Postponed North London Derby sets a dangerous precedent

With a number of players ruled out of the squad due to COVID-19, injuries, suspensions and international duty, Arsenal submitted a request to the Premier League for their North London Derby fixture against Tottenham Hotspur to be postponed.

The pandemic has led to the postponement of a number of fixtures in the Premier League campaign so far, with this announcement making it 21 games cancelled to date.

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Teams taking advantage

The safety of players, staff and supporters is of utmost importance and should be the most important factor when deciding to complete a fixture. Everyone involved in the Premier League should be protected from Covid-19 as much as possible.

However, a number of postponements this season have been a combination of factors, such as injuries and suspensions, two normal factors of the game. Before the pandemic, teams had to find ways around this on a weekly basis. Managers recruit in the summer market and build their squad to ensure they are equipped as best as possible to combat these difficulties as they happen through the season.

The circumstances that has led to this fixture postponed has angered a number of fans and pundits, with Arsenal facing criticism for how they have dealt with this situation. Prior to the goalless draw to Liverpool in the Carabao Cup on Thursday, midfielder Martin Odegaard was the only confirmed case of COVID-19.

It has not been made public who has been confirmed as a close contact or who may have been experiencing symptoms of the virus, but injuries have been cited as a reason why Arsenal made the request to the league.

Emile Smith-Rowe, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Sead Kolasinac were all ruled out through injury, while Bukayo Saka and Cédric Soares were substituted due to injuries. While Arsenal’s injury list is unfortunate, it is part of football. This is not their first, and certainly will not be their last.

It can be argued that Arsenal should have seen January as a potentially difficult time. The club have four players who are currently competing the African Cup of Nations, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mohamed Elneny, Thomas Partey and Nicolas Pépé all representing their countries. Arteta will have known for some time that he would be without four key players, and should have made preparations to prepare his side.

Further self inflicted wounds were applied when Grant Xhaka received a suspension for his red card against Liverpool, leaving Arsenal very light in midfield. Arsenal also made the strange decision to send two players out on loan during a player shortage.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who can play a number of positions, completed a loan move to Roma, while promising striker Folarin Balogun moving to championship side Middlesbrough.

This situation is particularly frustrating for Spurs, who have already had three games postponed due to Covid-19. They also exited the UEFA Conference League as they were unable to play their last group stage fixture.

Not giving youth a chance

One major concern to takeaway from the high amount of postponement requests by Premier League sides has shown a lack of trust in their youth set up. In a season where  young players have been given an opportunity to develop, such as Conor Gallagher, Trevoh Chalobah and Smith-Rowe, it is hugely disappointing to see clubs not give youth a chance during difficult times.

It has often been questioned if the Premier League is the best place for younger players to develop, with Jude Bellingham showing there is alternatives to the Premier League when players start their career. It is easy to forget that Marcus Rashford’s breakthrough was a result of a injury crisis at Manchester United.

Time for top sides to realise their privilege

Arsenal are not the only side to receive criticism for their reaction to positive cases within their squad. Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel revealed his frustrations with the Premier League as they had to play their fixture against Wolves in December, despite a number of positive cases within the side.

However, included in the side that day was seven of the starting 11 from the Champions League Final against Manchester City, while the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Saúl Niguez and Ross Barkley were on the bench. It is difficult to feel sympathy for sides when talent like this

This is a contrast to Leeds United, who were forced to name 15-year-old Archie Gray on the bench in their defeat to Arsenal, yet made minimal fuss about the issue.

Speaking prior to Brighton versus Crystal Palace, Gary Neville believes the Premier League needs to step in as teams are now making these decisions for performance reasons, rather than health.

“We’re now talking about teams for the last few weeks where there’s no doubt they’ve been calling off games based upon whether they think they’ve got the best squad or team to win a game.” Neville’s comments show that at a time when people are dying, teams are looking to use this for their competitive advantage. The Premier League must put this to a stop.

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Michael Bolton

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