The number of players available to each Premier League club in the event of an outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron strain of coronavirus can be revealed in an analysis by Sportsmail.
Amid concern over the impact of surging Covid infection rates in the Premier League and EFL, clubs have been told they have to fulfil fixtures if they can field 13 fit outfield players and a goalkeeper.
And top-flight officials have made clear that clubs must look beyond their first team squads to plug the gaps and use young players who have made a first team appearance.
Newcastle have been granted a postponements for their games at Everton and Southampton
Norwich looked most stretched of the Premier League clubs with many U21s in their starting XI
Applying the Premier League’s rules to all 20 clubs Sportsmail has estimated most could be expected to call on around 30 players, including goalkeepers.
Appendix 17 of the Premier League handbook sets out the rules on postponement of matches during the Covid pandemic.
It states: ‘Permission will not be granted to postpone a League Match where the applicant Club has 14 or more Players listed on its Squad List available.’
It adds: ‘In respect of any application by a club to reschedule or postpone a League Match due to concerns regarding insufficient Squad List Players, the Board will also give consideration to:
i. The number of registered Under 21 Players (and their relevant experience) available to the Club at the relevant time. Clubs will be expected to utilise appropriately experienced Under 21 Players. This will include any Under 21 Player who has made a first team appearance for:
a. The Club
b. Another Premier League or EFL club
c. An overseas club
ii. The relevant position(s) of the Squad List Player(s) who is/are unavailable (for example, the availability of appropriately experienced goalkeepers)
Wolves are looking the most stretched in our analysis with only 28 to choose from while Liverpool and Brentford the most comfortable with 40 and 41, respectively.
The Reds recently made use of their large pool of talent, playing 19-year-old Tyler Morton in central midfield in the 2-2 draw at Tottenham Hotspur when they were struck by Covid.
However, despite the numbers available to many clubs, matches are now being called off in every round of fixtures, with 18 top-flight games lost so far to Covid. The latest to go were last weekend with Norwich’s match at Leicester and Newcastle’s game at Southampton postponed.
The situation has led Manchester United legend and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville to call on Premier League teams to ‘get on with it’ and stop postponing games due to the virus, which is being fuelled by the highly infectious, Omicron strain.
Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl and West Ham United chief David Moyes have become the latest to question the postponements.
So, what exactly is going on?
Sportsmail has applied the top flight’s Covid rules to every club, assessing the first-team squads they submitted to the Premier League and the senior and U23 squads they detail on their websites to find out how many players may be considered eligible if Covid strikes.
On the face of it, the rules are clear and are set out in Appendix 17 of the Premier League Handbook 2021-22. They state that when considering an application to postpone a match, the Premier League will expect teams to use ‘appropriately experienced Under 21 Players’ to fill gaps in order to get games on.
This includes players who have made an appearance for the club, another top flight outfit, an EFL club or an overseas side.
In addition, league rules also allow clubs to request permission to add players to their squad list in exceptional circumstances and it is understood the Premier League would look on such applications favourably, if it helps keep the show on the road. This may be an over age player who operates within the U23s, or a footballer who is under contract but is not included in the current Premier League squad list.
Immediately, the rules reduce the number of players available, compared to what many people expect. Neville estimated clubs could draw on 40 to 50, when he assumed all youngsters should be considered.
Tyler Morton, 19, played for Liverpool in central midfield when team-mates were missing
|Club|| U21 academy players identified
with ‘appropriate experience’
|Total estimated availability
Premier League squad lists,
club websites, Transfermarkt
for appearance data
|Many U21s with ‘appropriate
experience’ are already a
part of clubs’ match day squads
|Estimated player availability based
on first team squad, U21 academy
players with ‘appropriate experience
and over-age players in U23 set ups
Gary Neville believes teams should be fielding academy players rather than call games off
‘The PL and EFL, in particular, have got to stop these cancellations unless in exceptional circumstances,’ he tweeted. ‘Each club has 40-50 players including youth team as a minimum. If it’s the Carabao Cup or EFL Trophy they find a team without fielding the first 11. It’s time for clubs to get on with it and trust their young players, unless in exceptional circumstances.’
Even if Covid rips through a squad, there would still appear to be a good chance of having games played, even on the reduced numbers under Premier League rules.
But there is a further complication. Once the rules are applied the picture quickly becomes complicated.
