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The Laws Of The Game

Posted on February 28, 2010 by RevStu

Does ANYONE understand them? Depressingly it seems not.

If you're joining us late, many years ago there existed a thing oft bemoaned by fans and pundits alike, called the "professional foul". This was a cynical deliberate foul, typically committed by a lumbering centre-half when he'd been skinned by a forward who was then heading clean through on the goalkeeper, but still a long way from goal. The centre-half would blatantly haul him down, making no pretence at a legal attempt to win the ball, and give away a harmless free kick perhaps 30 or 40 yards out.

The forward would thus be denied a chance to go one-on-one with the keeper and very likely score. The defender, meanwhile, would suffer only a yellow card at most – because his foul was in itself usually innocuous (being a simple trip or shove), leaving the referee no grounds on which to issue a red. It was clearly unfair, and something had to be done.

So the laws were altered, and the professional foul was deemed a red card offence. If in the referee's opinion a foul had serious repercussions above and beyond what could be reasonably and proportionately redressed by a free kick – such as the example above – the defender could be directly dismissed.

Another form of professional foul was the deliberate handball on the line. Here, a striker's shot would have beaten the goalkeeper and be about to go into the net, when a defender would deliberately block it with his hand. This would result in a penalty kick, but since the goalkeeper has at least a reasonable chance of saving a penalty, from the defending team's perspective this is better than the absolute certainty of a goal. Again, since the foul in itself was merely a handball – meriting a yellow card at most – the defending team would also be able to remain at full strength, while potentially having obtained the massive advantage of saving a certain goal.

So the "professional foul" rule was written to also encompass, in some circumstances, even fouls which resulted in a penalty. The key to the rule is proportionality – if the normal sanction for the foul is held to be in itself inadequate, ie if even when awarded it still leaves the wronged team at a disadvantage, then the extra punishment in the form of a red card is applied, the purpose being to act as a deterrent. If the normal sanction is an adequate punishment, then no additional one is required.

This, plainly, was the case in today's Carling Cup final. When Nemanja Vidic pulled down Gabriel Agbonlahor, he was about to have a reasonably good chance of scoring a goal. He was through, but  with no support, at quite a tight angle, with a defender goalside and trying to harry him, another defender rushing in if Vidic managed to even hold him up for a second or two, and with a goalkeeper about to narrow the angle much more. He might well have scored, but it's very much also within the bounds of possibility that he wouldn't. It wasn't by any means at all, in the wording of the Laws Of The Game, OBVIOUS that a goal was going to result from the chance.

The key is that the sanction for Vidic's offence – the award of a penalty kick – provided Aston Villa with a better chance of scoring a goal than the one the foul prevented. A free uncontested shot from 12 yards in the centre of the box with a goalkeeper forbidden to move forwards is clearly a superior chance to the one Agbonlahor had. Therefore, Manchester United are quite rightly held to have already been adequately punished. The foul has placed them at a DISadvantage, by giving Villa an even better opportunity than they would otherwise have had, which is as it should be.

It follows, therefore, that a professional foul has not been committed, because a professional foul requires that the defending team gain an advantage from the offence even after the stipulated punishment has been issued. So beyond that, the only reason provided by the Laws (specifically Law 12, which lists all the possible grounds for a caution) to take any further action against Vidic is if the player has committed several in succession.

With just three minutes played, the latter clearly wasn't the case – if I remember rightly it was Vidic's first offence of the game – and the foul itself was a run-of-the-mill shirt-pull/missed tackle. Had it happened elsewhere on the pitch at that point in the game, commentators would have bemoaned an over-officious referee for being card-happy and attention-seeking and likely to ruin the game as a spectacle had he issued a caution. That it happened inside the box only increased the cost  to Manchester United of the foul by awarding Aston Villa a penalty, so adding yet more punishment by also giving Vidic a card would have been quite unjustified.

The slightly ambiguous way the relevant part of Law 12 is written ("denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity") with regard to a sending-off offence allows for the sort of idiotic interpretation indulged in by every single commentator and pundit on the TV this afternoon. But the spirit of the law is incredibly clear – it's designed to act as a deterrent to defenders in situations where a foul would otherwise result in an inadequate punishment.

Replacing a difficult goal-scoring opportunity with a considerably easier one is – stupendously obviously – a more than adequate punishment. The referee was right not to issue a card to Vidic. Anyone who says otherwise is a clueless cretin, and that's that.

