9:43 AM BST
Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC
Project Restart is firmly on track and heading towards a resumption of Premier League fixtures on June 17, with Manchester City vs. Arsenal and Aston Villa vs. Sheffield United set to restart the English top-flight, 100 days after a game was last played due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But even though the return of the Premier League is two weeks away, several key issues remain unresolved ahead of Thursday’s video conference meeting involving senior figures from all 20 clubs. For one, the Premier League has yet to confirm how the 2019-20 season will be concluded if the virus forces the competition to be cancelled, as has happened in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Scotland.
There also remains confusion over which games, if any, will have to be staged at neutral venues in order to prevent large groups of supporters congregating outside matches to cheer their team on. Finally, there are questions about how the fixture list will be arranged, the use of VAR, whether additional substitutes will be allowed and if clubs can re-register players to their squad having omitted them in January.
So with the clock ticking towards June 17, how will the outstanding issues be resolved by the Premier League and its clubs? Here’s a closer look.
What happens if they can’t finish the season?
This is the thorniest issue and the one likely to prove most divisive when clubs vote on how to navigate a curtailment (or cutting short) of the season.
The Premier League requires a 14-6 majority to pass any motion — a stipulation that’s can work as a safety-catch to prevent the “Big Six” of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur from teaming up to drive through their own agenda. But sources have told ESPN that the bottom six clubs in the table are likely to vote against a motion to implement a points-per-game (PPG) calculation of the league in the event a 38-game season cannot be completed. (Of the bottom six clubs, three will be relegated to the English Championship; the six teams are separated by just eight points)
Six clubs would not be enough to veto PPG, but with only five points separating 14th-place Southampton from 16th-place Brighton, there remains the prospect of a club on the fringes of the relegation battle also choosing to vote against PPG. If seven vote against, the clubs will have to find another way to end the campaign, and that’s when things could really get messy.
Sources have told ESPN that there has been no formal discussion of relegation being cancelled this season, but if enough clubs vote against PPG, some may push for the season to be ended without teams being relegated to the Championship, if the season cannot be completed.
If that happens — and it remains unlikely — the Premier League would either have to expand next season’s league to accommodate three promoted teams from the Championship, or run the risk of legal action by ruling out promotion if no clubs are relegated. This would be a historic act, demonstrating the unique challenges football faces to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the Premier League cannot make any change to promotion or relegation, or expand the size of the division, without the permission of the Football Association, which holds a special voting share as an extra layer of regulatory protection. The FA is reported to be committed to promotion and relegation to and from the top flight, which further clouds the result of any vote of the clubs.
The confusion around neutral venues
The Premier League has been attempting to resolve the issue of neutral venues for over a month now, and while progress has been made, there remain at least six fixtures that the police have highlighted as being high-risk when viewed through the prism of coronavirus safety protocols.
Initially, the police and UK government had called for all remaining fixtures to be played at neutral venues to avoid the threat of large gatherings of supporters outside games behind closed doors. Ensuring games were played at grounds big enough and modern enough to cope with social distancing measures was also a factor.
The authorities have relented on that early stance, but when regional police were canvassed by their national body, six of the remaining 92 fixtures were highlighted in red. Everton vs. Liverpool, Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace, Man City vs. Liverpool, Man United vs. Sheffield United, Newcastle vs. Liverpool and “Game X” — the one in which Liverpool could clinch the title — are the games in question.
The fixtures involving Newcastle relate to concerns that fans could use those to protest against owner Mike Ashley, or celebrate the confirmation of the proposed Saudi Arabia-led takeover. Man Utd’s Old Trafford encounter with Sheffield United is based on fan disorder dating back to an FA Cup tie between the two clubs in 2016. Finally, the games involving Liverpool have been highlighted because of concerns around large gatherings of supporters ready to celebrate the club’s first league title in 30 years, with the Merseyside derby against Everton the biggest headache of all.
