Silly season back on track

Sometimes football tricks you into feeling safe and cozy, even optimistic. Last night was a brutally sudden reminder that we are in fact… never safe.

After being deliciously lulled into this comfort zone by 46 minutes of some of the best football I’ve seen under Arteta, the game was turned on its Sideshow Bob-shaped head. I can’t remember seeing such division over a decision as the Luiz incident, but from my understanding and desire to be objective, by the letter of the law, he had to walk.

Watching it in real time, I thought the same as everyone else – Luiz has done that Luiz thing again where he needlessly makes a last-man challenge instead of just letting the player score. What actually appears to be the case is Luiz was a victim of an incredibly grey and non-sensical area of the rules.

Law 12 of the F.A.’s Handbook – Fouls and Misconduct

SENDING-OFF OFFENCES: denying a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent whose overall movement is towards the offender’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick

DENYING A GOAL OR AN OBVIOUS GOAL-SCORING OPPORTUNITY: where a player commits an offence against an opponent within their own penalty area which denies an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity and the referee awards a penalty kick, the offending player is cautioned if the offence was an attempt to play the ball; in all other circumstances (e.g. holding, pulling, pushing, no possibility to play the ball etc.) the offending player must be sent off.

It’s clear where the grey area catches Luiz. The contact was minimal and entirely accidental, albeit avoidable since Luiz was out of position and should have known better than to get too close. It’s a penalty every day of the week, and I would be aggrieved if an Arsenal player was brought down in similar fashion. Unfortunately, it just so happened to find that sweet spot with “in all other circumstances”. Where the referee’s defence unravels, is not only by Craig Pawson’s repeated and unaccounted ability to make the right decisions (see below for a game of “odd one out”), but by Law 5 of the same handbook.

Law 5.2 – Decisions of the referee

Decisions will be made to the best of the referee’s ability according to the Laws
of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the
referee, who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the
framework of the Laws of the Game.

If the laws of the game find equivalence between tackles that endanger opponents, violent misconduct and persistent fouling with an accidental coming together that just so happened to be in the penalty area, then surely the ‘spirit of the game’ should prevail. A penalty is punishment enough – the odds are overwhelmingly in favour to convert the chance – and recent changes to the ruling have even sought to reduce the incidence of these double jeopardy scenarios. This unfortunately relies on the assumption that referees are actually capable of making well-reasoned, objective decisions on a consistent basis.

One of the core dependencies of consistency is accountability. You can see it in every aspect of the game; bad players get dropped and rotated, the manager position at some clubs is like a carousel and yet the worst thing that can happen to a Premier League referee is a slap-on-the-wrist-demotion for a few games and then they’re back to their usual antics. The best kind of referees are those that go unnoticed and yet here we are with blatant egotists like Mike Dean who undeniably revel in the spotlight and treat the sport like an exhibition. Without accountability, standards will stand still and it’s part of the reason no Premier League officials went to the last World Cup after Clattenburg dropped out (and if his recent revelations about Spurs are anything to go by, the tournament was better for it). This was the first such instance in 80 years and it doesn’t look like much has changed since.

These same egotists even had to be told to consult the pitch-side monitors – unlike the rest of the European leagues’ referees who actually had the humility to do so. Aaaanyway, that’s quite enough of that.

Arteta was understandably perplexed at what he’d just seen but praised the reaction, saying the desire to win, even with 9 men, was “magnificent”. I can’t argue with that and as mad as the circumstances were, not much has really changed in the grand scheme of things. The league is still a mess but the performances are still headed in the right direction, and I can live with that. The emergence of an actual shape and balance to the team has done wonders in recent weeks and Wolves looked there for the taking. After being critical of our slow starts on several occasions, that idea was absolutely blown out of the water. Within 10 minutes, Saka had already had already been denied three times, by woodwork, VAR and the keeper and on another day, we’re already 2 or 3-0 up.

The goal itself was a continuation of Pépé’s recent form, and was another step in the right direction as he continues to repay Arteta’s trust. Winning the ball back was one thing but the tenacity he showed and the weak-footed finish showed a different side to him and at this point, he should keep his place on the left wing. I think it’s clear at this point he’s a confidence player and it’s essential to not make the same mistake twice by dropping him after a strong run of form.

After half time, it was clear that damage limitations weren’t on the agenda and if not for an absolute worldie from Moutinho, I’m confident that we had the means to get something from the game. What later transpired very much put that dream to bed but the intent was always there and that at least is commendable.

I really did think I was watching Lehmann-incarnate with Leno’s moment of madness. It isn’t something we’re used to seeing and it was obviously a circumstance of what the game was demanding, but it gets more and more awkward every time you watch it. He’s got some ways to go if he wants to usurp “Mad Jens” – he hasn’t started making a habit of assaulting players that get too close to him or taken a piss behind an advertising board during a match but that was some serious disconnect between mind and body. Joking aside though, I think it’s fair to chalk this up as an isolated incident and shouldn’t take anything away from his season. I’m not entirely sure about what that means going forward and I’m now sick of trawling the rule handbook, but I think we lose Leno for our next game against Aston Villa on Saturday.

Those that remained were forced to run their socks off even more than they already had been doing and while it’s common practice for “10 men scenarios” in training, I doubt there’s much precedent for 9. Credit has to go to them for not capitulating and they almost miraculously snatched a goal back, but that was that.

Anyway, if by any chance you haven’t completely lost your minds thinking about officiating and VAR, I’ll leave you with this depressing compilation.

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