28 to “The Laws Of The Game”

  1. John X says:

    So are you saying that a professional foul requires the defending team gain an advantage?

  2. RevStu says:

    Hang on and I'll take you through it a couple more times.

  3. ur_a_dumbass says:

    Why isnt this applied EVERYTIME something like this happens????? If Rooney was brought down by Dunne or this was a prem match the defender would be sent off. stop trying to make excuses for a poor referee who has obviously been affected by Fergusons comments in the past

  4. RevStu says:

    It isn't applied every time because referees are human and sometimes make mistakes. Dowd is one of the ones who got it right, and it was a brave decision.

  5. nixonradio says:

    The confusion arises because of the difference between the sensible interpretation of "obvious goalscoring opportunity" and the one used by all TV pundits and opposition managers, i.e. to omit the word "obvious" altogether and demand a red card for the denial of any goalscoring opportunity.  Which is stupid, because you could then claim a 50/50 scuffle in your own half came just before you were about to lob the keeper from sixty yards out, and was therefore the denial of a goalscoring opportunity, red card please.   See also tedious "he wasn't the last man, there was someone roughly level with the ball on the other side of the pitch, therefore he can't be sent off" idiocy.

  6. Bloke says:

    Jesus Christ. This is worse than some of the RPG or FPS fanatics obsessing or ranting. Puts me in mind of the infamous and much loathed rules nit-picker in a D&D game.

  7. Targaff says:

    It's also entirely wrong, because it places undue focus on the word obvious when the one that's really important is opportunity. Whether or not it's obvious that he would score is neither here nor there; all that matters is whether if it was obvious that he had an opportunity to score.  Given Stu himself states "He might well have scored", I think I can safely assume that we agree it was obviously an opportunity.
    As for whether the punishment was commensurate, look at the conditions to be considered "when deciding whether to send off a player for denying a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity": distance between goal (in the box), likelihood of keeping or gaining control of the ball (high), direction of play (attack), location and number of defenders (1, in a position that meant he had to commit a foul to prevent the opportunity).  That's 4 of the 5 conditions pretty much met right there for a sending off, and the fifth one isn't relevant in this instance.  The question of proportionality does not even enter consideration (whether it should or not is another matter).

  8. RevStu says:

    I agree that "opportunity" is the important word, and that Agbonlahor had one. But a penalty is clearly also a goalscoring opportunity, so one HASN'T been denied by the foul. And that means none of the other stuff applies.

  9. Targaff says:

    Sorry, but the list of sending-off offences (p36) specifically states "denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick".  There is a clear implication that the sending off should be considered in addition to the punishment that the actual offence is subject to; otherwise it would never be included in this list, because you could never argue that a goal-scoring opportunity was denied.
     
    I do understand where you're coming from, but it's simply not correct.

  10. RevStu says:

    The "in addition to a penalty kick" rule is, as already noted at length, to cover things like the handball on the line. In that case, the penalty is an inferior substitute for the certain goal, so an extra deterrent is needed. In cases like yesterday's, the penalty is a more than adequate replacement, because it's a much easier chance. Vidic and Man U are punished by having a possible goal turned into a probable one.

  11. Jonny says:

    He was facing away from the goal and Man Utd had another defender coming back to cover. It had "side-netting" written all over it. Personally I think Vidic should've just let him miss.

  12. Matt Dale says:

    It was a clear sending off. Spineless refereeing imo.

  13. obed says:

    what if Agbonlahor had missed the penalty?

  14. RevStu says:

    What if he missed the chance?

  15. obed says:

    The only reason Vidic had got back in front of Agbonlahor was because he had pulled him back, inside the box. He then took him down as Agbonlahor went past him for a second time. It really was a no-brainer. Even SAF himself said Vidic was lucky not to be sent off. So in terms of whether the ref got it wrong or not is beyond debate.

  16. RevStu says:

    It clearly isn't "beyond debate". And I've never cited Vidic being in front of Agbonlahor as the reason not to send him off.

  17. Richard says:

    Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic should have been sent off for the challenge on Gabby Agbonlahor that handed Aston Villa an early penalty in Sunday's League Cup final at Wembley, according to former Premier League referee Dermot Gallagher.

    Gallagher feels that his former coleague Phil Dowd would find it harder to justify his decision not to send the Serb off than if he had shown a red card.

    "There was no provision to book him, I thought it was a straight red card actually," Gallagher told Sky Sports News.<
    "I think the minute Phil's given the penalty as sure as night follows day it was a red card.

