To say the postponement of yesterday’s north London derby divided opinion would be an understatement.
Tottenham Hotspur and, going by social media, the overwhelming majority of their fans were outraged that Arsenal’s request to defer the game for an unspecified number of Covid-19 cases had been accepted by the Premier League.
Arsenal supporters, meanwhile, seemed to enjoy the boot being on the foot, having seen a Carabao Cup match with Liverpool earlier this month called off for an as yet unexplained glut of false positive tests.
What all can surely agree on is that the rules are broken. The current system, which allows clubs to apply for a postponement if Covid is a factor in leaving them sufficiently short of senior players, has too much slack in it.
Whether Arsenal, Liverpool or other Premier League sides have sought to take advantage is moot. Clubs will of course protect their own interests to the extent allowed by the rules, as a minimum. If those rules are too lax, they need to be tightened.
Opacity is at the heart of the issue. While the Premier League’s rules are published, the specifics of each case considered by them and the EFL, who run the Carabao Cup, are not. In that vacuum, suspicion and acrimony thrive.
Clubs may complain when they disagree with postponements – and Spurs certainly did – but a majority of them approved the Premier League’s rules so they can plead neither ignorance nor innocence.
By the same token, though, they also have the power to do something about it and change the rules. When the threat of Newcastle United exploiting their new links with Saudi Arabia via lucrative new sponsorship deals earlier this season, clubs couldn’t wait to draft new regulations.
If they wanted to avoid more postponements of questionable necessity, why not make the criteria for granting them stricter? Make clubs count anyone in their Under-23 squad as a senior player, for instance, and the deferred games would dry up overnight.
That this is being allowed to drag on in this year of all defies sense. The winter World Cup in Qatar later this year means there is already less room in the calendar for rearranged matches. Further inaction could see English football sleepwalk into a huge fixture pile-up.
The chief argument against changing the rules mid-season seems to be that it would hurt the integrity of competitions. As if the current farcical situation hasn’t already. We are not talking about a system that is worth saving.
Particularly in the top flight but also in the cups, the rules are broken – so football needs to fix them.