And so on we roll, heads down and teeth gritted, grimly determined to reach the other side, wherever and whenever that might be found. The Premier League had planned to stage a full suite of games on Boxing Day, but as you read this sentence, its best hope is still just to get through as many of them as it can. In midweek, it will try to do it all again, and then, after ringing in the New Year, once more for good measure.
That is the plan, anyway. Nobody truly believes it will play out like that. Last weekend, the division lost more than half its schedule to Covid outbreaks. At least one more match, Chelsea’s visit to Wolves, took place despite a request from Chelsea to postpone it because of a rising case count. On Thursday, it lost two more.
The chances that every single one of the 30 top-flight games stuffed into England’s holiday season would be completed were always slim. There will be more contagion, more positive tests, more players self-isolating, more games canceled at short notice, more fans left suddenly adrift in unfamiliar town centers, facing an empty afternoon and a long journey home.
But as far as the league and its constituent clubs could see, there was no other choice. When they sat down virtually on Monday to discuss how — and if — to proceed, they had three options. One was to play on. One was to reduce the workload from three games in a week to two. The other was to shut down, indefinitely, until the Omicron surge abates.
Instinctively, it is easy to assume that the Premier League has done what it always does: followed the money. Boxing Day — and the rest of what is contractually known as “the busy festive period” — is in many ways the centerpiece of English soccer’s calendar. It functions as a test of nerve as much as a test of strength; it is when contenders separate themselves from also-rans, when the outline of the season’s conclusion begins to be mapped out.
And while it is a tradition England cherishes and its rivals envy — the Premier League’s success is the reason that Italy’s Serie A, in recent years, has toyed with the idea of playing games the day after Christmas — it is also lucrative broadcasting.
Not just because there is a captive audience at home, waiting to be sold things in commercial breaks, but because much of the rest of life — even in times less strange and unnerving than this — is on hold. The Premier League, soccer as a whole, gets to be just where it likes to be: front and center, the only show in town. Ultimately, it was never going to vacate that slot, not voluntarily.
But that reading is, in truth, a little unfair. Neither of the available alternatives could be considered a right answer. Shutting down indefinitely — an idea that attracted no advocates in that virtual meeting — might feel like the moral choice, but it is not something that has been asked of any other industry. It also raises the question of how, precisely, you start again.
There was more support for easing the burden, for allowing each club to postpone one of its three fixtures. Liverpool, among others, spoke in favor of that in private, just as its manager, Jürgen Klopp, has done in public. A couple of days later, the Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, made the valid point that nobody seems to have thought about asking the players what they want to do.
The counterargument, though, was not without its merits. The Premier League is already facing a severe backlog of games — both Tottenham and Burnley have played three games fewer than some of their rivals — and there is a distinct shortage of space to fit them back in. Adding another whole round of games to that would create a logistical headache.
Of course, to some extent this is the Premier League engaging in its favorite pastime: kicking the can down the road. This is an organization, we should not forget, that was beset by factionalism and fury over what to do with one season interrupted by a pandemic but did not think it worth it, in the aftermath, to draw up a protocol about what to do should another season be interrupted by the exact same pandemic. Thinking ahead is not, if we are honest, a strong suit.
Deciding to play on does not preclude more postponements, more games to fit in to an overstuffed calendar drawn up by a whole range of organizations apparently unable to see beyond their own immediate requirements. Further cancellations and complications are almost inevitable. The Premier League is, effectively, simply gambling that there will be fewer than 10, that this is the least bad option.
That approach comes with a cost, though. One of sport’s most abiding myths is that the league table does not lie. Every team plays each other home and away and, at the end of the season, all of the fluctuations of fate — the injury crises and the rotten luck and the good fortune and the decision not to send off Harry Kane — are evened out, and a true and, crucially, fair order of merit is established.
It is a pretty fantasy, but it is a fantasy nonetheless. A league season is not inherently fair. It is simply unfair in a way that we, as a soccer culture, are prepared to tolerate.
It is not, for example, entirely fair that Watford was able to play Newcastle United at home at a time when Newcastle’s squad was a ragtag bunch of journeymen. Three of Newcastle’s direct rivals for relegation — Leeds, Burnley and Norwich — have to play Newcastle at home after it has had a chance to inject $200 million into its team in the January transfer window. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the vagaries of the fixture schedule may determine which of those teams goes down.
It is not entirely fair that teams can fire an underperforming manager at any point in the season — in a way not possible with players — giving their subsequent opponents a more challenging encounter than their previous ones, or that some teams get more rest between games than others.
That is not to complain; these are trivial inequities, especially when compared with things like the vast financial chasm that exists between teams in the same league. It is simply to point out that no league season can be truly, unwaveringly, incontestably fair, and that it is something we can all accept.
The problem with the Premier League’s decision to push through as best it can, commanding that any and every club with enough uninfected players to fill a team and the requisite number of substitutes must play on, canceling some games but continuing with others, is that it adds an extra — and perhaps excessive — level of competitive distortion.