    "We're sat here today discussing something that we wouldn't be discussing if he'd just pulled it out because everybody just accepted it.

    "It was actually an easier decision to make and justify than to try and sit here and say why he didn't.

    "Everybody in the land expected a red card and I think that was an easy decison to justify a red card and a very difficult decision not to."

    Gallagher does acknowledge though that the size of the occasion may have influenced Dowd's decision.

    "It shoudn't do," he added. "But I suppose looking back it's a massive game with nearly 90,000 people there and the eyes of the world watching.

    "We look back and think that if that had happened after 70 minutes then the red card would probably have come out.

    "Maybe that's the case, I don't know."

  18. RevStu says:

    So that's one former Premiership ref saying red card, and another former Premiership ref (Poll) saying not a red card. Anyone care to ask a third Premiership ref for a casting vote? I suggest P. Dowd.

  19. Jonny says:

    Woah, Richard is SEO spamming your blog. I'd delete his ass.

  20. MangoFish says:

    That Matt Dale chap above seems to talk a lot of sense. Bravo!

  21. Targaff says:

    Stu, the list of sending-off offences (p36 as noted previously) clearly doesn't intend the "offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick" rule to refer to handballs because it addresses handballs under its own bullet point ("denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball").  "Denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity through handball" is one sending-off offence; and "denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity … by an offence punishable by free kick or penalty kick" is another.  Given that the clarification under Law 12 states that there are "two sending-off offences" that relate to denying such an opportunity – and that these two are the only ones listed – it's fairly apparent that the referee should consider the above circumstances for either offence.
     
    As for proportionality, I don't disagree that it's common sense, but I'm failing to see anything that actually says anything of the sort in the LotG.  The closest is in that self same section of Law 12 – "the likelihood of keeping or gaining control of the ball" – and that has nothing to do with whether or not they actually benefit from or even opt to take advantage of the opportunity they are presented.

  22. Targaff says:

    Just to stretch the point somewhat, if we did accept that the reference to an "offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick" was actually meant for use with handballs, then the DOGSO for handballs reference would only be relevant to those handballs that were not punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick. Um.

  23. RevStu says:

    Fair point about the handball law. But we're still back to whether a team has been denied a goalscoring opportunity when they've been awarded a penalty. The red card sanction is clearly meant for special cases, otherwise you have to send someone off pretty much every time there's a penalty – how many times does an attacker fouled in the box NOT have a goalscoring opportunity? (That's really the only reason to foul him, after all.)

    Yet only a tiny fraction of penalties produce red cards. By your interpretation of the law, penalties WITHOUT red cards would be the exception rather than the rule, but it's the other way round. If you're right, why is that?

  24. Targaff says:

    I don't think the argument that being in the area is by definition a goalscoring opportunity really holds up.  If, say, you pick up a pass on the corner of the 18-yard box and are tripped by a defender as you move towards the byline, on the balance of probabilities the referee isn't going to judge it an obvious goalscoring opportunity: you're effectively moving away from the goal, which in itself significantly reduces the likelihood of an effort on goal, and if you're in that position there are likely to be other defenders behind the one who committed the foul.  The ball may well beat you to the byline as well.  That's not to say that it's not a goalscoring opportunity – there's always someone who'll try to score from the byline when the keeper's covering his post – but it's not an obvious one; the best option is to put the ball into the area for a teammate, and that's what would happen 9 times out of 10.  To take a more concrete example, the foul on Anelka at the end of the Man City game was committed when he was moving away from goal and there were 2 defenders behind the player who fouled him.  He could've pivoted and taken a shot on his off-foot (I think he's right-footed, anyhow), but with the flow of play it's not obvious that that's what would happen.
    That's the sort of reasoning that a referee uses when considering whether to take additional action, so when we look at the Carling Cup Final, where Agbonlahor was fouled by the last defender as he bore down on goal with the clear intention to take a shot (it's not like there were any other options available at the time), the DOGSO violation appears fairly egregious.  So why wasn't he sent off?  Ultimately because despite being called Law 12 it is really only a guideline: it states that these are factors the referee should consider and frames it as a judgment call, not a hard and fast rule.  For whatever reason the ref judged it wasn't merited, even though on the face of it the majority of the requirements for further action were met.
    All that aside, though, what seems to have riled most people isn't that he didn't, for whatever reason, send Vidic off but that he didn't caution him for an offence that, even disregarding the goal opportunity, merits a caution in its own right under the "Holding an opponent" section of Law 12 ('award a direct free kick or penalty and caution the player').
    One of the few things that MLS does right, incidentally, is a weekly review of their officials' performances.  The website link is to a review where they state that under LotG a Seattle player should've been sent off for a DOGSO tackle on a Toronto player last season, and it's a good example of how referees are supposed to analyse this sort of play (though personally I think it's harsh, since the Toronto player was not really in control any more).

