The rules of football, the Laws of the Game, are tweaked every now and again but the beginning of this current 2019-20 season saw more changes than usual. To provide a quick overview, this current season will be: the first to provide a mid-season break with the league splitting a round of matches in February over 2 weekends with 5 matches taking place the weekend of the 8th February, and the remaining 5 the following week. It has also seen the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee), in the Premier League only in England, and it is to be used for “clear and obvious errors” (remember that phrase) or “serious missed incidents”, such as goals, penalty decisions, red cards and cases of mistaken identity. The Handball Rule has also changed meaning that deliberate handball is still an offence, but accidental handball can also be a free-kick or penalty – even if it’s a mistake, if the ball goes in the goal after hitting an attackers arm/hand, then a free-kick will be awarded; it’s also handball if a player’s arm is above their shoulders or if their arms have made their body unnaturally bigger. Defending free-kicks has also changed – if there are 3 or more defending players in a wall, the opposition (attacking team) will have to be at least 1 yard away from the wall; referees can now also allow a quick free-kick to be taken even if they are booking a player. For penalties, goalkeepers can no longer leaver their goal-line (they couldn’t previously either) but the penalty won’t be taken until the keeper has stopped touching the frame of the goal or net, and the goal has stopped moving. When a player is subbed now they have to leave the pitch at the closest point to them. The coin toss has also changed, with captains now choosing which end they attack or if they want to kick off first (previously the decision was just which end to attack). Goal-kicks have changed majorly for the first time since the back-pass rule was introduced in the early nineties, and now goal-kicks can be played to a defender within the box, with the attacking team not able to enter the 18 yard box until an outfield player has touched the ball. Finally, and possibly most heart-breaking, the drop ball has been abolished, with the ball being given to the team that played the ball before the referee stopped play.
So what’s changed then? VAR, Handball, Penalties, Free-kicks, Goal-kicks, Substitutions and the Coin Toss. Not much then. All bar the VAR rule has been introduced in to the entirety of the football pyramid – my personal opinion is that this isn’t right, and the game is being played by different rules at different levels; the rules for the Premier League should be the same as the rules for a Sunday League Pub Team game – my stance is the same for goal-line technology.
So, with VAR not being a factor in the Championship, I’ve found the biggest impacting rule change to be the playing of the ball to your own players inside your own penalty box. This first hit home during the Millwall game at Ewood. Rovers continued to play the ball out within the 18 yard box and try to play the ball out from the back, rather than the traditional goal-kick up the pitch to the big man up top. The rule has been introduced for a number of reasons, mainly because the game of football is changing to a more possession-based game, but the rule stops the time-wasting that was creeping in last season whereby a team wanting to run the clock down would step in to the box to receive the ball, which under the previous rules, resulted automatically in the goal-kick being retaken, and a good 30 seconds run off the clock. The rule change also helps the younger generations develop – playing the ball out from the back should, in theory, result in more young players who are comfortable and composed on the ball, and it should prevent the teams with the biggest goal-kick and tallest striker dominating games.
This new goal-kick will cause thousands of near-heart attacks week in and week out as defenders play about with the ball across their own goal-line about 6 yards out – it is not something the majority of us Brits are used to seeing. In that Millwall game, Walton would play the ball to one of the centre-halves or full-backs who would then draw in the opposition attacker and play the ball between themselves to get out of the situation and open up the midfield. When it works, you can create a big gap between the strikers and the midfielders, or better still, a gap in the midfield. It worked for Rovers in that first half, and we got to the half-way line on many occasions, the only problem was that once the midfield line was reached, we didn’t really know what to do with the ball, and this allowed what spaces had been created, to be re-filled.
Just because the rules say you can play out inside your own box doesn’t mean you have to. For example, Arsenal have already been caught out more than once this season, and this playing out from the back has resulted in goals being conceded. If you don’t have defenders comfortable on the ball and comfortable passing under pressure, this approach isn’t going to work. Even Pep Guardiola has changed his teams over the years, moving a midfielder, more comfortable on the ball, back to centre half (Mascherano and now Fernandinho), to provide that experience and composure to pick the ball up and pass their way out of defence and around the opposition. Rovers problem in that first half against Millwall was the lack of a Plan B.
By playing Armstrong as the lone front man, and Bennett and Downing out wide, there was no out ball. This meant we had to play the ball out of trouble, which often meant laboured movement and passing just to get us to the half-way line, or a big boot back to the opposition. There are merits to playing out from the back and drawing the opposition on, but you have to have the personnel and options for it to work. As we saw in the second half of the Millwall game, with the introduction of the height and physical presence of Gallagher, we could play out from the back, draw the opposition on, and then play the ball over the top, or if in trouble, we could get rid of the ball up the field with a good chance of retaining the ball or at worst winning the second ball or a throw-in or corner. In a way, it is a shame that Mulgrew isn’t at the club at this time when we are experimenting with the idea of playing out from the back as he is arguable our most composed defender with the ball at his feet. The additions of Johnson, Downing and Holtby will surely only help take the ball off the back for when they’ve beaten the press, and allows us to be more clinical with our passing from the half-way line forwards.
So, to VAR. In many ways I’m pleased I support a Championship club and don’t have to bother about VAR at least for this season – but ultimately it will gradually be introduced in to the top four tiers of the English game, much the same way goal-line technology has been introduced. For the record, when VAR makes a decision, the decision is correct – it is the rules/laws of the game which are wrong, or perhaps now outdated.