Fan control is the major concern, with both clubs based in the same city and supporters able to reach Goodison Park easily, but the age and location of Everton’s 128-year-old ground is another big issue. Goodison is in a built-up residential area amid terraced houses dating back to Victorian times, so it would be virtually impossible for police to set up an exclusion zone to keep fans out. Inside the ground, the players’ tunnel is so narrow that visiting teams could be forced to change in portable cabins in the parking lot and enter the pitch from a different area than the home team to avoid close contact in an enclosed area.
Discussions are ongoing with the authorities, but while Merseyside Police have said there are no policing issues about the Everton-Liverpool game, there may still be public health concerns that could force the fixture to be played elsewhere. It is the Premier League’s ambition for all games to be played on a home and away basis, however.
A Premier League statement said: “Discussions with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and UK Football Policing Unit have been positive and are continuing. We are prepared for all outcomes and have a neutral venue contingency.”
Arranging the fixture list
With just two weeks to go until the Premier League returns, the fixture schedule remains a mystery, beyond the confirmation of the two games — Manchester City vs. Arsenal, Aston Villa vs. Sheffield United — on June 17.
Once those games are concluded, all teams will have played 29 games; from that point, the Premier League is determined to keep all 20 clubs in sync as much as possible regarding games played in order to ensure the table is as balanced as possible in the event of a sudden end to the season. While it is likely that the season will pick up from where it left off, with Matchday 29 of 38, there is still the possibility that the schedule could be reviewed for safety reasons.
For instance, Matchday 29, which includes Everton vs. Liverpool, could be switched with a later round of games in an effort to diminish the importance, and risk factor, of some games, but at this stage of the season, every matchday has fixtures which carry some wider significance. One notable change to the schedule has already been signed off, in terms of kickoff times, with games being played on every day of the week. All will be broadcast live in the U.K.
Monday and Friday games will kick-off at 3 p.m. ET (8 p.m. BST), Saturday fixtures will be played at 7:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. ET (12:30 p.m., 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. BST) and on Sunday, games will start at 7 a.m., 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. ET (12:00 p.m., 2 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. BST). Finally, all midweek games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will kick-off at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. ET (6 p.m. and 8 p.m. BST).
Will VAR be used or dropped?
Even though the video assistant referee system (VAR) has been in play since the start of the Premier League season, it may not be used for the remaining fixtures.
FIFA has cleared the way for leagues to abandon the system for the remainder of the campaign to enhance social distancing efforts. VAR teams operate remotely, from a multiscreen hub at Stockley Park on the outskirts of London, but with the VAR officials needing to be in close proximity to operate the video software, it could prove too problematic to use.
Reducing the number of VAR officials at Stockley Park and allowing the match officials to make greater use of pitchside monitors could make the system safer to operate. The 20 clubs are not expected to vote on VAR this week, but it remains an issue to be resolved.
However, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters is confident VAR will continue to be used, as it is in other major leagues.
“VAR has its own social distancing issues, but we think there is a way of completing the season with VAR,” he told Sky Sports. “Absolutely our intention is to complete the season with VAR in place.”
Clubs are set to vote on Thursday on allowing five substitutions a game for the remainder of the season.
There is a limit of three substitutes from a bench of seven players, but FIFA has sanctioned the temporary increase to five for the remainder of this season in an effort to reduce injuries caused by tiredness and muscle fatigue following the three-month period without competitive football. The effects of playing in summer heat is another factor for the increase to five subs.
Then there’s the issue of whether or not the expanded substitutes will benefit the bigger teams who have deeper, better squads. Premier League clubs still have to vote on this, and Brighton manager Graham Potter has already voiced his opposition to allowing more substitutions.
“I think as soon as you start to change the rules regarding substitutions, it becomes different to what we started in the first place,” Potter said.
Clubs are facing a vote on whether to allow the re-registration of players who had been removed from squads in January due to injury.
Aston Villa chose to omit England keeper Tom Heaton from their 25-man Premier League squad in January after he suffered a serious knee injury that was expected to rule him out for the rest of the season. Brazilian forward Wesley was also removed from Villa’s squad with a knee complaint.
However, both Heaton and Wesley are now fit to play, so clubs must decide whether they will allow for players like this to be recalled to the squads in these unprecedented and unforeseen circumstances. This is problematic as it could strengthen some teams and may not get the support of the necessary 14 clubs.