Random thoughts on systems, goalkeepers, and referees

I was watching Aston Villa play Everton. It had been a totally insipid first half. A big yawn. TV commentator Lee Dixon  summed up: “There’s not been a huge amount of goalmouth action,” -- he certainly got that right -- “But it’s been an interesting game just to see ‘em both going at each other, trying to work one system against the other."

Dixon ended his summary with “they’re still trying to break down each other’s system.” Which was all wrong. It had not been even remotely interesting. What’s interesting about systems? Who watches a soccer game because he wants to watch a system?

As it happens, I had recently been reading one of Clive James’ essays -- brilliant as usual -- in which he discussed literary criticism. He quoted Byron: “When a man talks of system, his case is hopeless.” Way to go Lord Byron. Then James added his own gentle, but damningly trenchant, comment: “[Systems] are usually ways for mediocrities to make themselves sound interesting.”

OK, neither Byron nor James had soccer in mind but they managed to nail it as far as the place of systems in soccer goes. Hopeless and uninteresting.

My own feeling is that systems - by definition, rigid and programmed -- do not belong anywhere near a sport that is at its incomparable best when cherishing original, creative thinking and improvisation.

So much for systems. Well, not quite. For in that same Aston Villa-Everton game there was an incident that shone some -- no doubt unwelcome -- light on a system. Not a soccer system, but one that is used by the sport.

The concussion protocol. Five minutes into the game Villa midfielder John McGinn took a whack to the head. He played on for 20 minutes, then took another knock. On came the medics. According to the BBC report, McGinn was “given tablets” and stayed on the field.

I was unaware that the protocol allowed the use of drugs. But McGinn played on for another 10 minutes until with just five minutes left in the half, he signaled that he couldn’t continue, because he felt dizzy.

That the protocol is often not being taken seriously, and not properly administered, has been pretty obvious for some time. Even so, there has seemed to be a general agreement that any player who suffers a possible concussion should not continue playing, because a second bad knock could have serious consequences.

In McGinn’s case, we have a situation in which either the medic’s assessment of the player was faulty (an error that might be due to the protocol system rather than the medics involved), or coach Dean Smith preferred to listen to the player’s “I’m OK” claims (Smith said his decision to leave McGinn on the field -- twice -- was “guided by the player.”). But, surely, concern for the player’s safety should have been the priority here.

Soccer’s thoughts and actions on head injuries are utterly chaotic. We are back to goalkeepers and their traditional habit of diving head first at the feet of opponents. Anyone can see that is asking for trouble. Anyone except FIFA and IFAB -- and, sadly, their agents, the referees.

I bring the referees into this because of a recent such incident in the MLS game between Miami and the New York Red Bulls. A loose ball in the New York penalty area. Miami’s Gonzalo Higuain races toward it, sticking out his leg to control it. At the same time New York’s goalkeeper Carlos Coronel races for the ball and flings himself forward to grab it, on the ground, with outstretched hands.

Both players had every right to go for the ball. The replays show a dead heat: Higuain’s foot and Coronel’s hand made contact with the ball at the same instant. Maybe someone could make a case for Higuain having -- just -- got there first -- but the argument would be no stronger than claiming Coronel won the race.

The forward impetus of Coronel’s dive instantly took his head into Higuain’s path. Inevitably, Higuain tripped over Coronel. As he fell, Higuain’s foot made contact with Coronel’s head.

Referee Guido Gonzales Jr. was there immediately, whistle trilling. Free kick to New York for a foul by Higuain. To underline his decision, Gonzales showed Higuain a yellow card.

Higuain’s face, dramatically captured on TV, was a wonderful study of barely suppressed outrage and aggressive indignation. He was right to be miffed. The referee’s call was atrociously bad. What had Higuain done that was wrong? Nothing. Nothing at all. He had challenged, not in any way recklessly, for a loose ball that he believed he could reach and control.

The player at fault was goalkeeper Coronel. If flinging yourself head first at an opponent’s feet does not constitute “playing in a dangerous manner,” then where on earth can the line be drawn? The perverse fact that it is the culprit -- the goalkeeper -- who got hurt is comprehensively and incontestably covered in Rule 12's definition of Playing in a Dangerous Manner: “any action that while trying to play the ball, threatens injury to someone (including the player themself) ...” Coronel received treatment on the field. He was declared fit enough to remain in the game.

I have been scanning the PRO website (the MLS referee’s website) wondering if they might see fit to face up to a very bad error by one of their referees. Wondering, but not seriously expecting to find anything. Which is what I have found. Nothing.

Yes, this is a difficult one for Howard Webb, the referee boss. But dodging it hardly helps. In legal parlance (well, referees are fond of pompously talking about Laws), law that is not enforced is bad law. How about it, Howard?

Help could also be given in another area of goalkeeper behavior -- their habit of charging forward to punch the ball and, with raised knee, smashing into anyone who is in their way. My thanks to Everton and England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford for supplying an almost perfectly posed picture of this goalkeeping technique. During an Everton-Burnley game, Pickford started to launch such an assault, as a cross came in. But the cross was too high. Pickford changed his mind, and slowed down. The approaching Burnley forward Chris Wood had also slowed his approach.