VAR rightly identifies when someone is offside, or when someone handballs the ball in the build up to a goal – in both situations, mainly when the officials have missed the incident. As per the statement above, VAR was brought in to correct “clear and obvious errors” and/or “serious missed incidents” – it was not brought in to identify when Heung Min Son’s toe-nail is offside. The number of goals which are being scored, celebrated, and then subject to 2 minutes of VAR review before being chalked off is ruining the game of football both as a spectacle and as entertainment, not least for the paying fans in the ground. We are going to get to a situation where players score, stand still and stare at a screen for 5 minutes before they can celebrate a goal. FIFAs laws of the game state that a referee must always make a decision and that the original decision given by the referee will not be changed unless the video review clearly shows that the decision was a “clear and obvious error” – offside by less than 5cm, is not a clear and obvious error. The only references to “offside” in the VAR protocol/rule is that it can be used for “factual decisions such as position of an offence or player (offside)” and for “subjective decisions such as interference at offside”. For me the solution is quite simple – if a goal is reviewed for offside and lines have to be drawn across the pitch to work out whether the player is ahead of the defender by cm/mm’s it can’t possibly by a clear or obvious error, and the rules of VAR don’t apply. We need to go back to the old days of the attacker being given the benefit of the doubt – in it’s current guise, attackers will be penalised far more often than defenders, and the intensity and pace of the game will drop significantly.
In the NFL, if a decision is given and it goes for video review, there must be “clear and obvious” evidence to overturn the referees original decision – why can’t this be applied in the Premier League, maintaining the authority of referee without undermining them? To make it even more clear, set a time-limit for the review – if it isn’t clear that the decision was wrong within 30 seconds, it’s not a clear and obvious error.
It’s not just the goals which aren’t given which affect teams on the scoreboard, there is evidently a psychological impact. In the past weekend we saw Spurs score a goal to go two nil up, only for it to be chalked off and Leicester to go on and win the game. We also saw Chelsea equalise, only for that to be ruled offside by the tightest of margins some time before the goal was scored, with Liverpool then scoring almost immediately to go two nil up. In the example of Chelsea you could see the look of despair and utter “what is the point” after he was penalised for a soft free-kick in the build up to Liverpool’s second goal, only moments after his goal had been disallowed. The impact of scoring a goal and then having it taken off you could arguably be worse than the feeling of conceding – heads drop and a negative mentality sets in. Had Spurs gone 2-0 up it would have been difficult for Leicester to find a way back in to the game, similarly, had Chelsea equalised they would have had the momentum and the outcome of the game could’ve been very different. I don’t think this psychological impact has been looked in to enough – it won’t be long until clubs are employing psychologists and therapists to help teams deal with this mental trauma so it doesn’t affect them for the remainder of the nineties minutes, especially the immediate time after the decision reversal.
Back to the Championship and it has been refreshing to see Rovers hold on to slender leads late on in games and see them out to claim all three points – Reading away at the weekend, the draw to Cardiff at home, winning at Hull and the win at home against Middlesbrough – all games last season we would have probably drawn or even lost last season. I think a big factor in this is the experience of Downing and Johnson in the middle of the pitch and their ability to keep turning the ball over and not giving away position. When you are winning games and approaching the last 10 minutes of a game it is imperative that you keep the ball – if the opposition doesn’t have the ball they can’t score. What Johnson and Downing also do whilst keeping the ball, is open up gaps and opportunities to put a game to bed, without over-committing ourselves and leaving us wide open at the back. Against Millwall, something noticeable about Downing was his ability to miss the middle man out – in previous seasons, to get the ball from the edge of the box (A) to the man out wide (C) we would have had to pass it via a middle-man (B) – missing them out keeps the momentum and keeps their defence moving and thinking about defending.
When we signed Lewis Holtby, I automatically thought he must either be coming to the end of his career, or he must be injury prone. Before his move to Spurs, he was one of the hottest prospects in Europe whilst at Schalke, and the fact Spurs spent some of the Bale money on him shows the regard they held him in. A look at his Wikipedia page shows he is in fact only 29 (some 6 years younger than Stewart Downing), and he has played over 20 games in all bar one of the last five seasons since leaving Spurs – so he’s definitely not over the hill and after a big pay-day, and he definitely isn’t injury prone; this will also be only the second season he has played football outside of the topflight in the last decade. If the wages are right, this is a win-win situation. Rovers get a player who, if he can perform as he did at Schalke, can either push them up the table towards promotion or put himself in the shop-window to make Rovers some money. At worst he is a free transfer, nothing spent nothing lost. After just one week at the club he looks to have settled in fine and looks to have the right mentality and personality to fit in at the club and with the rest of the squad. Tony now has a few selection headaches when everyone is fit, and that can only be a good thing. If Holtby can perform on the pitch, his arrival probably does spell the end of Richie Smallwood and potentially Corry Evans (Evans is actually older than Holtby) – both of whom have been great servants for the club during what have been incredibly difficult times.
On paper, Rovers have a good run of fixtures coming up (Luton, Forest and Huddersfield at home and QPR and Birmingham at home), and with us currently sitting just 2 points of the play-offs, a return of 9 points or more should see us close that gap.