but at the same time, everybody wants to know what the rules are and to have them fairly and equally applied.
The league clearly can’t ignore the worrying spread of COVID-19 — which government scientists warn could peak as high as two million daily infections by January — so a solution is needed that keeps players and fans safe, allows the season to be completed and doesn’t untenably congest the 2022 calendar.
What could the Premier League do?
One option, simply put, is that the Premier League can choose to blindly proceed, providing UK-wide government lockdowns don’t force them to stop.
The other broad option is to preemptively suspended the league, either with a defined circuit breaker or an indefinite pause. This would be a similar approach to March 2020, when Arteta’s own positive Covid test triggered a three-month EPL break.
Between those two extremes, however, the league could also change some of their rules to help clubs manage the spread of infection. This could involve extending the January transfer window to allow for bigger squads or emergency loans, or reverting to games behind closed doors.
Option 1: A circuit breaker
The solution providing the least disruption would be a short circuit-breaker. This is the preferred choice of Brentford manager Frank.
“We think we should postpone the full round of Premier League games this weekend,” he said ahead of Brentford’s postponed trip to Southampton last Thursday.
“COVID cases are going through the roof at all Premier League clubs, everyone is dealing with it and having problems.
“To postpone this round and also the Carabao Cup would give everyone a week at least… to do everything at the training ground so everything is clean and you break the chain.”
Frank originally wanted matches postponed before Boxing Day, but CBS Sports understands that Liverpool and Tottenham will lead calls on Monday to honor the December 26-27 fixtures and instead postpone game week 20 on December 28-30. That would only give clubs a few days break until either January 1 or 2.
However, there are at least four clubs who would prefer a break over all the festive fixtures. This would take out three match days (weeks 19-21) and mean soccer in England resumes with the FA Cup third-round followed by league games on January 14-16, starting with Brighton-Crystal Palace on the Friday.
The last time the Premier League suspended, they released a joint statement with the English Football League. But EFL chairman Rick Parry is against a circuit breaker this time, despite 19 games cross the Championship, League One and League Two also being called off at the weekend. Parry argues there is “no scientific evidence” a circuit breaker will help.
A brief delay’s point is to limit contact, slow infections and in doing so buy time for more people to get jabbed. But Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, warns the impact of infections can lag making short circuit breakers ineffective.
“It’s like a fire that’s raging,” she explained. “You can’t just turn your back on it and think it’ll go away…”
As a result, clubs may decide a one week break isn’t long enough to gain much benefit aside from perhaps deep cleaning their training facilities.
Option 2: An indefinite suspension
A longer circuit breaker is certainly a plausible option, but senior Premier League sources have told CBS Sports they are against an indefinite suspension. Not agreeing when to end the break carries the highest risk of the 2021-22 season being voided. There are also commercial and broadcast obligations that would be under major threat if a return date wasn’t specified.
The challenge is if a circuit-breaker is deemed logical in December, it’s hard to see how resuming in January (or before) – just as Omicron infections are projected to hit their peak is safe or sensible. There are currently over 90,000 daily Coivd-19 infections in England, and that number could reach between 600,000 and two million by the end of January without tighter restrictions, according to some projections.
The Premier League argues they shouldn’t necessarily have to act off this alarming data projection because their footballers are already in a far more stringent testing cycle than the general public and are predominately at lower risk, but each player is still going home to a family, and potentially interacting with fans, too — unless the Premier League switches to behind-closed-doors matches.
Option 3: Play behind closed doors
Clearly fans will be against being shut out again, especially with the government stipulating a COVID Pass is acceptable to attend matches; while the unvaccinated must present a negative lateral flow test taken no more than 48 hours before a game. But returning to empty stadiums, something the Premier League did between March and June in 2020, is a possibility, albeit probably one forced by the government rather than spearheaded by the league itself.
The only silver-lining of so-called ‘ghost games’ is they’d all be televised and there is confidence, based on 2019-20, that the season could be finished safely this way. As Omicron rapidly spreads, and with it being the most infectious variant to date, this approach stops 30,000-plus capacity stadiums becoming super-spreaders.
A halfway-house option is capping capacities, perhaps by only letting season-ticket holders in, or to cease selling tickets to away fans. This wouldn’t be a popular move, either, but it would stop away supporters being disappointed and out of pocket if matches are postponed at short notice. Burnley’s trip to Aston Villa was called off on Saturday at just two-hours notice meaning the Clarets were already in Birmingham and thousands of their fans made the 230-mile round trip in vain.
If a behind-closed-doors or reduced capacity approach is adopted, there will probably need to consensus across all English football, though. And it’s unlikely the EFL or WSL will endorse such a plan because their clubs are more heavily reliant on ticket sales and have already seen the financial impact of games without fans.
Option 4: Ban unvaccinated players
The Premier League could stipulate only vaccinated footballers can play. This would be a highly contentious and hotly-debated rule and would inevitably open up legal issues and see the Professional Footballers’ Association getting involved on employment grounds. But, if the government mandated only vaccinated people can enter sports arenas then footballers without the jab would be excluded from playing by default (barring an exception).
There is precedent for this in professional sports like the NBA, where cities like New York and San Francisco (rather than the NBA itself) have implemented this rule. It has resulted in Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving and Golden State Warriors small forward Andrew Wiggins missing games.
