I’m not one to jump on referees when I’m watching games as I realise how difficult their job is. The biggest mistake last weekend’s football, though, was referee Michael Oliver’s decision to award Swansea a penalty to allow them to equalise against Everton, instead of giving a free-kick in the other direction. There wasn’t the greatest deal of contact, but Everton’s Séamus Coleman was fouled by Swansea’s Marvin Emnes before he handled the ball to give away the spot kick. Such tight calls are made in games every weekend, and the defence given for referees deciding not to penalise the contact is that the player “went down too easily.”
For me, it shouldn’t be a question of going down too easily. If you are shielding the ball from an opponent and there is a nudge, it should be a foul. In the long term, contrary to the belief that football is becoming a non-contact sport, it would improve the standard of defending and advocate teams relying on playing around the opposition to attack instead of bustling past them. That people deem a certain amount of force to be necessary is perpetuating the encouragement of physicality at the expense of other important attributes. It may sound daft, but hear me out.
Should a situation arise where a defender is shielding the ball and letting it run out of play, it is almost always caused by one of three things: the attacking team has overhit an attempted pass meaning the intended recipient can’t reach it, the intended recipient has made the wrong run or failed to anticipate the pass into the area in which the ball is played, or the attacking player tries to take the ball past the defender but overruns it or is unable to beat him for pace.
Similarly, if a defender finds himself chasing an attacker and trying to get back, it’s because he’s been caught out of position or made a wrong decision. Once he is the wrong side of his man, trying to go through him to get the ball would be gaining an unfair advantage. Any nudge on him which doesn’t reach the ball and can knock him off balance should therefore be a foul.
Allowing challenges like this on players encourages physical rather than intelligent, calculated play. Of course players need to be strong and able to hold off opponents (the two best players in the world, for example, both possess great strength), but good defending and attacking require a footballing brain more than physical strength. For example, every time a defender is given the benefit of the doubt because the attacker “went down too easily”, the mistake (either from the defender himself or somebody else in his team) that led to the defender having to make this challenge is ignored. This is also bad for the team which escapes punishment if the errors are not addressed, which can have a detrimental effect in the long run.
To improve the standard of defending, a player’s defensive colleagues can be taught to anticipate the situation better and get across to cover quicker in the event that one of them is caught and lets an attacker through. More preferable, of course, is that the defenders are taught the appropriate situations in which to make certain decisions e.g. when to follow the attacker out and leave space behind, or when to hold position and let him run, as well as simply be told not to switch off in the first place. Going forward, on the other hand, players can be coached to be more patient and not rush the ball forward when it isn’t on, leading to an attacker chasing a lost cause. Misunderstandings are human nature and will therefore obviously never be fully eradicated from football, but to use simple terminology, if you make mistakes, you get punished, and it isn’t the opposition’s fault if you do.
In the case of the Swansea-Everton game, Emnes tried to take the ball past Coleman in a one-on-one situation and lost out. Coleman successfully read where Emnes would go and got in front of him, beating him to the ball in the process. When Coleman, now between Emnes and the ball having outrun his man and got himself into an advantageous position, is pushed in the back, whether intentional or not, it should be a foul. Emnes has attempted to force Coleman out of the way to get to the ball rather than trying to get round him – whether it’s intentional or a case of Emnes not putting the brakes on in time meaning he collides with Coleman is immaterial. Obviously if play continues and Coleman handles in the box, having wrongly assumed he’d been given the free-kick, it has to be a penalty, but he’s effectively ended up being punished for good defending.
The Everton manager Roberto Martinez summed it up pretty well: “Séamus felt there was contact. The defender gets in front, the striker is trying to get there. If you don’t press the brakes quick enough you are going to get some contact. The referee at that point needs to make a decision. Séamus loses his balance and as he falls he ends up touching the ball with his hand. There was no goalscoring threat whatsoever. I think it was very harsh.” Unfortunately, not all (social) media agreed: http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/row-zed/twitter-reacts-seamus-colemans-bizarre-5499353
Players are entitled to shield the ball from an opponent to keep possession or let it run out of play, and the player trying to take the ball from him needs to regain it using a part of his body he can play it with. Obviously in doing so contact can be made with the player as well, but not contact which attempts to move the player out of the way to reach the ball. A player making the most of being nudged by going down when nudged to pre-empt the referee to award a penalty or a free-kick is acceptable – he is exploiting the opposition being caught out. If he feels contact, he knows his opponent is trying to get to the ball by going through him, as he’s unable to reach it any other way. He is therefore entitled to go down as the defender isn’t trying to win the ball fairly – simply the player has outsmarted his opposite number and, like a ruthless sportsman, wants to make him pay for it.
This will be gradually phased out; the game is already at this stage on the continent where referees are generally a lot less lenient for contact, and it is already going this way in the Premier League, where some challenges which were seen as fair even 15 years ago would now be given as fouls. The failure of commentators of the game to keep up with this is, however, a concern. The biggest problems facing us in this regard is firstly that the job of taking the measures outlined above is made a lot easier by having access to sophisticated data analysis software and DVDs of past games, which is unfeasible for smaller clubs. Secondly, it requires us to abandon our affection for aggression and physicality, which will be a painful process. England has nonetheless traditionally been behind in such developments as this, and it will take a while to filter down to the very bottom of the pyramid. Let’s hope we’re not talking too many generations of players.