It’s Not Just the Derby Getting Postponed; Arsenal Are Postponing the Agenda
In the aftermath of Arsenal’s resilient effort to earn a 0-0 draw at Anfield on Thursday, the threadbare state of Mikel Arteta‘s squad became increasingly evident. Before the match, Emile Smith Rowe, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Sead Kolasinac were declared out due to injury. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Thomas Partey, Nicolas Pepe, and Mohamed Elneny were away competing at AFCON. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Folarin Balogun had left on loan to Roma and Middlesbrough respectively. When the starting lineup was announced, the club revealed that Martin Odegaard would also miss the match after testing positive for COVID-19. By the time the full time whistle blew, Cedric had picked up an injury and Granit Xhaka had earned a two-game suspension. As a cherry on top, Arteta disclosed that Calum Chambers, Bukayo Saka, and Kieran Tierney came away with knocks.
Just over the horizon lay a trip to the giant toilet bowl called Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the second North London Derby of the season. But with only Aaron Ramsdale, Bernd Leno, Ben White, Gabriel, Rob Holding, Pablo Mari (reportedly on the cusp of a loan move to Udinese), Nuno Tavares, Sambi Lokonga, Alexandre Lacazette, Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli available from the senior squad, Arsenal would be hard-pressed to even field a team. On Friday, they applied to the Premier League for a postponement of the Tottenham match. The next day, the league announced that they had accepted the application and that the match was off.
The news of the derby’s postponement set off a tidal wave of malice toward Arsenal. Gary Neville, having remained silent when Liverpool claimed a ridiculously improbable number of false positives or when 19 other Premier League matches had been postponed, chose this particular moment to hop on the pulpit and decry the abuse of the postponement rules. Jamie Carragher facetiously accused Arsenal of trying to get a few more days’ rest ahead of the second leg against Liverpool on Thursday. Football journalists and correspondents galore shed any semblance of impartiality and outright accused Arsenal of foul play. And, of course, rival fans — particularly those of Spurs — flooded timelines with the expected amount of trite.
But despite the plethora of claims that the club was in the wrong, a question that seemingly few people seemed to consider is, did Arsenal break the rules? Did they do anything that they weren’t actually allowed to do?
According to the Premier League’s latest guidance, which was issued on December 23, criteria for application for postponement includes, “Where a club has been unable to field 13 outfield players and a goalkeeper for a match due to Covid-19 infections, injuries, illness and/or those isolating.” Among the details taken into consideration regarding whether a team can deploy enough outfield players is the number of “appropriately experienced” U-21 players listed on a club’s squad list. In order to qualify as appropriately experienced, a U-21 player must have played for their club, another Premier League or EFL club, or an overseas club during the current season.
When you remove the agenda-tinted spectacles, it is rather clear that Arsenal satisfied the prerequisites for the league to postpone the match. According to The Guardian, the club argued in their application that they have had to deal with 11 COVID-19 cases since December 21, which resulted in added wear and tear for the squad. At the time of the application, Arsenal had two positive cases in the squad to contend with. Between COVID infections, piling injuries, AFCON absences, and only Charlie Patino being eligible to make up the numbers (Miguel Azeez’s loan with Portsmouth has reportedly been terminated but the club have yet to confirm that), Arsenal were left with only ten outfield players available for the Spurs match. This fact compelled the Premier League to call off the North London Derby.
Of course, Arsenal could have kept a stiff upper lip and not asked for a postponement. They could have given Omari Hutchinson his first team debut away to Spurs in one of the most important matches of the Gunners’ season. They could have recalled Maitland-Niles from his days-old loan so that he may fill in for a match or two and then go back to not playing. If they were that hard up for players, they could have even signed Jack Wilshere to a contract for one last rodeo. After all, applying for a postponement is not compulsory.
But no other club took that approach when in a similar quagmire. No other club refrained from trying to take advantage of poorly-crafted rules to save their bacon. And, more importantly, no other club was asked to. It was only when Arsenal did what was best for themselves while remaining within the bounds of the rules that such a universal outrage was provoked.
Frankly, such pearl-clutching now is disingenuous but not remotely shocking. For years, Arsenal have been considered soft and incapable of helping themselves. There was a time not so long ago when Arsenal’s diminutive playmakers faced an increased risk of being kicked within an inch of retirement, and Gunners who met that fate were simply labeled as fragile. Until recently, the club had developed a reputation for hilariously calamitous self-destruction. Even now, that reputation still tinges how certain Arsenal players are treated by referees.
So when Arsenal lost 2-0 away to Brentford after attempting to adjust without five COVID-stricken players, it was business as usual. Sky Sports pundits gleefully sang along with the home crowd before singling out and dissecting Ben White’s disappointing performance for a viral YouTube video. When Spurs 1-nil’ed their way to pole position after three weeks and matches against Brentford, Chelsea, and City left Arsenal at the bottom of the table, memes and jokes cascaded from every available form of media.
It follows then that when Arsenal exercise a bit of ruthlessness and refuse to roll the dice on their season if they can help it, it is perceived as them breaking the rules. After years of bad transfer policies, scandals involving captains, and embarrassing defeats, the agenda dictates that Arsenal Football Club are foolish. They play pretty football and then shoot themselves in the foot. That’s how it goes. If they are asking for a match to be postponed, then it must be the wrong thing to do. Because that’s what Arsenal always do.
This is why the club supposedly should have bent over backwards to accommodate their archrivals in a match that represents a six-point swing in the race for the final Champions League place. And it’s why so many are mad that they won’t do so. For many, Arsenal’s relative competence this season and most recent display that they will do whatever it takes to win matches is a deviation from the norm. And for those who can’t afford for the north London giant to awake from its slumber, it is an unwelcome change.
Arsenal will now take on Spurs at a later point of the season. Son Heung-min will likely be back from injury at that juncture, but the Gunners will hopefully sport a few reinforcements by then themselves. If the action they took this weekend results in a crucial three points and helps propel them into the top four, no one among the Arsenal faithful will care about the bitterness of strangers online. Indeed, they’ll be defiantly jubilant. Their club will have pushed Spurs back into their place and a fading agenda into irrelevance.
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