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Can football (soccer) learn from football (NFL)

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Compared to soccer, American football (NFL) doesn’t even come close in terms of excitement. Tactically, NFL is far more complex. Set plays contribute a substantial say in how the flow of games evolve and are an indicator (usually) of which team is more likely to win a game.

It is far more physical, is a stop-start game like rugby and you don’t have to be a lean, mean running machine to make it big in NFL – just ask William Perry, or ‘The Refrigerator’ as was his nickname. Amercian football will probably never thrive outside the US because Association Football (soccer) is longer established and played in professional and amateur leagues in almost every other country on Earth.

What can soccer learn from NFL?

However, football, and in particular the football authorities from FIFA down could learn a thing or two from American football, not least how to control and manage the on-field game. As an example, American football has seven (7) on-field officials who between them have specific roles and responsibilities. As a result, seldom is a poor call made, seldom is a call incorrect and, more importantly, there is always consistency in judgment calls and the football scores and results are much better received.

Why are calls inconsistent in soccer?

Unlike NFL where the seven officials consult before a decision is made after a play, soccer officials seldom if ever consult each other, the referee being the sole arbiter of a decision. When referees get it wrong, which is more frequent than we care to think about, it infuriates players, infuriates fans and causes unnecessary tension between opposing players and tribal fans in an already febrile environment. 

How often do we see referees at top-flight games in the English Premier League and other major leagues around the world get a judgment call wrong? Too often I would argue. Take for example, a close tackle resulting in a ball being deflected behind for a corner, only for the referee to award a goal kick, or an attacking player diving in the penalty box, only for the referee to award a penalty to the cheating player.

On other occasions, we see players awarded yellow cards and/or red cards for an offence when, from an angle other than that from where the referee was positioned at the time, there was clearly no infraction.

The modern game is a multi-million-pound industry and given that referees get calls wrong can cost a club a share of that income, especially if they are relegated as a result of poor calls or inconsistent decision making. Players’ careers can be interrupted as a result, clubs can drift as a result of relegation and, at worst, can slip down the pyramid and sink into oblivion.

So, can the football authorities learn from the NFL?

Why not have a linesman on each side of the pitch in both halves, after all the play is contained to one side of the pitch. Similarly, why not have a referee in both halves of the pitch for when the play is in one or other of the halves of the pitch?

Also, when there are contentious decisions made, the referee of an American football game has access to the stadium’s PA and can make an announcement as to why the decision has been made and what the result of that decision is. The players understand the decision, and fans aren’t kept in the dark about what is going on.

So, the next time you’re soccer team is subject to a poor (or an absolutely atrocious) call by the referee then perhaps we can be in agreement and say yes, soccer can learn some good lessons from NFL.

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Southampton’s 9-0 defeat was all of their own making

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Southampton’s 9-0 defeat was all of their own making

Southampton’s 9-0 defeat to Leicester City was ‘horrible’ – well, according to the Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl it was, but I doubt if any of the Leicester fans or players would agree. Neither would the astute punters who wagered a 9-0 win to Leicester, some of them coming out £1500 better off for their highly speculative bets.

A record English Premier League Away Win

Hasenhuttl blamed himself and took responsibility for the staggering defeat, a record home defeat of any team in the top flight Premier League era. Indeed, it is also a record defeat for The Saints, which saw Southampton drop into the relegation zone as a result.

Hasenhuttl shouldn’t have been so quick to take the blame, however, but should have taken the time to review the game and say something like:

…’ my players were an absolute disgrace and should hang their heads in shame and maybe send a letter to every Southampton fan with a sincere apology’…

But of course he won’t in this sanitised era of political correctness, so maybe we should look at where it all went wrong for the long-suffering S’ton fans and call out the team and tell it like it really is.

The wrong type of rain

Judging from the body language of some of the Soton players on the night, the rain didn’t help matters. Some of them looked as if they would rather be tucked away in the games room of their sprawling mansions, playing FIFA on X-box. Others looked as if they were not happy with the way in which the downpour messed their expensive (and ridiculous) hairstyles. Still, others probably wished they had remembered to bring their gloves with them so their poor little hands didn’t feel the cold.

The wrong type of defenders

Let’s face it, the S’oton defence was atrocious. At some point, one or two would be jabbing a finger and pointing at a teammate for a defensive lapse and then, a few minutes later, those same players would be making howlers of their own. Poor old Angus Gunn – I’ll bet he wished he had stayed put at Norwich City rather than join this bunch of clowns.

Red nose night

By the time the second half started, the stadium had been deserted by some forty percent of the home fans, some going home in the hope they could watch red nose night on the telly instead of on the pitch at Saint Mary’s stadium. Sadly, their hopes were dashed – too early for red nose day.

Some wag on Twitter had called out the S’oton defence as an ‘Alley of clowns’ which was quite an educational announcement. How many people knew that the collective noun for a group of clowns was ‘alley’? Perhaps that wag should have called them a ‘pratfall of clowns’ – much more appropriate.

Strikers on strike?

Where were Southampton’s strikers? Were they on strike for the night? Not one decent shot on goal from the front men and only one real shot on target all game by Nathan Redmond just about summed up the night. Leicester was rampant and Southampton players were easy pickings. If Southampton doesn’t get relegated this season, the players will have learned a valuable lesson from this drubbing and turned their season around.

And Hasenhuttl? He will take the can for the players again because that seems to be the way of the world, given modern-day players’ egos are so fragile, the truth might just tip them over the edge.