While paragraph five of Appendix 17 sets out what qualifies as ‘relevant experience’, paragraph three makes clear each request to postpone a game will still be made on a ‘case by case’ basis and there is also consideration of availability in different positions.
Ralph Hasenhuttl is the latest manager to complain about recent cancellations
This leaves room for discussion and debate and Sportsmail understands some Premier League clubs have pushed back on the precise interpretation of the rules when seeking a postponement.
In reality, there is lots of room for argument.
Take Leeds, a club that has undoubtedly drawn heavily on its younger players during this difficult period in which they have been hit by a toxic combination of Covid and injuries.
When Leeds lost at home to Arsenal 4-1 last month, the Whites had a bench with an average age under 19. Teenage midfielder, Charlie Allen, 18, was not included in the matchday squad, but in the event of further Covid cases, the Belfast-born youngster could find himself pressed into action to fill a gap to get a game on.
Allen has racked up 15 appearances for the club’s U23s in central midfield, but that does not give him appropriate experience, as far as the Premier League is concerned. Crucially, though, he has also played four times for Linfield FC in the Premiership of the Northern Ireland Football League.
Linfield FC celebrate a goal in the Champions League 2020-21 Preliminary Round
Leeds United’s Charlie Allen could qualify under Premier League Covid rules to play
So, under a strict interpretation of the rules, he would appear to qualify since he has league experience and we have included him in our calculations.
Similarly, Crystal Palace’s Jake O’Brien, a 20-year-old centre back, has 26 appearances for the Eagles U23s, which don’t count, but he played 10 times for Cork City in the League of Ireland, which is league experience with an overseas club
No one would argue there is significant similarity between either of the Irish leagues and the Premier League, but the two clubs – Cork City and Linfield – are probably of a similar standard. The last time they played, Cork narrowly prevailed 2-1 on aggregate in a Europa League qualifying round in 2016.
And Northern Ireland ranks only two places behind the Republic of Ireland in 40th spot in the UEFA country coefficient table. So, if one plays, why not the other?
Or to turn it around, if one club manages to argue the NIFL Premiership is not of the required standard to count as a first-team appearance, what about the League of Ireland, Dutch second division, or the Scottish third division? And that is before you even look at how long a player was on the field for.
Ben Cottrell, in action for Arsenal U23s, has a first appearance to his name against Dundalk
How about Ben Cottrell, a 20-year-old attacking midfielder at Arsenal?
He has a first-team appearance for the Gunners to his name, so meets the criteria. It was a 13-minute Europa League cameo against the Irish side, Dundalk, in October 2020. Cottrell, while no doubt a talent, has less first-team experience than either Allen or O’Brien.
Then there is Arsenal’s George Lewis, 21, a left winger who has two appearances for Fram Larvik in the Norwegian third tier to his name. He was on the field for four minutes in total.
Brentford’s Tristan Crama, 20, turned out for Beziers in the French third division five times before he found his way to the Bees in the Premier League and Brighton’s Todd Miller, 19, popped up on the right wing for Colchester for three minutes in League Two in the 2018-19 season.
The rules in Appendix 17 do not explore the level of experience the players need to have achieved for it to be deemed ‘appropriate’ beyond the guidance that they will be deemed good to go if they have a first-team appearance in the Premier League, EFL or overseas.
David Moyes thinks there is a disadvantage for his side having youngsters with experience
In contrast, some clubs may have an experienced pro waiting in the wings. Manchester United could, if they chose to, seek permission for player-coach Paul McShane, 35, to return to the fray, if they were in need of an experienced centre back.
McShane plays with the club’s U23s, but has 98 Premier League appearances under his belt at Hull City, plus another 233 in the Championship and 43 in League One, not to mention his 33 caps for Ireland.
The Premier League has tried to anticipate these complexities by inserting a paragraph to say it will not be making subjective judgements on individual players, and instead it has defined a benchmark.
‘For the avoidance of doubt, the Board believes that it would be extremely difficult to realistically apply and enforce any sort of subjective weighting against the level of a player who may become unavailable for whatever reason,’ states Appendix 17.
But inevitably, with so much riding on almost every game, at both ends of the table, clubs seek to protect their position. It would take months of meetings, an army of lawyers and a separate rule book to define precisely what constitutes ‘appropriate experience’.
The EFL has also been hit by a spate of postponements, as side struggle in the pandemic
This situation is not lost on the managers, who view some of the decisions made to call off games with suspicion, Hasenhuttl among them. He has questioned why Newcastle were allowed to postpone their trip to Everton on Thursday evening before they were due to face his club on Sunday. The game at St Mary’s was ultimately called off, too.
