By Paul Gardner
By now, we all know that the British soccer guys -- coaches, players, referees, journalists -- have immense problems with the offside rule.
Barely a week goes by without someone -- quite probably one of the dozens of ex-players who infest their soccer telecasts as analysts -- bemoaning what they see as a rotten referee call, maybe even adding that no one in the world really understands the rule.
The complaints are ongoing -- in no other country that I am aware of is so much criticism leveled at the rule. It seems likely to me that there may well be more offside calls, good and bad, in the English Premier League than elsewhere, simply because of the way that the game is played there.
The presence of foreign coaches has not changed much in that aspect of the game (anyway, only 5 of the EPL’s coaches are non-Brits). The preferred defensive lineup is a flat back four; maybe a flat back three. The use of a deeper defender -- some form of sweeper -- is shunned.
Without going into the advantages or disadvantages of the systems, it should be clear that a flat back line is likely to involve more offside calls than a defense that includes a sweeper.
Add in the fact that playing with a flat back line invariably induces teams to make use of, maybe even rely on, the offside trap, and one can plausibly argue that the Brits’ problems with the offside rule are largely self-engendered.
Most of the recent moaning and groaning has focused on the admittedly tricky business of deciding whether a player who is in an offside position is interfering with play (in which case he must be penalized) or not (in which case he is not penalized).
So what happened in the EPL this weekend came as something of a surprise. Sure, there were offside problems -- but they did not involve any arcane wording of the rule. They were utterly straightforward, yet the assistant referees involved got all three of them wrong, badly.
These were inexcusably poor decisions. All three allowed goals to be scored that should not have been scored. And all three goals were game deciders. Sadly, the goals were scored against teams -- Wigan Athletic and Queens Park Rangers -- struggling to avoid relegation from the EPL.
Both of the goals scored by Chelsea in its 2-1 win over Wigan on Saturday should have been canceled for offside. When Branislav Ivanovic scored at the 62nd minute, he was blatantly offside, and it seems incredible that the AR -- with an unimpeded view across the field -- could not see that he was.
After Wigan had fought back to tie the game at 1-1, Chelsea got the winner in the following way: a tremendous volley from Fernando Torres struck the post, rebounded into play, straight to Juan Mata who scored from about four yards. My reading of the rule here is that this situation corresponds exactly to that diagramed on p 108 of the current rulebook. In that diagram, the ball rebounds not from the post but from the goalkeeper -- the goal is disallowed because the scorer was in an offside position when the shot was taken.
In the Chelsea case, Mata was nearly a yard offside when Torres hit his volley, surely meaning that Mata should have been penalized for “playing the ball having previously been in an offside position.” If I've got that wrong, I shall no doubt be hearing about it.
On Sunday, QPR -- already facing the difficult task of taking points off Manchester United at Old Trafford --quickly found the difficult transformed into the impossible when ManU was awarded a penalty kick after just 14 minutes, when captain Shaun Derry fouled Ashley Young. Derry was red-carded for denying Young an “obvious goal-scoring opportunity”, and Wayne Rooney made the score 1-0 from the spot.
I have no argument with the referee’s decisions, but immediately before Young received the ball, he was clearly offside, and should have been penalized -- in which case there would have been no attempted tackle from Derry, no penalty kick and no red card.
As in the Chelsea case, it is simply baffling how the AR missed this one. He is looking directly across the field, and the penalty area line is literally serving as a marker; Young is maybe a yard inside the area, while all the QPR defenders are outside the area, except one, who has one leg inside the area, the other outside. The AR is in perfect position, looking straight along the 18 yard line. Yet he does not flag.
The point about these calls is that they cannot be excused as the result of trying to apply a difficult rule. They were all totally straightforward. Poor officiating is the only explanation. It was not that good a weekend for the EPL referees. Martin Atkinson, refereeing the Arsenal vs. ManCity game, missed an awful studs up red-card foul by Mario Balotelli on Alex Song, and failed to see anything wrong with Song’s dangerously clumsy tackle on Yaya Toure. Toure had to be substituted after only 16 minutes.
There were also two ludicrous diving calls. On Saturday referee Chris Foy gave Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson a yellow card for going down after being clumsily blocked by Younes Kaboul. Given the amount of body contact, I do not understand how Larsson was supposed to stay on his feet. While Atkinson absurdly yellow carded ManU’s Rafael after he had obviously slipped over, and had made no attempt to claim he had been fouled. Incidentally, Larsson is Swedish. Rafael is Brazilian. The usual foreign suspects. But Ashley Young is totally English, and now he stands accused, by QPR, of being a diver for "going down too easily" under Derry's challenge.
I’m not about to claim that this incompetent weekend means that Brit officials are all poor. Certainly not. It simply shows that they can have their bad days. And it does demonstrate, for those who have eyes to see, that Brit referees are far from perfect. That is something worth pondering, given that the MLS biggies, Don Garber and Nelson Rodriguez, are trying to convince us that American referees are not good enough and that it was therefore necessary to import an English boss whose refereeing experience in England (and only in England) will enable him to tell Americans how to officiate properly.