Thomas Tuchel falls short in stance on Chelsea and Covid vaccines | Jacob Steinberg
The latest update about the number of Premier League players who are vaccinated against Covid-19 shows that English football is crying out for strong leadership when it comes to getting jabs in arms.
The figures are infuriating. On Monday it was revealed that 16% of top-flight players remain unvaccinated. The vaccination journey has crawled along and even now, with Omicron forcing a raft of fixture postponements, some players are still refusing to do their civic duty. The willingness to digest misinformation about the vaccine on social media remains a problem, although perhaps there will be a shift in attitudes if different rules are brought in for the unvaccinated.
A two-tier system was a topic of discussion when clubs debated the disruption caused to the schedule on Monday. Proposals include unvaccinated players travelling separately to games, facing an additional check to get into stadiums and having meals away from vaccinated teammates.
There will be a backlash if those rules ever come into place. There will be talk of players being blackmailed. Twitter experts will say that vaccines do not stop people catching Covid.
The response is that under government guidelines unvaccinated players must isolate for 10 days if deemed a close contact of anyone who has tested positive, even if they produce negative results. It is not difficult to understand. After all at least one Premier League match was called off because unvaccinated players were isolating.
This is when the sympathy for teams struggling to fulfil fixtures disappears.
This, unfortunately, is the point that Thomas Tuchel failed to take into account when he was asked about vaccination rates before a heavily depleted Chelsea visit Brentford in the last eight of the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night.
“You know that it’s causing an issue,” Tuchel said. “But it’s not that we have all unvaccinated infected. We have vaccinated players who are positive. I don’t want to get involved in pointing fingers and starting the hunt for non‑vaccinated people. This is a choice to make.”
Tuchel, who is vaccinated, was also asked about the potential rule changes. “There can be regulations around this,” the Chelsea manager said. “You have to live with the consequences. But we cannot force people to get vaccinated. I will not change my opinion on that. And I am not the guy to comment on that. There are experts in this country, all over Europe. Ask them and ask me please about football.” Sadly Covid is the game’s dominant talking point.
Chelsea, whose vaccination rate is unknown, have six players in quarantine and Tuchel could pick a very odd team against Brentford. Trevoh Chalobah and Andreas Christensen are injured, N’Golo Kanté will not be risked after his exertions during Chelsea’s goalless draw at Wolves last weekend and Tuchel could have to use untried academy players.
In that context Tuchel, who was angered by the league’s decision not to call off the Wolves game, is entitled to point out that Chelsea are at risk of picking up more injuries if they have to play three games in eight days with only 14 senior outfield players available.
Yet if the German is going to make a persuasive case for player safety, then he must also engage on vaccines. Tuchel has repeatedly shied away from the topic, offering a series of vague non-answers, and it was frustrating to hear him suggest that vaccines are a personal choice.
We are in a pandemic. The moral and social imperative is obvious: getting vaccinated protects both the individual and wider society. As for the implications for football, unvaccinated players are clearly putting the game at risk. Their personal choice has professional consequences. Footballers cannot work from home and there is an argument that any unvaccinated player who has to quarantine as a close contact of a positive case should not be deemed a Covid absentee. Games should not have to be called off because a player trusts Instagram instead of scientists.
The selfish disregard for employers, teammates, opponents and fans needs calling out. Tuchel is mistaken to leave it to Jürgen Klopp. Liverpool’s manager, who has called vaccines a moral obligation, is a leader; he knows that the personal choice line does not wash.
It is a weak position to adopt and the disappointment is that Tuchel could make such an articulate argument for vaccines. Having covered him closely since January, I see Chelsea’s brilliant manager as an intelligent, funny and hugely interesting man. Football needs people such as Tuchel to speak up. It is time he realised the power of his voice.