‘They had seven or eight players on the bench during their last game and now they have two more injuries,’ said the Southampton boss this week. ‘They should still have 13 players plus one (goalkeeper), this is the message from the Premier League.’
Based on our calculations, Newcastle appear to have 31 players, who qualify with ‘appropriate experience’, including goalkeepers, who could be plunged into action with the permission of the Premier League.
Of course, Covid, isolation as a result of potential exposure to Covid if players are unvaccinated, and injuries can quickly whittle down the numbers and the Premier League has been satisfied 13 players could not be found.
Newcastle manager Eddie Howe has been hit with a spate of Covid cases and injuries recently
Hasenhuttl, like Moyes, believes clubs are lumping injuries in with Covid cases to obtain a postponement if they are stretched.
‘I hope nobody is getting their games called off for injuries, because we would have called a few of ours off if that were the case,’ said Moyes.
The fact is, injuries are a part of the calculation. The Premier League’s own explanation of the postponements often refer to Covid and injuries, including in the case of Newcastle.
Appendix 17 is in response to Covid, but it deals with availability rather than cause.
Everton’s call off at Burnley on Boxing Day drew the attention of some on social media for this reason.
Toffees’ boss Rafa Benitez used his press conference on December 23 to attack the Premier League’s decision to refuse a request to postpone the fixture, despite Everton reporting they had six injuries and five players out of action having caught Covid.
The following morning, the top flight announced the match would be postponed after all, citing the reason as ‘further injuries’ in the Everton squad. No additional explanation was given, even though Everton had not played in the intervening period.
In fairness to Everton, they appear to have fewer players available than some other clubs, with 29 players including goalkeepers meeting the Premier League criteria in our analysis.
Everton boss Rafa Benitez was frustrated about the Premier League’s initial refusal to postpone his side’s match at Burnley
And even if a club can put 13 players and a goalkeeper out, is that what the fans and broadcasters are paying to see? The game may go ahead, but will it be worth watching?
Among the Newcastle youngsters who would appear to have adequate experience under league rules are a left back who turned out seven times for Dordrecht in the Dutch division two, an attacking midfield player who has played five times in League Two for Tranmere Rovers, and an 18-year-old lad who has nine appearances ‘overseas’ for Queens Park in the Scottish League One.
There is no disrespect to any of those clubs or leagues, or indeed the players, who are making their way in the sport, but would they have been able to mix it with James Ward-Prowse and co at St Mary’s on Sunday?
The issue of fairness looms large over every aspect of this debate.
Firstly, the Covid situation amplifies the already considerable advantage the super-power clubs have over the rest. They simply have more firepower to call on. It was ever thus.
Brighton used a Carabao cup tie at Cardiff in August to give a host of young players their debut
However, in a strange twist, the rules now in force may punish those clubs who have been progressive in blooding young players.
Those clubs have a larger pool of youngsters with first-team experience, albeit limited, to choose from and therefore they are less likely to be in a position to argue for a postponement.
Moyes says his club would find it ‘nearly impossible’ to have a game called off as they have so many academy players with first-team experience, which he feels is unfair.
The Hammers have used their Europa League campaign to give their younger players a taste of first-team action, which was a great idea at the time, but unfortunately it could backfire now.
Liverpool and Manchester United have swelled their pools of available players during Covid through their extensive and successful youth programmes and giving young players a debut
Brighton have at least seven U21s in their academy, who have experienced first-team football, and could now step up. The Seagulls used the second round of the Carabao Cup in August to give youth a chance.
The most obvious youth policy is at Liverpool, which appears to give the Reds a pool of 40 players, including four goalkeepers, they could potentially choose from mostly as a result of consistently playing youngsters.
Their pool includes 23 outfield players in their first-team squad, plus 12 U21s and an over-age U23 player. Liverpool have used the Carabao Cup, in particular, to bring on the young guns.
Chelsea have utilised their famed loan system to give young players senior-team experience, while Manchester United have integrated many into their first-team pool and brought on others, for example Zidane Iqbal and Charlie Savage, both 18, for a few minutes in the Champions League.
The truth is, the arguments around the rules and postponements are set to rage until the Covid crisis finally recedes, infection rates fall and the game returns to some kind of normality. The fear of clubs, at both ends of the table, is that by then their fate may have already been all but decided.