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Is the offside law in football completely offside?

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When the offside law was first incorporated into the laws of Association Football, it was pretty simple and everyone grasped its intent. When a ball is played to a member of the attacking team and where there isn’t 2 or more of the defending team between the attacking player and the goal, the attacking player is deemed ‘offside’ resulting in an indirect free-kick to the defending team.

Moving forward a century or so and we find that now a player has to be ‘active’ in order to be in an offside position.

How do we define ‘active’ in the context of open play?

Let’s say for instance the ball is played forward to a teammate who is in an onside position but another teammate is in an offside position but not interfering in play (another contentious issue) when the ball is played. That player cannot be flagged for offside, even though he is in an offside position.

Then, if the player has taken the ball forward and then passes the ball to his previously offside teammate who, two seconds later, is now in an onside position when the ball is passed, he is no longer deemed in an offside position. The trouble is, even though he was classed as being inactive at the time of the original pass to his teammate, he had gained a territorial advantage at the time.

All straightforward so far?

Probably not, as the law is now open to interpretation. Whereas before a player could be flagged offside because he was, now it is up to the individual linesman’s interpretation of the law and the player’s position at the time of the original pass.

All is fine and dandy if the offside player is on the opposite of the pitch, but not so fine if he is in the centre of the pitch where a short pass can rapidly turn in to a potential goal-scoring position and a goal results from the attacking move. The change in the law was made to promote attacking football but all it seems to have done is cause a lot of confusion amongst players and fans alike.

FIFA offers the following definition of being active as in the following:

…”Interfering with play means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team-mate”…

The problem arises when a player in an offside position doesn’t touch the ball BUT causes confusion between the defenders of the opposing team and gains an advantage, even though the offside player does not get the advantage himself.

Now that we have VAR in operation the issue is a little more complicated because now a player is either ON SIDE or OFFSIDE as judged by a panel of referees looking at a stop-frame viewing of the incident, and players deemed to be unable to be LEVEL.

The offside law worked before there was any tinkering and also before cameras were positioned at almost every available angle which takes away the human element of the game.

Perhaps things will settle down in time but, I wonder if there will be a football player somewhere who decides to have green-tinted toes of his boots so the cameras cannot see if his toe is on or offside.

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Are VAR and football a good fit?

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Having seen VAR in operation in football, there is so much wrong in the way in which it has been rolled out and implemented. VAR is a laudable development and goes some way to removing doubt about decisions made by referees in the heat of the moment. Camera angles give pundits and TV audiences an instant confirmation if a foul is committed, a free kick or penalty is due or any other infringement has taken place, but not so the referee.

The referee on the pitch has a split second to make a decision and once that decision is made, VAR officials have little in the way of potential of righting a perceived (or definitive) infraction of the laws of the game. Rather than help the referee and ultimately the players and fans, VAR has muddied the waters. Rather than learning from the sports which have introduced technology into the game to improve decision making by officials, the football authorities have made the decision more chaotic than ever.

Cricket and ‘VAR’

Currently, in cricket, the ‘VAR’ system is a success because the onus on instigating a review of an appeal is down to the players on the field, not the umpire. If an appeal for, shall we say, a potential leg before wicket (LBW) is turned down by the umpire, the players have the right to appeal that decision. However, they only have one review available per innings and if a review is subsequently undertaken and the umpire’s decision is upheld, the appealing team loses that appeal.

As a result, players are extremely cautious in making an appeal if they are unsure. Indeed, they have a 15 second time limit to confirm the appeal and only challenge the umpire if they are CERTAIN he or she is wrong in their decision. The players are in effect still able to make an appeal and ultimately it is the players who have to shoulder that responsibility, and can no longer blame the umpires for poor decision making.

NFL and ‘VAR’

American football is perhaps the best-suited sport for a television audience and ‘VAR’ used in NFL has penalties in built into the system. Players can appeal an on-field decision made by the referee, but they seldom do. They are aware of the penalties doe an unsuccessful appeal of a decision, and therefore only make appeals if they are absolutely sure that the officials have got it wrong.

An unsuccessful appeal of a referee’s decision will cost them a time out. Time outs are sacrosanct and are used tactically by teams for many reasons, not least to break up play when things aren’t going according to plan. So to say the punishment for an unsuccessful appeal could be potentially massive for the team, appeals for perceived poor decision making by the officials are seldom implemented.

Football and VAR

The way in which VAR is used in football has left the responsibility of decisions firmly in the hands of the referee and abdicated all responsibility for VAR appeals from the players. Consequently, players and management teams still hound the officials and, with VAR the appeal can be upheld but, if the appealing team gets it wrong there is no punishment for their getting it wrong.

Perhaps appeals could be launched by the captain of the team when the ball next goes out of play if the team believe an infraction of the laws of the game has gone against them and not been punished. If an appeal is made and it subsequently upholds the referee’s decision, perhaps one of the three substitutions can be forfeited. Substitutions are now a major tactical weapon deployed by managers and coaches which often change the way in which a game is going.

Give each team the potential of three in-game appeals and take away the potential of an available substitute if the appeal upholds the referee’s initial decision.

The football authorities had the chance to introduce technology to help the game move forward but chose not to learn the lessons from other sports which implemented VAR systems many years ago.

Given the way in which VAR is deployed, currently it is not a good fit for football. That is not to say it will remain so.

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