  25. RevStu says:

    What about shoving an attacker in the back as he jumps to head a corner in the middle of the six-yard box? A pretty obvious goalscoring opportunity, but have you EVER seen anyone sent off for such an offence, even when a penalty was given?

    There are several possible reasons why Vidic wasn't sent off. One is outlined in the feature – the ABSOLUTE INCONTROVERTIBLE FACT that Villa WEREN'T denied a goalscoring opportunity, because they got a penalty. Another is the fact that he wasn't moving towards the goal, which the law states as a necessity for a red card.

    Collins' tackle on Michael Owen a few minutes later was much more worthy of a red under the "professional foul" rule – indeed, it's EXACTLY the sort of foul it was brought in to deal with – but nobody's been whinging about that all over the media for two days, even though Man Utd were trailing 1-0 and it could have had a major effect on the outcome of the game. I wonder why that is?

    (As for the yellow, the definition of "holding" to include shirt-pulling is contentious. And if the ref flashed a yellow for every minor shirt-tug, we'd end up with four a side.)

  26. Targaff says:

    Stu, this continuous assertion that being awarded a penalty is some sort of mitigation for a denied opportunity makes no logical sense.  The law states, explicitly, that a sending-off should be considered for "denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick".  Look at how that is worded, because it is very specific: the penalty is not awarded for the denial of a goal-scoring opportunity but for committing the offence that merits the penalty; DOGSO is a further infringement that is treated separate and apart from that foul or its consequences (i.e. the penalty kick). We've already established that this does not refer to handballs; if we accept that the penalty is in fact a substitute for the opportunity that was denied, this has some wacky consequences: either you would never, ever be able to give a red card under this clause, because you could never, ever actually be denied a goalscoring opportunity through an offence other than a handball, making the clause and indeed the offence wholly redundant; or, you would be able to show the red card only if you decided not to give the penalty that was merited for the primary offence.
     
    Regarding your example of a corner, even if a penalty is given for the foul on a corner, firstly, the perception of corners as a good goal-scoring opportunity is statistically wrong (for example, a 1998 study of a date-spread sample of corner kicks from Prem and European leagues found the success rate to be just 2.7%, while in 2003 Man Utd scored just twice from their first 449 corners); and secondly, the referee is likely to take the view that the area is packed with defenders at a corner.  Even when the ball hits the net after the ref's whistled the most you're likely to get is a yellow card, because corners simply aren't as threatening as they appear.
     
    We'll have to agree to disagree on whether Agbonlahor was moving in the direction of the goal at the time the foul was committed, and indeed agree on the Owen tackle.  At least the ref made consistently bad decisions.  I would reiterate, though, that the law states that the referee should consider the five factors listed, not that they are requisite (and besides, it says the direction of play should be considered, which is fuzzier than "must be headed towards goal").
     
    Interestingly, the 2006 edition of LotG made specific reference to shirt-pulling and arm-holding as examples of cautionable holding.  They were probably taken out precisely because defining it as such would have the exact result you describe; not having them in there gives the referee more leeway to allow cheats to prosper at the highest level.

  27. RevStu says:

    "Stu, this continuous assertion that being awarded a penalty is some sort of mitigation for a denied opportunity makes no logical sense. "

    Of course it makes logical sense. The debate is whether it's what the rules are supposed to mean.

    And the Laws (on page 35) DO make absolutely explicit reference to “an opponent moving towards the player’s goal” when stipulating which offences merit a red card.

    As for corners, I never suggested every foul at corners would result in an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. I gave a very specific example, which we’ve all seen, and which we’ve never seen a red card for.

  28. Targaff says:

    Yeah, you're right on the explicit reference, I didn't check back.  If it comes down to taking a view on whether he was actually moving towards the goal, like I said, just going to have to disagree with you.
     
    And I mean that it's illogical within the scope of the Laws as drafted.  Like I said, if it's interpreted the way you're suggesting then it not only renders them partially redundant it makes some wholly unlikely scenarios entirely correct.



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