My position being that goalscoring has, for decades now, been slowly -- but perceptibly -- withering away. Without any action from FIFA or IFAB to stem the trend.
American sports, I insisted, did much better with rule tweaking designed to maintain that balance. Maintaining the offense-defense balance is not merely a statistical matter. Its real life effect is to stop exactly what has been happening in soccer: a goal famine, and all the ugly negativity that inevitably comes with a low-scoring game. The shootout tiebreaker being a stupendously obnoxious part of that baggage.
That was my theme -- which I’m sticking with -- but I was not paying attention to developments within the English Premier League. At the beginning of August, the EPL announced some tweakings, and let us know how they were arrived at, and what they are supposed to accomplish.
Mike Riley is the boss at the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) the organization that manages EPL referees. It is from PGMOL that the tweakings come. Firstly, with the news that PGMOL has been seeking the views of the sport’s “stakeholders” (clubs, players, coaches and fans). On VAR for instance. Where, not surprisingly, they found a lot of fan frustration with the millimetric offside calls.
No need for me to plunge into the technicalities, but “thicker lines” will be used by VAR to assess offside calls -- with the result that, according to Riley, “the toe nails and noses that were offside last year won’t be this season.”
Obviously, a sensible move -- and doubly commendable because it came after consultation with players and fans. If either FIFA or IFAB has ever done that, they have kept very quiet about it.
The second important tweaking gets no applause from this quarter. Simply because I believe it to be a damaging step backward for the sport. A tweak that is utterly wrong, and ill thought out. PGMOL has instructed EPL referees to ignore “minimal contact” fouls. Which, we are told, will reduce the number of penalty kicks. No doubt it will, but no explanation is given as to why that is seen as a good thing.
A brief sidetrack is necessary here to delve into the British attitude to contact in soccer. According to Riley, the PGMOL’s survey showed that “all the players” agreed that “football is about contact.”
Which seems questionable. Soccer certainly involves contact -- but that is a long way from claiming that soccer is about contact. The sport’s own attitude to contact is revealed in the rule book. The all-important Rule 12 begins with a list of seven offenses. All of them involve contact. And the rules, by penalizing any contact that is careless or worse are aimed at keeping that contact to a minimum.
OK, the Brits wrote the rules, but they prefer to ignore them, to over ride them with a favorite phrase: hard but fair. Which sounds pretty admirable, until you realize that it is actually a bowdlerization of the much less admirable “getting stuck in.”
It can really apply only to defensive players and ball-winning midfielders. The idea of a creative midfielder getting stuck in is ludicrous. But when has English soccer ever been about midfield creativity?
Getting stuck in involves plenty of contact. It encourages the sort of player who enjoys and seeks contact. The sort of player who should be playing rugby.
PGMOL’s ruling that referees must be nice to defenders is pretty obviously an extension of the hard-but-fair mentality. Only in Britain could this deception/distortion be accepted. And it will be accepted.
TV commentator Andy Townsend had his say after only one week of the new ruling: “Our sport is a contact sport ... this league is, and has been for many years, about handling the physical side and the physical nature of it, and I think it’s a welcome return to see players, yes, taking a tumble now and again and, yes, getting hurt now and then, but getting back up on their feet and getting on with it.”
The muddled thinking involved in that nicely sums up the muddled British attitude to physical play. Apparently they like it. Townsend, when it was pointed out to him that two top (non-English) coaches in the EPL -- Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer -- opposed the new measure, had this to say: “They think their players are going to get fouled more -- well, they’ll have to live with that, they’ll have to deal with that, I’m afraid.” Very nice, Andy -- but to be expected from a Brit ex-player described by Wikipedia as a “hard-tackling, hard-working midfielder.” One of the “getting stuck in” warriors, I’d say.
Also nicely hidden in the new ruling is the British belief that foreign players fall down too easily. They dive, in other words. Under the new approach, if there is contact, a referee must make three decisions: on the degree of contact, and what was the consequence of the contact. In fact, he needn’t bother with those, because the third requirement is to measure the “motivation of the attacker.”
A wonderful get-out-of-jail call, that allows the referee to heap all the blame on the attacker and yellow-card him for diving. You can surely expect an increase in diving calls in the EPL. That’s an area in which EPL referees, during the great diving witch hunt of a year or two back, must have set plenty of world records for atrociously bad calls.