The two players made light contact. But Pickford had not relaxed his attack stance. His knee was raised high, comfortably nestling into Wood’s chin area. At full speed that knee could have inflicted a serious head injury on Wood. Obviously, Pickford didn’t care.

(And before you accuse me of being harsh on Pickford let me lodge a reminder. It was Pickford who, a year ago, launched an ugly, wild and reckless tackle against Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk. The resulting injury meant that van Dijk did not play for Liverpool again for the rest of the season, and did not play for the Netherlands in this year’s Euro 2020.)

Charging with a raised knee into an opponent is always at least careless play. More than likely it is worse -- classifiable as “endangering the safety of an opponent.” In any case, it must result in a penalty kick call against the goalkeeper. And how many of those do we see?

Speak up, Howard. And if all this evidence of refereeing malfeasance proves too much for you, how abut some help on something less controversial: what is a referee expected to do when a player is reckless enough to foul one of his own players?

I am indebted, yet again, to the goalkeeper brotherhood for a splendid recent example of such play. A Concacaf game. We’re in the 11th minute of the USA-Honduras World Cup qualifier. A long pass forward by the USA, up to Christian Pulisic. Despite there being two defenders to deal with Pulisic, the Honduras goalkeeper Luis Lopez sensed danger and came charging some 10 yards outside his penalty area, where, at full speed, he leaped into the three players to head the ball away. Knee raised, of course.

Pulisic had seen the danger coming, and got himself out of the way, but Lopez absolutely creamed his own defender, Marcelo Pereira. It looked bad, very bad. Referee Fernando Hernandez Gomez, from Mexico, immediately called on the medics. Somehow or other, Pereira escaped serious injury and was able to continue.

The question for our referee bosses is this: what should a referee call when a player is clearly guilty of reckless play -- but against a teammate? The rules talk only of punishment for “endangering the safety of an opponent” (my italics).

Has the culprit committed a foul or not? If so, what is the punishment? If, in the case under study, the goalkeeper had violently flattened his goalkeeper inside his penalty area, what then? Reckless play by a defender in his penalty area demands a penalty kick. But it offends common sense that a penalty kick could be called when no player from the attacking team was involved.

In this case, referee Hernandez Gomez, restarted the game with an (uncontested) drop ball for Honduras. That doesn’t seem right, as it implies that Honduras was in possession of the ball before the incident (it was not), and seems to suggest that the USA was responsible for the incident (it was not; no U.S. player was involved).

Some questions -- serious, important ones -- for Howard Webb. He is an authoritative voice for referees and the rules. And he has a nice platform -- the PRO website -- on which to publish his answers. Or, at least, his opinions on the matter.

Problem. Is Webb allowed to have an opinion of his own, or must he first make sure with IFAB that he is merely echoing their view? If that is the case -- and I fear it is -- then we’re in for a long wait. Masterly inactivity has long been IFAB’s modus operandi.

14 comments about "Random thoughts on systems, goalkeepers, and referees".
  1. Wayne Norris, September 24, 2021 at 10:16 a.m.

    Mr Gardner....I challenge you to write one positive themed article on the game to so claim to love!!

  2. Kevin Leahy replied, September 25, 2021 at 9:33 p.m.

    Why? He has written positive things but, you just haven't noticed. His is a voice I believe, we need to hear. You can always ignore!

  3. R2 Dad, September 24, 2021 at 11:20 a.m.

    Of course it's Higuain--he's cursed. Remember the Germany/Argentina WC final "foul" in the box, where Neuer cleans him out?
    Cursed, I tell you!

  4. Bob Ashpole, September 24, 2021 at 1:38 p.m.

    I think of "Systems" and "formations" differently. To me they are just a tool that allows the team to combine better. I define a team as 11 players sharing one soccer brain.

    I am, however, a product of soccer when coaching from the sidelines was prohibited. Players made all the tactical decisions during the match, even to changing formations, game plans or position assignments. Giving players the freedom to adjust to what was happening during the game was important to success. 

    Shared understanding of the game and communication were critical to flexibility. You have to understand the rule to know when to break it.

    Joystick coaching has set back soccer. We should get rid of the technical areas and put the coaches back on the bench except for youth matches.

  5. frank schoon, September 24, 2021 at 1:56 p.m.

    Likewise ,I'm getting tired of the PG rants about this and that or fouls or bad calls...These things happen and some you can't prepare for. It is what it is. PG has written way too many negative articles,other than the previous article which seems to be an exception to the rule with him these days

    The VAR which was suppose to be the answer and would fill in the gray areas which it has done on some occassions and at other times it has added to the problem, therefore it is not a zero sum game. The gray areas will keep occurring. A good example was the Man.Utd vs West Ham, last weekend. Two fouls occur in the penalty. They were fouls , no doubt, even the VAR attested to that. There was contact and there was no question if  there was contact. Both fouls resulted in no penalties. It came down to the SUBJECTIVITY of the ref, BOTTOM LINE. The question was ,was it with intent, or was the person who made the foul ENTICED to foul.....SEE WHAT I'M GETTING AT ,HERE....