Tottenham, without question, will suffer for having to make up the three games it lost to its Covid outbreak. There will be busy weeks in the spring, and fatigue may weigh heavy. But will it suffer more than — say — Chelsea, which had to play on despite the fact that its manager, Thomas Tuchel, made it very plain that he felt he did not have enough players?
Does Tottenham not now have a better chance of winning those games than it would otherwise? And what would a team like Leeds make of that, given that it has a far longer list of absentees but has had to endure simply because they had not — at least until Thursday — been missing because of Covid?
It is easy, at this point, to say that the teams at the summit of the Premier League all have enough players to cope, and indeed they do. There is no reason to feel sorry for the poor little rich boys. But what if it happens at the other end of the table? What if Burnley must play through, but Norwich gets to reset? What if it proves the difference between survival and relegation? What if it costs people their jobs? Not the players, but the support staff whose income is dependent on continued access to the wealth of the Premier League?
There is, again, no correct answer here, though there are other solutions available. Perhaps clubs should be made to play on — unless they cannot guarantee the health and safety of the opposing team — with whatever group of players they can cobble together? That is the usual sporting punishment for missing players, as Leeds is busy discovering.
Or perhaps, as is the case elsewhere, they should be punished for failing to fulfill their fixtures, for not adhering to the coronavirus protocols well enough? Maybe each team that cannot complete a game should just suffer a 3-0 defeat? And yet that, too, is hardly an advertisement for fairness.
And so the Premier League has done the only thing it can think of: to hit and hope, to assume that when it emerges from the thick fog of winter there will be something on the other side. What shape it will take, what difference it will have made and what damage it might have done are questions that can wait for later. Until then, it will do what it has always done, plowing on regardless, into the current.
Let’s start with a suggestion from Jeffrey Hoffman as to how to keep UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, from making a huge mess of pulling some balls out of a pot. “Go back to a straight knockout tournament. No seeding. No country protections. No nothing. If Paris St.-Germain plays Manchester City in the first round, so be it. Win or go home.”
Now this is, it has to be said, quite a popular idea with — let’s put this diplomatically — a certain demographic: those over 45. It is not, though, one I agree with. Randomness is a welcome addition to the Champions League, but too much randomness is not. It makes sense to try to funnel the best teams toward the final rounds. It just doesn’t make any sense to filter them once they are there.
Brion Fox, meanwhile, picks up on the idea that there are too many penalties. “There are too many penalties,” he said, “because there are too many fouls. We have so many, they have their own lingo: professional fouls, tactical, strategic, lazy, aggressive, late. Players are criticized for not being tough enough to foul. Some players seem to be on the field solely to provoke fouls. Others, to satisfy the desire of those who seek to provoke. The lack of flow of the game, with the constant starts and stops, is why I prefer the women’s game.”
To round this out, maybe there are too many fouls because there are too many things that are considered fouls? Maybe if we decided that some things weren’t really fouls, we could concentrate on eliminating the ones that definitely are? (Statistically, Brion is right: There are fewer fouls in women’s soccer. In England, for example, it’s currently 17.5 per game in the Women’s Super League and 20.2 in the Premier League. So the difference is not vast, but I’d agree it’s probably noticeable.)
And because it’s Christmas, we will finish with these gifts to you: two absolutely perfect emails from the inbox this week. First, a prime example of the sort of correspondence I love — questioning and imaginative and beautifully put — from Connor Murphy:
“What is the optimal shape of the penalty area? That it’s currently a rectangle seems likely to be nothing more than historical accident, a consequence of our infatuation with right angles. Is a foul just outside of the top of the box and right in the center of the goal more deserving of a penalty kick than one occurring on a goal line corner of the box?”
(Great question, don’t know, maybe the shape of a partially deflated hot-air balloon?)
And then there was this mildly confessional missive from Dan Portnoy. “My son and I, both low-level referees, jumped out of our seats on the Antonio Rüdiger foul. We’ve been saying for years that players on the edge of the box, heading away from the goal, don’t deserve a penalty, even though they do deserve something.
“We’ve called for a referee judgment call as to whether a foul in the box deserves a penalty, or, as an alternative, a free kick from anywhere outside the box that the offended team chooses. When I’m refereeing and a foul happens near the edge of the box, I often award a free kick, not a penalty, declaring that it happened just outside the box (please don’t tell anyone).”
Don’t worry, Dan, I won’t.
That’s all for this week, and for next week, too, when we take our one newsletter break of the year. If you can’t wait two weeks to be heard, get in touch at email@example.com with any hints, tips, complaints or ideas. Twitter can perform much the same function, of course. We’re looking back on the year for the Set Piece Menu podcast this week, first for good, and then for bad. The good episode is heartwarming. The bad one is more fun.
For those of you who celebrate, have a great Christmas. For those that don’t, enjoy the fact that everything is a little quieter than normal.