IAN HERBERT: Premier League destroying integrity of the competition with casual agreements to cancel

Marcelo Flores has played for Mexico against Chile. Charlie Patino is the best teenager unearthed in decades, according to one seasoned scout. Salah-Eddine Oulad M’Hand is a Holland youth international tearing it up so much that he was named on the bench for a League Cup semi-final.

All of the above are Arsenal players; proof that the club’s global and local scouting networks are in very good order.

And proof, more pertinently, that the club were perfectly capable of fielding a squad of 14 for last weekend’s north London derby, just as they are to face Liverpool in the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg on Thursday.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta could not field a side for the north London derby on Sunday

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Precisely how Arsenal managed to convince the Premier League that there were not 13 serviceable outfield players and a goalkeeper in their pool of 50 from first team and academy is something known only to those two parties.

The club point to a Premier League statement allowing them to exclude players yet to debut in the competition from their 14. That would leave them below the required number, they say.

Arsenal’s decision to send midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles on loan to Roma and Folarin Balogun to Middlesbrough doesn’t seem to have entered the conversation when they pleaded for postponement. Three days after securing it, they also popped Pablo Mari off to Udinese on loan for good measure.

Equally risible is the Premier League’s citation of Arsenal losing four players to the Africa Cup of Nations as a contributory factor to Sunday’s cancellation. That would be the long-anticipated, biennial international football competition which the club knew perfectly well was happening.

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The injury-tracking source Premier Injuries currently lists only two players — Martin Odegaard (now available again) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — as carriers of Covid, with a further six carrying physical injuries.

Arsenal sent midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles on loan to Roma this month

Arsenal sent midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles on loan to Roma this month

The Premier League and their clubs are insulting our intelligence and destroying the integrity of the competition with these casual, lightweight agreements to cancel. Arsenal will now play the north London derby with Granit Xhaka, whose two-match suspension should have included that game. 

Burnley — another whose claims to lack 14 players seems convenient — will play a vital relegation clash against Watford, postponed for a second time on Tuesday, with a new loan striker, having lost their only reliable one to a rival for the drop, Newcastle. The season is already deeply tainted.

Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl has been rightly arguing for weeks that players signed in January should be banned from playing in re-arranged Covid games. If one of the elite managers had suggested this, it might actually have gained traction.

Hasenhuttl has hugely enhanced his reputation in the way he has handled recent months, indefatigably fielding teams whatever the challenge, and has been rewarded with a decent run of results.

Granit Xhaka will now be able to play in the North London derby after serving his suspension

Granit Xhaka will now be able to play in the North London derby after serving his suspension

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So, too, Wolves, who had two goalkeepers on the bench on Saturday and fielded Tote Gomes, a player some in the Black Country had never heard of. Leeds have also embraced the spirit of the competition, recalling loan players and placing 15-year-old Archie Gray on the bench to find a quorum to face Arsenal last month.

‘This is our life,’ Wolves manager Bruno Lage said last weekend. ‘We take some risks.’

And that is the point. Clubs have 20 or more Under 23s on their books to find out if they’re good enough and if now isn’t the time to seek an answer to that question, then when is? What is the point of those players?

They certainly want the chance and there will be no supporter backlash against any manager who pitches some of them in at a time of adversity — be that now, or at the end of the month when we will be asked to accept that this interminable season has reached the point of its ‘winter break’.

Leeds placed 15-year-old Archie Gray on the bench when they were struggling for players

Leeds placed 15-year-old Archie Gray on the bench when they were struggling for players

Tottenham manager Antonio Conte, struggling like everyone else to make sense of things when Sunday’s opponents Chelsea have played five games more than his own and sit 11 points ahead of them, brought the perspective of a 37-year career in football to the discussion yesterday.

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‘This is the first time in my life — and I have a bit of experience in football — to see a decision like this,’ the 52-year-old said. ‘In this way, anything can happen.

‘My feeling is that when there is a situation to play, we have to play and not postpone games for injuries or for international duty.’

The prospects of the Arsenal-Liverpool Carabao Cup second leg going ahead are reasonable, given that the EFL’s rules on availability stipulate that every registered player is considered available, not just, as the Premier League states, those who have played ‘for the club, another Premier League or EFL club, or an overseas club in the current season’.

But the farce of the Premier League’s making should not be permitted to continue for a single day more. With a mere 33 positive Covid cases, including coaching staff, at the latest count, it’s time for those running the self-styled ‘greatest league in the world’ to tell clubs that there will be no more handpicking the games they fancy, that they are being fabulously rewarded and that it’s time to just get on and play.

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