    THIS IS REDICULOUS. We have moved beyond the objective VAR's  to INTENT or ENTICED INTENT...
    No matter how you look at it still comes down to what the ref subjectivity at the end....So why the VAR. Just let this whole thing play out with the ref making all the calls without the VAR.....

  6. R2 Dad replied, September 24, 2021 at 3:07 p.m.

    To be fair, Frank, I don't think pointing to EPL VAR as the standard for implementation does the process justice. I see fewer problems in Germany and even Serie A.

  7. frank schoon replied, September 24, 2021 at 7:44 p.m.

    R2, my point is the VAR in situations like that should be the final Arbiter  but instead it is left up to the ref's subjective reasoning.  This is new and we'll see more of it. 

  8. Kevin Leahy replied, September 25, 2021 at 9:41 p.m.

    Frank, don't you find many negative things for your comments? I respect your opinions as well as many others on here! Shouldn't Mr. Gardner be allowed his? Almost everything in articles and comments tend to have a negative read. Live and let live and continue to make your points which, I enjoy reading!!!

  9. frank schoon replied, September 26, 2021 at 10:24 a.m.

    Kevin, It was my opinion as some others on GP, that's all. If he wants to continue writing and going into that direction of writing, fine. Same ole, same ole, criticisms about bad fouls or questionable ref calls that can't be solved . It is what it is, bad calls or dangerous situation will always come about and I hope not often.

      I've been reading GP's columns since the 80's and I think they are great, I'm a fan of his. I love his critisims as well as his insightful opinions. But I've noticed, just taken this year for example, his columns have been basically about ref calls and those type of situations. I think he needs to diversify more like he did before, and show his criticisms or insights in light of those columns. His columns are getting too predictable. Almost every column he now writes has to do with bad calls, and such, which will be around because of human error.

    You find that I have many negative opinions on the game. You may call it negative and that is your opinion and that is fine. I hope that my socalled negative criticisms can elucidate some aspects about the game for you. I'm open for debate, and I would invite you to reply where you disagree.  
    That to me is great if you do reply about something I said, for It gives me an exercise in thinking. The age  I am I need some 'brain' exercise, so PLEASE DO!!, like you are doing now, GREAT.

    I look at the game in a very different way. I believe to improve the game is to look at the glass as half empty not half full, which is a Dutch way of looking at things. The game is very fluid, that's why tactical formations keep changing,  ideas, way of thinking, there is always something to talk about and express an opinion on. And in that light , I profess an opinion ,perhaps negative in your eyes, to others it's agreeable. It is not a question of looking at it as negative or positive but what can one learn from reading this......  But with CP nothing changes , it usually about bad ref calls and he has so much abilities to go write on other things other than continue harping on bad ref calls

  10. beautiful game, September 24, 2021 at 11:08 p.m.

    How can Webb have an opinion on any controversial hatchet job after watching his WC final no-call howler.

  11. Billy Logan, September 26, 2021 at 12:36 p.m.

    If. I remember correctly - in a CANxMEX '94 WC qualifier, in Canada, Mexico coach Mejia Baron was banished, then sat in the stands, for excessive coaching. Does that ring a bell with anybody?

    iirc in Toronto. Red carded, I suppose.

  12. Kent James, September 27, 2021 at 12:42 a.m.

    As for the question as to whether a ref should call a foul when a player has fouled his teammate, we need to remember the purpose of the rules; to encourage players to play fairly and safely.  A player already has a disincentive to foul a teammate, since that will hurt his own team.  Calling a foul would be unnecessarily punitive for something that was most likely and accident, and for which the player's team is already being punished.  If a dispute between teammates gets ugly, the ref can issue cards to stop that behavior. I don't think making refs call fouls on players who foul their teammates would improve the game.  A solution in search of a problem. 

  13. Ricardo da Silva, October 6, 2021 at 6:37 p.m.

    I will never forget Carlos Alberto, on Brazilian TV, a few years ago, talking to the other members of the show why everyone was talking so much about systems of play (4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, etc.).
    He, the captain of the 1970 Selecao, asked his colleagues on the show how they could see so much going on during the game. It was the quality of individual play and how that translated into team work that made the difference,. Not any system. That was the Capita talking and I agreed with him 100%.

  14. Jeff Clarke, November 17, 2021 at 5:04 p.m.

    Mr. Gardner, why do you claim that Coronel was the one acting recklessly? Both players no doubt recognized the impending danger. Coronel could no more stop on a dime than could Higuain, yet you deem Coronel to be more at fault. Was it because it was his head was at risk? That just makes him a little bolder than Higuain. What if Coronel had slid cleats first, arguably putting Higuain at more risk? Does that change the equation?

    The trouble with your logic is that it is almost always the goalkeeper who is at risk of injury in challenges ... this is why tactics such as the knee raise are being taught widely to keepers. It is also why referees err on the side of protecting the player at the most risk, and rightly so.

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