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Why I changed my mind on handball calls

I swear this is the *last* time I email about refereeing...

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Mark Thompson

Jun 18 2019

9 mins read

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Hello, hello to one and to all. Unless, that is, you happen to be someone in charge of implementing rule changes into football. In which case my greeting to you will be frosty.

Yes, a combination of VAR and new rules/interpretations has made this summer’s Women’s World Cup quite annoying. It was summed up perfectly by a piece of radio commentary on the BBC during the Sweden-Thailand game on Sunday, with Manchester United manager Casey Stoney on co-commentary.

An incident happened, and VAR was called to look at a possible penalty decision for handball.

“What do you think?” the commentator said (and I’m paraphrasing this conversation), throwing to Stoney.

“No, not for me,” the manager and former England international said “It’s basically been flicked up and hit her arm. She’d have to be a magician to move her arm out of the way from that distance, it’d be soft for me- *audible sigh*.”

You didn’t need Vicky Sparks, the commentator, to come back in with news of the VAR decision to know that the penalty had, in fact, been given.

Earlier in the season, I was one of the few people who spent time trying to explain why Presnel Kimpembe was penalised against Manchester United, giving away the penalty that completed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team’s comeback.

My argument was that, with the way Kimpembe was jumping, his arms were almost certainly in a position where a defender was leaving them on the off-chance it would block a shot and assuming they had plausible deniability if the ball hit them. That’s to say, an assumption that the referee would give them the benefit of the doubt (that they didn’t deserve).

Defenders do this a lot. It’s the handball equivalent of arriving slightly late to try and block a clearance but not making too much of an effort to pull out of it. Referees tend (or, to put it in past tense, tended) to let it go.

But because so many were criticising the decision against PSG, I felt moved to defend the referee. Former defenders were being willfully ignorant of this strategy which they themselves will have taken when they’ve been caught in an awkward spot.

However, a quickfire combination of the Champions League final and this current World Cup has made me change my mind.

I used to take the view that I was fine with the decisions like the one against Kimpembe. On replay, I thought the referee was probably right in his decision that the defender was leaving his arm hanging there deliberately, even if I thought the result of a penalty was a harsh punishment for the crime.

But I’m not prepared to accept these harsher calls that have been happening. Moussa Sissoko, in the Champions League final, had his arm in a natural footballing position. Nicola Docherty - who conceded a penalty against England that was even more of a nonsensical decision - had her arm in a natural footballing position. I’d rather have zero penalties from the three incidents I’ve mentioned than three, and with the pace that these moments happen, one can’t expect a referee to make an easy distinction between them.

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While I’m not a referee, I’m very sceptical that the new ruling (made in March, coming into force since June 1) has actually changed things. ‘Natural silhouette’ is the new buzzword, but that’s essentially just a change from ‘deliberate act of making contact’ and, to my mind, the two are broadly the same. Granted, Kimpembe’s penalty makes more sense under the current guidelines - his body was more an ‘unnatural silhouette’ than it was ‘deliberately making contact’ with the ball.

However, the new interpretation - by using the word ‘natural’ - still relies on some kind of judgement of intent. For a player to have an ‘unnatural’ silhouette, it must (surely?) involve deliberate action on their part.

Really, then, we’re back to square one. Referees still have to judge intent in a blink of an eye. Nonsense decisions are being made. Teams are being punished for the most minor of transgressions (if they’re even transgressions) with penalties which are historically converted around 75-78% of the time.

There are also concerns that attackers will flick the ball up at defenders’ hands to try and take advantage of this particularly harsh-seeming interpretation. We’ll have to wait and see whether this happens and, if it does, how referees react, but the most frustrating thing about that if it happened would be that football has already dealt with that problem once before.

Back when Luis Suarez was at Liverpool, he milked a couple of penalties out of this approach, before Premier League referees realised what he was doing, that it was unfair, and stopped pointing to the spot. The implementation of the new interpretation so far gives me little faith. I feel like we’ll see a number of similar penalties, half a decade after the issue had been dealt with.

There’s much more that can be said about the current state of refereeing and the impact of both television replays and VAR, but that is for another time and place. I’m trying to refrain from writing or tweeting about it as much as possible, because there’ll just be too many incidents to get wound up about.

Briefly, though, I think there’s one reason why it feels dissatisfying that hasn’t been discussed much.

All other issues aside, it does feel like VAR is in danger of changing the way that the game is played. A change to the way a sport is played isn’t a bad thing in itself, but this feels like it’s being bungled through the back door, somehow both underhand and unintended.

If FIFA and other authorities had come out and said that football is currently too skewed in favour of defenders, too low-scoring, too difficult to referee with its largely vague rules and unwritten cultural approaches to interpretation of these rules, then a fundamental change might have been easier to stomach. At least we’d have known that it was coming.

But this current change has all come about because of an attempt to stamp out blatant errors. It felt like it would be easy: have VAR on-hand to step in if something major was missed, perhaps once or twice per league weekend, but otherwise stay silent. This expectation has not been the reality.

That, as much as the changes themselves, is annoying.

VAR may be annoying, but getting quality football analysis in your inbox each week sure isn’t

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Defending against the best set-piece threat in the game

I did promise that there’d be some actual analysis in this edition and so I’ll draw your attention to they way Nigeria defended set-pieces.

France’s centre-back and captain Wendie Renard is an incredible threat in the air. The 6’2 centre-back scored twice with her head from set-pieces in the hosts’ opener against the Korea Republic. She’s both so tall and so good technically in the air that it wouldn’t be a bad strategy to just aim for her forehead every time.

The way Nigeria set themselves up at corners was to essentially go zonal, staggered and fairly well-spaced in the six-yard box, with one player on Renard. It was actually quite effective, I thought, and I have a theory as to why.

Renard and Renard-watcher circled

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Nigeria, unlike Korea, are tall enough to challenge Renard in the air, which helps, but by having so many people staggered in that zone of the pitch it meant that there would always be someone on hand to go up for a duel with Renard if the ball came their way.

For some corners, France tried to exploit this concentration of Nigerian players in the centre/near post region by playing the ball over to Amandine Henry, who was pretty much unmarked in a far-post region outside the six-yard box, but she was too far from goal to turn those crosses into good-quality chances.

Otherwise, France were forced to try and find Renard with outswingers that she could only connect with around 10-12 yards from goal. Not easy to score at all, although Renard still made the most of it. Will other teams in the competition take note?

Another note: France’s pressing when they lost the ball was really good. They could’ve done with being a bit more patient in possession in my opinion, but they really harried Nigeria when they lost it, and not only did they often prevent counters but they stopped the Nigerian team having much prolonged time in control of the ball.

Games can be won with a good counterpress, winning the ball high or forcing the opposing defenders to give the ball away immediately. If France keep it up, buoyed on by a home crowd, it could be a decisive factor in the knock-outs.

To end this edition with something other than being annoyed, I’m going to ask for some feedback from you all. The downtime that Get Goalside! is experiencing during the World Cup feels a good time for it.

It seems to me that there have been a few different types of Get Goalside! so far:

  • Snippets from around several games over the past week
  • Defensive/general footballing theory (including, maybe too often, VAR)
  • Focus on a single game
  • Focus on a single player

I’d be interested in what you all think about the newsletter in general and, in particular, which of the above four you’ve liked the most and least.

Please send your thoughts to me whichever way suits you best. You can tweet me @EveryTeam_Mark, DM me on that account, or email by replying to this edition of the newsletter.

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Thanks very much for your time and your thoughts, and until next time *waves*

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