The sport does not need a revival of the diving scare -- but above all it does not need yet another pro-defense ruling for referees to exploit.
Mike Riley’s vision is of a game in which defenders continue to commit minimal-contact fouls but the fouls are not called. “Let’s create a free-flowing game,” he says. But the threat to his free-flowing game does not come from too many referee calls. It originates with too many fouls. The PGMOL solution, to simply ignore the fouls, cannot be any sort of answer. Not least because, yet again, the defensive part of the sport is being given a huge break.
One of the more puzzling of Riley’s enthusiastic comments is this: “We want the approach to be one that best allows players to express themselves ...” Defenders, yes, I suppose it’s good for them, for whom the free-flowing game is actually a free-fouling game. But it offers nothing to attacking players other than being fouled more frequently, or possibly being on the end of a dubious diving call. And of not having to worry about their noses or toenails straying offside.
At the top of this column, I had words of praise for Mike Riley and the EPL because they had made tweaks to rule interpretation with the clearly stated intention of making the game more attractive to fans.
I still see that as a major development in the sport. But I’m left wondering whether Mike Riley sees it in quite that way. Because he makes it clear that the changes the EPL is introducing are designed, not for soccer in general, but for “the Premier League game.” The much-needed changes to the way VAR judges offside calls, for instance, are being made in a way that “is conducive to Premier League football.”
The PGMOL is a part of the EPL. But it ought to be an independent body. Its game-changing ideas should be made for the benefit of the sport as a whole -- i.e. ideas that should be approved by IFAB. Which, for all its many and grievous faults, is still soccer’s official rule-making body.
For soccer to suddenly discover that it has two rule-making groups, acting independently, sounds like a sure-fire way of adding to the confusion that already surrounds so much of what IFAB does, or more usually, doesn’t do.
The English FA has never properly integrated VAR, certainly not as well as the Bundesliga. The directive a couple years back on carding Diving was overplayed and disruptive, where a non-call was always more appropriate. I've seen a couple matches this season and now the officials don't have much control, the foul selection has been scrambled. It's going to be a very, very long season at this rate. Fans won't be any happier with fouls down and injuries up. The game never suffered from a lack of flow outside of the VAR checks, so I don't know how the pundits get off claiming the game needed fewer whistles to improve continuity. Just a cluster, through and through.
Good article, thanks.
I have become increasingly frustrated by the failure of English(probably British) referees to call rough play. It has gotten to the point that I would recommend Erling Haaland to avoid the EPL once his contract is up at BVB 09.
I became a soocer fan, enjoying the skills and the anticipated intellegence of the players. If I wanted to see contact, I had the macho attitude of American football player and its fans. I enjoy the Women's game, where it is free flowing, skill and tactical. We need more journalists, like Gardner, to keep the pressure on.
I wish you could ask Mike Riley these questions directly. I wonder if he's even considered the consequences of his decrees. It would be nice to see him answer those questions. MLS of course also worships at the same alter of "flow" so their referees never have to call a foul.
There are many ways EPL players (and Referees) slow the flow of play! Here are some:
1. Player who commits a foul picks up the ball and trots away with it (and also refuses to give it to the opponent); Caution for Unsporting Conduct!,
2. Player kicks the ball into the crowd, displeased with being whistled for a foul (Mo Salah in past weekend game should have been Cautioned for Unsporting Conduct),
3. Players crowding around the Ref to complain about a call that the Ref will never change (Start carding players who act in Unsporting Conduct),
4. Players who run up and take a position directly in front of DFK (Ref: Start Cautioning players for failure to give 10 yards)
5. Refs are to blame, as well! Quickly mark the spot for the DFK, jog 10 yards and draw the line, then jog to position and resume the game. Any observed offenses should be quickly whistled and Cautioned. Get on with the game!
The advice not to whistle for "trifling" infractions has long been part of the Laws of the Game.
Who makes the soccer rules? I would much rather prefer the REAL players who have played at the highest level to make suggestions than those 'Milkytoasts' who might break a toenail trying to kick a ball.
We bring in the VAR to solve problems but it has created other problems. As a result we havent' solved things in an absolute sense. Changing rules only creates other problems....LEAVE THINGS ALONE.
