Two of the most controversial aspects of modern-day football had a big influence on our defeat to Liverpool on Wednesday evening. I’ve written about them many times in the past but once again I’ll return to the difficult (to get right) topics of offside and handball.
Let’s start with offside. It is virtually impossible when it’s a close call for a linesman (or assistant referee as they call themselves now, although they don’t assist much really) to be able to be 100 percent certain that a player is offside at the exact moment a ball is played. Bearing in mind that a professional footballer can run at approaching 8-9 yards in a second, then just one-tenth of a second could mean a difference of a couple of feet in distance. So now we have a man in a VAR cabin somewhere who draws lines across the pitch to decide if a player is offside. And on this occasion Jarrod Bowen’s toes were definitely in an offside position. But how can we be sure that the lines were drawn at the exact moment that the ball was played? A fraction of a second less than one-tenth (0.1) and possibly up to one-hundredth (0.01) could make all the difference as to deciding if the lines are drawn at exactly the right moment.
But why do we have to go through all this? The offside rule was devised over a hundred years ago to prevent goal-hanging. The position of Bowen on the pitch could not remotely be described as goal-hanging. We were denied a wonderfully taken goal because Bowen’s toes were offside forty or so yards from goal, and that’s only if the lines were drawn at an exact moment that nobody could confirm was spot on. I’ve campaigned for years (but to no avail because I have no influence) that offside should be confined to the final 18 yards of the pitch, that is in the penalty area (with the line extended to the touch line) only. Play wouldn’t be as condensed as it is now; there would be more room on the pitch if defenders didn’t push up so far to try to catch people offside. That’s not the point of the game is it? Anyway the ‘goal’ was ruled out but nobody could possibly be sure that it was the correct decision. Why do football authorities make the laws / rules of the game more complex than they need to be?
If it was changed so that only the final 18 yards would count for offside there would be less controversy, but it could still exist. So let’s go further. Instead of looking for any part of the body that can legally play the ball being a fraction offside let’s go back to the theory of giving the advantage to the attacker. If any part of the attacker’s body is in line with any part of the defender’s body then it is not offside. We would still have some controversial decisions but the numbers of them would be reduced.
My second bugbear, and once again I have written about this before is handball. Thanks to TV we all saw a Liverpool defender handle the ball in his own penalty area, not once but possibly twice in the same movement. The current rule suggests that it is not handball if a player puts his hand down as he falls and then touches the ball with it. But was this the case here? I’m not so sure. Surely the referee couldn’t be sure at full speed. A definite case for VAR to refer him to take another look with the camera angles available. We are all biased as fans and want decisions to go the way of our team. On TV, Peter Crouch, whilst admitting he had a foot in the Liverpool camp, said that he would have been disappointed to not get the award of the penalty if this had been a West Ham player handling the ball. The referee may not have changed his mind if he had looked at the screen but surely he should have been advised to look?
Controversies such as these happen every week and we will never eliminate them entirely. But surely we must look at ways to try to minimise the numbers. The argument goes that they even themselves out over the course of a season. I wonder if any studies have been done to compare controversial decisions and which way they go according to the size of club involved? Perhaps it is just my imagination but it seems to me that bigger clubs seem to benefit more than smaller ones? Earlier this season Brighton lost a game 2-1 to Tottenham with at least four decisions that all went against Brighton, for which the refereeing authorities have apologised. But there is no question in my mind that Brighton should have at least three more points and Tottenham three fewer. That could make all the difference in respect of qualifying for Europe next season.
If Bowen’s goal was incorrectly ruled out and we had been awarded a penalty late in the game then we might have one or perhaps three more points than we have now. We are still not mathematically safe from relegation. We could in theory go down as a result of bad decisions in the Liverpool game (we won’t, trust me – but we could!).
Who will go down this season? It’s still a tough question to answer, but it’s getting clearer as the weeks go by. A few weeks ago, today’s opponents Palace were in the mix and they decided to dispense with Patrick Vieira and replace him with the oldest manager around who had decided to give up managing last season. But Roy Hodgson taking over once again at Selhurst Park has taken the Eagles out of the equation and they are now safe.
I quoted the Opta Supercomputer prior to last weekend’s matches; their figures for percentage chances of relegation at that time were:
Southampton 93.6%, Everton 74.0%, Leeds 46.7%, Forest 46.3%, Leicester 34.3%, West Ham 2.1%, Bournemouth 1.6%, Wolves 0.5%
One week and two games later the figures have changed to:
Southampton 97.6%, Forest 74.4%, Everton 57.8%, Leicester 46.4%, Leeds 23.5%, Bournemouth 0.5%, West Ham 0.4%
Wolves have now disappeared from the figures and both Bournemouth and West Ham are as good as safe. In my article prior to the Bournemouth game I wrote “It’s any three from five now – Southampton, Leicester, Forest, Everton and Leeds. It can still change of course, but I’ll stick with that.”
There seems little reason to change my view now. Bournemouth have won four of their last six matches and we have won three, with twelve and ten points respectively. The bottom five have all won just once (Leeds, Forest and Leicester all with 4 points from those six games), or not at all (Everton, 3 draws and Southampton, 2 draws). If they didn’t improve their points tally per game (they all have 5 to play) then none of the five would overhaul West Ham even if we didn’t collect another point. One or two might raise their game and do better but I doubt that three of them will. We have six games to play and I suspect we need perhaps another win to be sure, but I’m hoping for better than that.
I reckon our manager will once again start with the same eleven, although personally I’d like to see a change of goalkeeper. I was disappointed with the goals we conceded in the week with a lack of closing down for the first and, despite it being a good shot, disappointment that Fabianski was beaten from that distance. And it’s always disappointing to concede a headed goal direct from a corner. What happened to the marking? Paqueta’s goal must be a contender for our goal of the season for the team move and superb powerful shot.
Palace are one of the teams that we can overtake to improve our final league position this season; in fact we would go above them if we win this game. They have ten points like ourselves from their last six games – there are only six teams in the Premier League who can better that haul from their last half a dozen games.
We have a good recent record visiting Selhurst Park, only losing once in the past eight visits there and winning five times. We haven’t lost two games in a row in this calendar year (yet), and David Moyes has won as manager in five out of five visits to Palace. This is Palace’s sixth home London derby of the season and so far they have only picked up one point. If we can keep a clean sheet it would be the first time we have done so in three consecutive away Premier League matches for more than nine years apparently. Despite their resurgence under Hodgson, Palace have only won one of their past nine home league games. With all these statistics you’d think we’d be well placed for another three points today. But it doesn’t necessarily work out like that, does it?
I have good memories of my first visit to see West Ham at Palace. I visited Selhurst Park to see West Ham play there in October 1971 and we won the game 3-0 with goals from Clyde Best, Billy Bonds and Ade Coker. It came after an improved run of form that season where we didn’t manage to score a goal in our first four games and were bottom of the league, and then only lost once in the next 16 games (in all competitions) to climb into a mid-table position.
After winning 4-0 in our last away game at Bournemouth, and 1-0 at Fulham in the away game before that, can we win and keep a clean sheet for the third match in a row? Of course we can!