Champions League – 3 Thoughts and Observations

Red Card, Penalty and Suspension – Overkill?

Last year, the Arsenal v Bayern Munich fixture got me critically thinking about the fairness and use of the away goals rule in football today.  I still think it should be done away with but that’s a debate for another day; on to last couple of nights then.

Two red cards, one each on Tuesday and Wednesday, have brought the alleged overkill of punishment for last man tackles to light.  The main difference between both is that one involved the sending off of a goalkeeper and the other involved that of a defender.  First of all, the referees almost certainly applied the law in the correct fashion.

A player…is sent off if he commits any of the following…offences:

–          denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goalscoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (this does not apply to a goalkeeper within his own penalty area)

 

–          denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick

 

It is important to note that the rules mention nothing about a ‘last man’ specifically.  However, a ‘last man’ foul tackle is often the most obvious denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity so we’ll forgive the misconstruction of the rule.

The guidelines provided by FIFA to referees for the interpretation of this rule are not especially helpful in these circumstances between the sending offs themselves were hardly controversial from an objective standpoint.  However, is sending off of the offending player totally necessary?  Forgetting the extent to which a sending off can utterly unbalance a game (Bayern’s 2nd half domination was so complete, it has not taken a day for many to forget how competitive the 1st half was).

Defining what an obvious goalscoring opportunity is throws up a few questions.  First of all, a one v one chance is, as experience has shown in football, hardly a guaranteed goal.  For that reason, when the foul occurs in the box, a clear goalscoring opportunity is given – a penalty. Proportionate compensation?  Arguably, yes.  Of course, things get trickier when challenge occurs outside the box.  In that situation, a freekick will be given but the law still states that the player should be sent off.  The proportionate compensation granted for a foul in the box, forgetting the red card, is absent in this situation.  A wall can be set up, players can mill around the box – while an opportunity to attack, it is hardly an obvious goalscoring opportunity.  One radical approach could be, of course, to make every denied ‘obvious goalscoring opportunity’ a penalty kick, regardless of where it occurs on the pitch.  However, this raises questions of proportionality – not all chances are equal. 

The effectiveness of the current rule also varies according to scenarios.  Imagine a side leading 1-0 going into stoppage time and suddenly there’s a lapse and the opposition striker is let in.  A defender has every incentive to bring him down before he reaches the box and earn a red card.  The attacking team earns a freekick and the obvious goalscoring opportunity is lost.  How can this be remedied?  Perhaps by awarding a penalty kick, thus presenting the attacking team with an obvious goalscoring opportunity.  Fair?  That’s another moot point but arguably, it is a fairer call than the simply providing a freekick. 

The point to be made here is that ultimately, laws of the game are constantly being revised and the goal is ultimately to make the new rules ‘fairer’ than the old rules.  If proportionality is synonymous with fairness, then the current rules are most certainly punitive.  Punitive laws, it is argued, should ultimately be reserved for cynical actions such as deliberate last man fouls, handballs to deny an obvious chance (Luis Suarez springs to mind) or reckless and dangerous tackles which result in penalties.

 

Courtois Walks the Walk

In the past few days, reports have arisen of Thibaut Courtois, Atletico Madrid’s on-loan goalkeeper, effectively nipping insurrection from his deputy in the bud.  The insurrection came in the form of the Liverpool keeper expressing his ambition to take the Belgium number 1 jersey – of course that would mean displacing Courtois. In a swift, some would say arrogant, riposte, Courtois stridently spoke of Mignolet staying ‘humble and respectful’, pointing out the examples of De Gea, Valdes and Reina in quietly backing the embattled incumbent, Casillas. 

A visit to Milan presented the first chance for him to back up his big talk and indeed he did it in style.  The first great save came from a Kaka curler, the keeper diverting it onto the post and out for a corner.  The second save from Andrea Poli was simply stunning, springing to his right to divert a 6 yard point blank header onto the post.  Diego Costa was the match-winner with his rather impressive header but by keeping Atletico in the game with his match-saving (excuse the pun) saves; he not only demonstrated his indisputable talent but also his big-game quality.  Clutch, they say.

 

Crossing can be a more precise business, Moyesy

David Moyes was in the stands to watch the game (or Toni Kroos – he couldn’t miss him anyway; in the 2nd half, he was that bloody good) and could do with introducing a few facets of Bayern’s play into his Manchester United side’s approach.  One feature of note was the clever and deliberate use of crossing.  The ultimate quest in football is precision – simply put, the more precise your passing is, your shooting and all other things are, the more likely you are to win.  It is why footballers train so much, and why in the case of the best of trainers, players are also coached to know precisely where to be in certain situations.  One of the more imprecise arts is crossing of the ball.  Oftentimes, a winger will seek out a certain area to deliver to.  In football parlance, the POMO – Position of Optimal Opportunity (just outside the 6 yard box, in between the last line of defence and goalkeeper) is often targeted.  Nevertheless, experience has shown that the probability of scoring from a cross is incredibly low (this study posits that only 1 out of over 91 open play crosses will lead to a goal).  In the 2012/2013 EPL season, only roughly 20% of crosses actually reach a teammate. 

Bayern Munich completed 10 of 37 attempted crosses against Arsenal.  One of those attempted crosses from Phillip Lahm led to a nifty goal from Thomas Mueller.  Before that, there was a mix of crosses; Mario Gotze missed a rather presentable chance from another neat Lahm cross.  Rafinha and Alaba were aggressive in their positioning, often provided a more precise option for a pass inside on the overlap; Arjen Robben was presented with a golden opportunity from such an Alaba pass only for his goalbound effort to be blocked by Koscielny.  For all their neat passing, Bayern make very effective use of wingplay, particularly with Mario Mandzukic in the side, thus continuing the good work of Jupp Heynckes last year.

 

Next week, there’ll be more action featuring Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United and co. Till then, enjoy reading.

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