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The last-place team in the English Premier League was at practice last week when the Burnley players noticed that things were a little sparse. There was more space in the locker room, fewer familiar faces running drills. Even picking teams for small-sided scrimmage was suddenly a challenge.

That’s because only 10 members of Burnley’s 25-man squad were healthy enough to show up. The rest were waylaid by injuries and a nasty Covid-19 outbreak that is turning the club’s season into an endless waiting game. Burnley is the English soccer team that barely plays soccer.

Twice in the past two weeks, it has had to petition the Premier League to call off its matches, because it didn’t have the requisite 13 outfield players plus one goalkeeper available. The club has only played one league game in 2022, leaving it at just 17 matches this season. Chelsea, by comparison, has played 23.

“We have games to play but at the moment we haven’t got the players to fulfill the task," said Burnley manager Sean Dyche, who had to coach from home this month after also testing positive.

It’s a desperately difficult situation for a club in deep trouble in the standings. Not only does it barely play—it almost never wins. Sitting in 20th and facing a battle against relegation, Burnley hasn’t managed a victory since October.

But between its own cases and the rotten luck of cases ripping through opposing squads, Burnley’s season has been hit harder than anyone else’s. No team in England’s top four tiers has taken the field fewer times this season.

Burnley is just the most extreme case of a wider problem in English soccer, which has lost around two dozen games to Covid postponements in 2021-22. Part of that is down to a decision not to pause the season over the holiday period and forge ahead with games while the Omicron variant raged through the country.

Instead, clubs petition to postpone games on a case-by-case basis, often at the last minute, leaving teams with huge gaps in their squads and schedules. Unlike NBA and NFL teams across the Atlantic, Premier League clubs have access to fewer mechanisms for plugging temporary holes in their rosters. American football teams can keep their taxi squads well stocked with backups and basketball has the 10-day contract.

Premier League clubs can call on their reserve teams, but the process for bringing in outside players in a pinch is more complicated and usually requires a transfer. All of which has left managers with a squad rotation nightmare. Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel has asked repeatedly for the Premier League to bring back its short-term allowance for five substitutes in a game instead of the usual three.

“Five changes were invented because of Covid," he said. “Now we’re in the middle of Covid, and some teams are having games postponed, and others aren’t."

So it’s no surprise that certain teams have begun weaponizing the Covid postponement. Arsenal became the most glaring example of it last weekend when it succeeded in having the North London Derby against Tottenham Hotspur called off because the club didn’t have enough players available.

The problem was that only one of those absences was due to Covid. The rest were absences that could have come about in any other season, such as players on national-team duty at the Africa Cup of Nations, along with run-of-the-mill injuries and suspensions.

“We didn’t have the players necessary to put a squad available to compete in a Premier League match—that is 100% guaranteed," Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said, pointing out that the team had been limping by due to Covid disruptions earlier in the winter. “This is a no-win situation."

Arteta argued that early in the season, he stretched his squad with youth team players specifically to avoid postponements, only for the tactic to backfire. “We were killed," he said, referring to the club’s three straight defeats. “[People told us], ‘Don’t be naive, if you have that many players out, don’t play with your kids.’"

Arsenal expects to be able to field a reasonable team on Sunday, but the Gunners still need their opponents to come up with 11 guys as well—and that situation remains delicate.

They’re scheduled to play Burnley.

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