What is Happening
By now, the news has spread around the world that Manchester City has had an outbreak of Coronavirus cases. An outbreak that saw the scheduled fixture against Everton on 12/28 (or 28/12 for non-Americans) postponed and the first-team portion of City Football Academy (CFA) closed. This decision coming after two rounds of testing returned positive results. The first coming on Christmas Day including two players and two staffers. The second coming on the 28th, the day of the Everton fixture, including what is reported to be three first-team players. Therefore taking the total number of infected individuals to five first-team players and two staffers.
As shocking as the Manchester City match postponement is, it is extremely important to remember this is not the first Premier League fixture to be postponed this month. On December 1st, the fixture between Newcastle United and Aston Villa was postponed as well. Newcastle United also had to close their training ground as a result of the case numbers. In fact, Newcastle had the same number of positive tests at the time of their match postponement as Manchester City; five players and two staffers testing positive. However since Manchester City is at the center of the issue this time, a club so many love to hate, much has been called into question.
What We Know
First and foremost we know right-back Kyle Walker, striker Gabriel Jesus, and two staffers tested positive in the round of testing returned on Christmas Day. We know in the round of testing returned on the 28th, what is reported as three more players, including goalkeeper Ederson, tested positive. Though this has not been confirmed by the club at the time of this writing. We also know a subsequent round of tests was carried out today at CFA on all those who have not already tested postive (those results have not been released at the time of this writing).
It is being reported that Manchester City believes they have traced the outbreak back to a meal at a London hotel ahead of the League Cup quarter-final against Arsenal on December 22nd. Should that prove to be the case, there is not much that could have been done to prevent the outbreak. Traveling to London, playing a football match, and then traveling back to Manchester can not be done without a meal. Traveling to London for the fixture was always going to pose a high risk as London was put into Tier 4 two days prior, on December 20th.
Right now the only thing that can be done is wait for the results of the next round of Covid tests. That will determine the fate of Manchester City’s next fixtures against Chelsea and Manchester United. Should more positive results be returned, the likelihood of the Chelsea and United fixtures taking place as scheduled becomes slim. Should no more positive results be returned, it is more likely they will take place as scheduled. For now all anyone can do is speculate.
The Everton Fixture
14 Players and a Goalkeeper
The decision to postpone the match has generated much controversy, often without concern for the human lives this virus impacts. Many fans, journalists, and pundits have used the Premier League rule stating a match must be played if a team has 14 players including a goalkeeper available (14&GK). Those arguing this rule has been violated, are doing so under the assumption that at least one City goalkeeper has not tested positive and this has not been confirmed by the club.
It also neglects the fact that more players could have contracted the virus between tests, as was the case between the Christmas Day and 28th tests. Had the Everton match been played, it is quite possible any Manchester City player or staff member could spread the virus to an Everton player or staff member. Under normal circumstances, such as muscle injuries, the opposition players and staff face no health risk from playing a match. Even a contained Covid outbreak would pose little risk to be played under the 14&GK rule. However, the Manchester City outbreak is not contained.
It is also important to note one or two Covid cases in a squad is not necessarily a reason for concern. Many teams this season have seen one or two players contract Covid with no spread to other players or staffers. Manchester City has seen isolated Covid cases themselves earlier in the season, with defender Aymeric Laporte, midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, and winger Riyad Mahrez all testing positive at various points. Matches were played as scheduled during the duration of their absences. This was also the case with the Boxing Day fixture against Newcastle United which Manchester City played without Walker and Jesus. The issue arises when multiple players start to test positive over multiple testing days. Once that occurs, it is time to worry about the spread of the virus amongst the entire squad and staff. At that point playing a football match becomes extremely risky to the opponent. Postponing the match is the smart and fair thing to do for public safety, and was done in both the Newcastle United and Manchester City cases.
Forcing the club to forfeit the match due to the Covid outbreak has also been expressed as a possibility. This has not been done in the Premier League. In the only prior instance where a fixture was in doubt (Newcastle United vs Aston Villa), the Premier League voted to postpone as well. However, in Italy, Napoli was originally forced to forfeit their match with Juventus after local government guidelines prohibited the team from traveling to Turin due to a Covid outbreak within the squad. Seire A, on the other hand, determined the match could take place using the 14&GK rule, thereby declering Napoli’s absence as a forfeit. Napoli appealed the decision, and it was rightly overturned. The fixture will now be rescheduled. Had the Premier League taken a similar approch as Seire A with Newcastle and then Manchester City, it can be believed the decision would have been overturned as well.
The most important thing to remember, is this virus is highly contagious and extremely dangerous. Forcing fixtures to be played based on the 14&GK rule or forcing a club to forfeit a match while experiencing an outbreak is dangerous. It encourages reckless behavior by forcing a club to violate local government guidelines or field a squad with potentially positive players in order to avoid fines or dropped points. In the end all a policy like that does is put more clubs at risk and can create a snowball effect putting not just one or two fixtures at risk, but the entire season.
Debunking Common Misconceptions
Fans, journalists, and pundits have all thrown out some frankly ridiculous takes on the postponement of Manchester City’s fixture. These have ranged from conspiracy theories to annoyance to ignorance. Below are some of the false ideas floating around regarding the postponement explained.
Manchester City got special treatment
The postponement of the match is not giving special treatment to Manchester City. The Premier League is in fact following the precedent they set for themselves when they postponed Newcastle United’s match against Aston Villa originally scheduled for December 1st. Five first team players and two staffers positive resulted in Newcastle’s match being postponed as well as Manchester City’s.
Manchester City wanted the match postponed to avoid playing on 48 hours rest
In reality, the match being postponed complicates Manchester City’s fixture schedule more. The club already had one match to makeup from their start being delayed due to involvement in the UEFA Champions League. The postponement of the Everton match adds another fixture to be crammed into an already packed schedule later in the season. The postponement of the match only delays the rapid turn around problem, it does not eliminate it.
Postponing the City match opens the door for more matches to be postponed
In a way, yes. However, Newcastle United’s match vs Aston Villa being postponed set the precedent. Manchester City’s match being postponed simply proves that no club is immune and the situation was not a one-off at Newcastle United.
Manchester United get into the EFL final if Manchester City can not play the Semifinal
Per the EFL Cup rules established at the beginning of the season, should a fixture beyond the 4th round (quarterfinals-final) not be able to be fulfilled, the fixture will be rescheduled. For ties until the quarterfinals, rescheduling was deemed not feasible due to fixture congestion and the number of teams involved. With the final now not taking place until April, there is plenty of time to figure out a date to reschedule the fixture, especially given it is a one-off tie. As these rules were set at the beginning of the season, this policy did not come into play simply because the team in question is Manchester City.
Manchester City should be fined for not following protocol
There is no evidence that protocol was not followed. The reality is players have lives and have to leave the Premier League bubble. If Manchester City are correct and it is a result of the outbreak at the hotel where they ate while in London, it is simply a case of bad luck. Given the nature of the virus, a hotel employee could have worked with the squad, not even knowing he or she was carrying the virus. No amount of precautions can prevent the spread of the virus completely, especially in an area, such as London on the 22nd, in Tier 4.
Manchester City have the money and the squad to play, Newcastle does not
This is completely ignorant of the situation. The Coronavirus does not care if a player is worth 1 million pounds or 100 million pounds. The risk of spreading the virus to other teams is the same regardless of the cost and size of the squad in question. No player or team is immune to the virus no matter how much money they do or do not have.