(First published as a letter on Football 365)
Like most football fans, I have found the end of this Premier League season to be incredibly tedious, with only the collapse of Newcastle providing any real excitement. Thank god it’s nearly over.
The one thing that got me worked up this weekend was the issue of penalties. There were two penalties — the handball given against West Brom vs Man Utd, and Hazard’s penalty award against Crystal Palace, that raised serious questions about the rules. I hope the FA takes the time in the offseason to make some changes to improve the fairness of the game.
First, the handball penalty. Yes, when Valencia crossed the ball Saido Berahino (I think it was him) put his arms out in an unnatural way. Yes, he was just inside the box. So yes, it was technically a penalty for Man Utd. But really, does a penalty not seem a wildly disproportionate punishment for the offence?
Valencia had chipped in a cross into a crowded box. There was a low-ish chance that a United player would get to the ball first, and an even lower chance that it would be an uncontested shot with only the goalkeeper to beat. Receiving a penalty from that situation is wildly out of proportion with the crime. If the handball were to occur on the halfway line, it would be like instructing all the opposing players to stand way up field and give the attacking team a direct run at goal. Is it any wonder players wildly appeal in these circumstances, and place the referee under such intolerable pressure? Surely, when it is a cross and not a shot, it should be an indirect free kick. I’d love to see this changed to cut out some of the histrionics.
Second, Hazard’s penalty. So, Hazard see space between defenders, puts the ball through, seeks contact and goes down. This happens time and time again in Chelsea games when they can’t break through. It is a special skill as it requires speed, balance and dribbling ability. But, every time I see this penalty I think the referees are overlooking one key point: who makes contact first? Hazard will throw himself into the defender’s leg and go down. HAZARD is initiating the contact, not the defender, therefore HAZARD is committing the foul. The defender cannot get out the way, unless he removes his own legs. Anywhere else on the pitch, if you dived into another player, they would be the person being fouled. I would love to see the referees clamp down on this — we can call it the Hazard Rule to at least make him feel better about the loss of a dozen goals next season.
There was a similar one nearly given at White Hart Lane. Aguero burst through the Spurs defence and was through after Lloris slipped. It happened v quickly, but instead of accelerating for the ball and trying to slide it in from what would be a tight angle, he tried something different. He SLOWED down, and waiting for the covering defender, Federico Fazio. Aguero then reached out for Fazio’s chest to create contact, and slowed his leg movement even more in the hope Fazio would clip his heels, which replays suggest he just about did. If it was given, Man City would have had a penalty — a better chance than trying to slide it in from a tight angle, and a red card to boot. So a very favourable outcome. Unfortunately for him, Fazio is so bloody slow that he barely made it into the manufactured contact situation in time and the ref didn’t give it. But if the ref had given it, as the pundits said he should, who really committed the foul? Fazio, who was running in a natural and direct way, or Aguero, who reached out for Fazio’s shirt, moved across in front of the defender and put his legs in a place they would be hit. Surely AGUERO has fouled FAZIO? Perhaps as simple an offence as obstruction would suffice.
I’m not accusing either Hazard or Aguero of cheating — they are just exploiting the rules, and brilliantly. There is a reason they are the best two players in the league.
I hate all the criticism of refs because it is an impossible job. These changes may make the job even harder initially, but I think they would make it fairer by reducing the incentive for gamesmanship and histrionics, and allow defenders to defend properly.