In Holland we complain that the refs calls fouls to easily and wish our refs would call the game like the English, in a more 'manly' sense. I have no problems watching English soccer as far as the flow of the game goes, for the English allow play .
I can only imagine English fans experiencing game stoppages during an English game that will not sit well with English fans. Has anyone noticed that during xmas holidays the English game continues whereas on the continent they are stopped. English fans need to blow off steam and therefore would go nuts during winter stoppages and therefore ,I can only imagine English fans experiencing VAR game stoppages which will not sit well with English fans.
We all the talk of rule changes, suggestions have even come about increasing the size of the goals and other idiot things which only reflects those who would fall over the ball trying to kick it.....
I think if players who play at the highest level in England ,EPL, make any suggestions and I you'll be surprised how little they up out on any rule changes....
So do we really need an 18 x 44 Penalty Area? Wouldn't 12 x 32 mean tha PKs were being called in a more critical area, increase threatening DFKs and maybe take a little of the PK decision-making pressure off the CRs?
And the EPL referees and commentators (by virtue of their global english-speaking audience) are the pox on the game. They really like to sell the physicality of the game at the price of skill.
The two rules that are not enforced that the kills the flow of the game are encroachment and dissent. Players surround the referee on just about every call that halts the game never mind showing a very poor example to young players and restarts are held up my defenders standing over the ball. Neither are hardly ever punished and the penalty, I believe, for both offences is a yellow card.
I need to amplify on Paul's "But when has English soccer ever been about midfield creativity?" Here is the list of creative English midfielders in the EPL: Jack Grealish. Name another one. Nope, the others are all imported from other countries.
EMNT manager Gareth Southgate made sparse use of the talents of Grealish in the Euros, because Southgate himself does not understand midfield creativity, relying instead on two very defensive and very physical holding midfielders.
Creative midfield play is not in the English soccer DNA, and the number of creative English midfielders over the years is very few. Physical play has long been in English soccer DNA, and it is now reinforced by Mike Riley's pronouncements.
Further proof: Jack Wilshere. England didn't know what to do with him, he should have gone to Spain when given the opportunity but he stayed at Arsenal until injuries inevitably slowed him down. 34 caps in 7 years, only 2 goals. He was done by 25, a less-injured version of Stu Holden.
Unfortunately, the EPL policy-makers could care less about a balanced plan to improve the game, instead they keep tweaking the importance for less stoppages. It's apparent that an open season is being declared on the players with technical skills. Under the Riley game plan, players that have been repeatedly bending the rules will now bend them even more. Those accepatble tackles or pushes will become acceptably harder ones.
While I agree with PG that the English idea of getting "stuck in" has more negative consequences than positive ones, and I also agree that saying the sport is "about contact" is wrong. It is not about contact, but contact happens, and as long as it does interfere with the game, it's fine.
The issue that the rule enforcing authorities (I'm not touching that debate) do need to address is when contact is called as a foul. I was watching a game this summer (maybe a Euro?) and they were showing slow motion replays of a penalty kick foul that was questionable. The commentators showed that the defensive player touched the offensive player, so there was "contact", so they agreed that the call was correct. NO! Contact is not a foul. Did the contact cause the player to trip is the question (or was it part of another foul, like kicking).
Players should play the game honestly; defenders should try to get the ball without fouling, and offensive players should try to play the ball without pretending to be fouled. Fouls happen, and should be called. Players purposely seeking an advantage by fouling should be cardedm as should players seeking to gain an advantage by feigning being fouled.
As there is a balance between offense and defense, there is a balance between calling everything and "letting them play." VAR has (rightfully, in my view) made it easier to call fouls in the box. But offensive players have occasionally taken advantage of that by pretending to be fouled when they weren't. Now that they can see (and call) more, referees have to not be taken in by players using that to "draw" more fouls. For example, a defender sticks out his leg in the box to block a dribble, the attacker cuts the ball to avoid the leg, and then can either jump over the leg (and continue) or drag his foot over the outstretched leg and go down, "drawing" a penalty. An honest attacker will jump over the leg and continue to play, a less honest player will try to take the foul. The referee needs to know the difference, and treat them accordingly.