During the first half of Sunday's game between Arsenal and Chelsea, there were two aspects of the modern game that sprang to my attention. Two highly irritating aspects.
Firstly, corner kicks. Arsenal, dominating the opening minutes, took three corner kicks between the fifth and eighth minutes. The first, from Cesc Fabregas, sailed over everyone and curled over the Chelsea goal line for a harmless goal kick. Then it was Robin Van Persie's turn -- he sent his kick into the 6-yard box where it was easily grabbed by Chelsea goalkeeper Peter Cech. A couple of minutes later, Van Persie had another try; again the ball came down in the 6-yard box, this time to be punched powerfully out of danger by Cech.
Three corner kicks, all of them totally wasted. When it was Chelsea's turn on the half-hour mark, Frank Lampard did much better. From his kick, the ball was coming down just outside the 6-yard box -- creating the classic do-I-go or do-I-stay quandary for goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski. Fabianski went for the ball and didn't quite get there. Fabianski went down and the ball sprang loose, creating real danger for Arsenal.
I'm left wondering how Fabregas and Van Persie, highly paid pros, can make such a mess of the simple task of delivering an accurate corner kick. By accurate I don't even mean finding a teammate -- accuracy here consists of keeping the ball out of the 6-yard box, which belongs to the goalkeeper, and keeping it in play.
There are no secrets involved here, no arcane or rare skills -- merely an accurate kick. I'm also left wondering whether Fabregas or Van Persie ever actually practicetaking corner kicks? Something that can be done alone, over and over -- after all the geometry is always the same.
The answer, I have to believe, is no, they don't. And I doubt whether there are many players who take the time and bother to practice corners. A corner kick used to be considered a serious scoring threat. Maybe it still is, but the stats speak against any such a notion.
During the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the official stats tell us, 12 of the 147 goals scored came from corner-kick plays. As there were 672 corner kicks, we're left with the astonishing realization that it needed 56 corners to produce each of those 12 goals. Evidently that is now acceptable. In the 2008 European Championship, 319 corners produced only 5 goals -- one per 64 corners.
The second irritation in the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game revolves around the habit refs -- particularly British refs -- have of chatting with the players. At about 27 minutes, a Fabregas tackle on Didier Drogba was whistled as a foul by referee Phil Dowd, who yellow-carded Fabregas and then had a little chat with him, with all the usual exaggerated hand gestures. Barely five minutes later Fabregas went in hard and late on Florent Malouda, surely a worse foul than the one on Drogba. Dowd whistled the foul and everyone -- not least the obviously fearful Fabregas -- awaited the inevitable second yellow and ejection.
But no. Dowd called Fabregas over and talked to him for about 15 seconds. He held up two fingers, he pointed across the field to where the first foul had occurred, he pointed to his watch ... and then did nothing.
Obviously, this was a great relief to Fabregas and Arsenal. But Chelsea was punished by Dowd's leniency. Fabregas should have been sent off, and Chelsea should have been playing from then on against a 10-man Arsenal.
I have yet to discover where in the rules it says that a referee can allow a player to escape a yellow card by giving him a verbal warning. Particularly when -- as in this case -- the player has already been yellow-carded.
The biggest mystery to me is this: what do the referees actually say to the players in these little talks? What could Dowd, in the midst of all his gestures, have said to Fabregas other than to admit that he was not going to enforce the rules?
This is not infrequently seen as good refereeing. On the BBC's play-by-play website, it was reported that "[Fabregas] couldn't have had many complaints if he'd picked up another yellow. Good refereeing from Phil Dowd, though. Common sense."
So it's good refereeing and common sense to undermine the rules of the game?