The latest round of stats from October show 81% of Premier League footballers have had one jab with 68% double vaccinated. That means the EPL would lose around 100 players if the unvaccinated ones were excluded. This might make squads ‘safer’ on paper but it would also put even more pressure on teams to field 14 players should outbreaks happen.
Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka has confirmed he declined the Covid vaccine, but most EPL players who haven’t had their jab have not said so publicly.
CBS Sports spoke to five unvaccinated footballers, who cited fears the vaccine could affect fertility or lead to myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). Studies actually show the risk of myocarditis is up to 40 times greater after contracting COVID than following vaccination. It is worth pointing out, vaccination rates differ from club to club. Jurgen Klopp revealed “99 percent” of his Liverpool squad are fully vaccinated, whilst all Wolves players and staff have opted for jabs and a booster.
But the generally low rate of vaccination across the EPL is in keeping with (and in fact slighter higher than) UK-wide statistics for the age group 40-and-under, where below 75% are vaccinated. Europe’s other major leagues have significantly higher vaccination uptake, with the numbers also consistent with wider population statistics for the same age group in their countries.
Serie A say 98% of their players have been double jabbed. Juventus and Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini even took to social media in December to urge his followers to get their booster jab.
In Ligue 1, 95% of players have been fully vaccinated, whilst the Bundesliga (94%) and La Liga (90%) have almost all their players jabbed as well.
% OF PLAYERS VACCINATED
There will be huge contention, and probable protest, if unvaccinated players are excluded from England’s soccer matches, but what’s clear is when the January window opens unvaccinated footballers may well find it harder to get a move.
Option 5: Count called off games
Taking a break of some sort, or altering who can play in EPL games, are the most obvious solutions. But the simplest approach is actually just to count all called off games. A cricket match affected by the rain is declared a draw, so why couldn’t a COVID-affected fixture just award each team a point? This is clearly not an ideal solution, but it would ease pressure on the 2022 calendar.
To consider this option, the criteria as to why games can be called off would need to be crystal clear to avoid any undue manipulation. A variant of this idea, that is perhaps slightly fairer, is to tally up all postponed games and come the end of the season use a points-per-game model to finalize the table.
There is precedent for this approach from the 2019-20 WSL season when Chelsea beat Manchester City to the title on points-per-game even though City were top at the time of the enforced break. The challenge is if a vote requires a majority or even unanimous consent, Premier League sides in or close to the relegation zone would be unlikely to agree to this proposal.
Option 6: Play less games
Another novel solution is to just play less games. The easiest way to do this would be to follow the Scottish Premiership model and split the EPL into two midway through the season once everyone has played each other once.
After 19 games, halfway through the season, the top and bottom ten would divide and only play each other to close the season. That would result in nine games: five at home and four away for the top five in each ‘mini-league’, and four at home and five away for those in the bottom half.
There could then be a tenth game where first played second, third faced fourth… all the way down to 19th versus 20th. This would add final-day drama and result in a 29-game season allowing fixtures to be spaced out and providing extra windows in case further matches are postponed.
The manner in which the fixtures are drawn would naturally be a point of contention. Some may not deem the champions legitimate; and the relegated sides might challenge the final result. And, of course, TV obligations would need to be addressed, but sides would just have to accept they are just part of an atypical season that’s better finished than voided.
Option 7: Extend the transfer window
England could also decide to make no changes to either schedule or format, but instead expand the January transfer window to allow for more leeway. Extending the January window, or closing it as planned but allowing for emergency loans until May, would mean teams could strengthen their squads throughout the second half of the season. They could potentially replace COVID-hit players, especially during busy or crisis periods. This is also something the NBA has decided to implement, allowing for more signings in order to help teams facing waves of positive COVID tests.
Letting teams take slightly bigger squads to games would also be sensible, then if positives occur on game days via lateral flow tests, teams have back ups. Not every club will have the financial or logistical ability to handle an influx of players, so a longer transfer window would probably benefit the biggest teams. Having too many players could lead to dressing room unrest or higher wage bills, too. But some kind of extra freedom in the transfer market does seem logical if the league is to just keep going.
No easy answers
Ultimately, that’s exactly what the Premier League want to do — just keep going. It keeps their partners happy and gets them through the festive period without scheduling headaches. But the spread of the virus is out of the league’s control and acting preemptively is surely wise. Every solution has pros and cons and perhaps the answer is a mixture of several different options.
Some kind of break is probably going to be necessary and clubs definitely need the league o be as transparent and flexible as possible when outbreaks happen. Collaboration is also needed in 2022 between the league and other tournaments their players are involved in. Sadly, this is probably wishful thinking.
But with the FA Cup and AFCON starting in January, the Champions League returning in February with all four English sides still in it, the 2022-23 Nations League getting underway from June and the Qatar World Cup in winter, forcing an earlier start to the 2022/23 season, each league or competition fending for themselves is a recipe for disaster.
A collective approach, ideally led by UEFA or FIFPRO, is vital to ensure players are kept safe and don’t get injury or burnout by the sheer volume of fixtures, which even before COVID was a huge area of concern.
As the Omicron variant spreads, other leagues may soon face the same problems as England is confronting now, even if they are close to fully vaccinated. That’s why the course the league and its clubs decide to take is so key. The first major league to adapt and make changes is going to be a trendsetter and define how soccer deals with COVID in 2022.