MARTIN SAMUEL: Premier League has moved forward by standing still

MARTIN SAMUEL: Premier League has moved forward by standing still when it would have been easy to curtail… this will be a flawed conclusion, but one that will still have champions and fall guys

  • Premier League will return to action on June 17, it was announced on Thursday
  • The crisis management shows sometimes nothing is better than something
  • Despite the restart date, the subject of neutral venues is still unresolved 
  • Whoever falls will feel victimised – but they will have a chance to avoid relegation

Ultimately, football got it right. It didn’t curtail, it didn’t panic, it didn’t crush dreams or thwart ambition. It waited. It ignored the calls for action, the demands to do something, anything. 

The first question of crisis management is always: what happens if we do nothing? Sometimes nothing is better than something.

So June 17 it is, then. Either in Manchester or Birmingham, the Premier League will restart with the two games in hand. That in itself shows this crisis is far from over. 

Manchester City vs Arsenal has been lined up for June 17 when the Premier League resumes

The Premier League want to get those two matches played — Manchester City v Arsenal, Aston Villa v Sheffield United — because then the 20 clubs will be all square.

Decisions on European qualification, even relegation, can be made more clearly when an even amount of games has taken place, and there is still the fear the season could be halted again.

Not just the viewing figures, which are bound to be through the roof now a minimum 29 games are to be shown on terrestrial TV. Great excitement greeted the news on Thursday but let’s see what they are first. 

Aston Villa vs Sheffield United will also be played on Wednesday, June 17, behind closed doors

The Premier League’s broadcast partners would be mad to hand over the marquee matches: Liverpool’s inevitable title win, a desperately tight battle for survival, the scrap for the last Champions League place.

Still, if all continues to plan, happy days. The latest coronavirus tests in the Championship produced another handful of positives and, if everybody behaves, there is no reason that should change. 

These are young, fit men in an industry awash with money most of the time, and no expense will be spared ensuring the restart stays on course.

Dissenting voices have been won over. Watford’s Troy Deeney, who understandably had worries for a vulnerable son, says he will return to work. There will be players who don’t take that final step but they will be in a minority.

Thursday’s meeting was long but not as fractious as anticipated. The rebate for television rights-holders was agreed and parameters and protocols for the matches set. Fifteen, it seems, is the magic number. If a club has that many players available from its first-team squad — even including Under 21s —then the instruction is to play.

If this seems cavalier, it is not expected any club would lose 10 or more squad members. Dropping even two key players, or the manager, could be crucial to a club threatened by relegation, but the Premier League see that as no different to an injury crisis or wider calamity.

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters announced the plans on Thursday evening

Tottenham’s food poisoning outbreak on the day of a game that could have seen them qualify for the Champions League in 2006 is a case in point. Daniel Levy wanted the match postponed — the league said no. 

Spurs threatened not to play — the league said they could be docked points. Spurs lost and angled for a replay — the league said tough. It will be the same this season, barring a veritable plague on one of the houses.

The subject of neutral venues is still unresolved, too. Leaving aside the views of London Mayor Sadiq Khan — who thinks nothing of crushing citizens on Tube trains, but believes fans will congregate at closed stadiums and become a menace — there is an acceptance that most games can be played at home.

Sadiq Khan has concerns that fans will congregate outside stadiums when football returns 

A small number, mostly involving Liverpool and the title race, are ‘high risk’ and may be played away from Merseyside. Yet that issue is also unresolved until the next meeting on June 4. Understandably, clubs would not vote for neutral locations without seeing the full list of matches. So there is work to do.

Equally, a decision defining what would happen if the season closed down once more was delayed. 

The idea of weighted points per game — which takes home and away form into account separately — appears to be off the table, probably because it was a calculation that would plunge West Ham from two places outside the relegation zone into the Championship, an outcome that might crumble under legal challenge.

Points per game is no less controversial but will not be voted on for another week. Increasingly it is seen as an emergency solution, with all clubs intent on fulfilling 38 fixtures, plus the FA Cup woven between. 

Watford captain Troy Deeney believes the integrity of the Premier League has been harmed

The league’s greatest achievement is resisting those that would have relegated three teams in March, without chance of escape.

Deeney said the integrity of the league had been harmed, due to the circumstances of the conclusion, but every effort has been made to maintain consistency.

A plan to increase the number of substitutes used to five — to ease the burden on players caused by the heavy schedule — was hotly resisted by a number of clubs. 

It was considered wrong to have three for the majority of the season and five for these final games. An additional sub scoring an influential goal would be highly contentious.

And it’s far from perfect, we see that. No fans is the biggest loss, and to have Liverpool win the title in an empty stadium feels almost sacrilegious.

To have Liverpool win the title in an empty stadium feels almost sacrilegious

Yet what was the alternative? Null and void — or to award them a title by calculation, that would forever be accompanied by an asterisk. Football without fans is nothing, we are told. Yet that isn’t right. It is something. It’s this. 

A flawed conclusion, but one that — if all goes to plan — will still have a champion, European qualifiers and fall guys.

It would have been easy to curtail. To hand the league to the obvious winners, as France did. 

Kylian Mbappe’s PSG were awarded the Ligue 1 title this season after the league was cancelled

In Holland, AZ Alkmaar missed out on an automatic Champions League spot because they were level on points with league leaders Ajax, but behind on goal difference. AZ had, however, beaten Ajax home and away. Rightly, they feel cheated.

So harsh decisions have been made. And whoever falls from the division will feel victimised by this blighted season. They will, however, have a chance.

That is what three months on pause has afforded everybody: a chance. The Premier League moved forward by standing still. As any goalscorer or crisis manager knows, sometimes that’s the smartest strategy of all.

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