Everything wrong with football in 2021

Thirty-one minutes had been played of Manchester City’s 5-2 win over Southampton when Alex McCarthy miscontrolled in his own box. City starlet Phil Foden raced on to the ball, nipping it past, and subsequently being caught by, the goalkeeper’s outstretched foot. Foden fell to the ground, but valiantly pulled himself up and tried to finish the chance. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so. In the aftermath, VAR looked back over the incident. This is where things took a ridiculous turn.

It was genuinely baffling when, after a roughly twenty-second long spell, the video referee announced there would be no further action taken. Foden was clearly fouled, and yet no penalty was given. In short, the 20-year-old was punished for trying to stay on his feet – something referees continually say players should do.

This is another example of referees and their assistants failing to stick to their own principles. They say players shouldn’t go to ground too easily, or scream in pain when looking for a foul. Yet when players do this, fouls tend to be given. They say players should try to stay on their feet, exemplifying their honesty. And yet, when Foden did this last night, a penalty wasn’t awarded. The level of hypocrisy is astounding.

Without trying to sound too emotional, the rage this decision brought down on me was off the scale. I sat for five straight minutes with my flatmates, screaming about the dreadful standards both referees and VAR are setting. After my later shouts echoed around the room to no reply (my friends no doubt tiring of my voice), I decided to vent my frustrations via an article. The ease with which I came up with a six-part plan on everything wrong with modern football was overwhelming.

Image Credit: Premier League

As I’ve already touched on, one of the main problems in football nowadays is players screaming when they are fouled, or looking for a foul. This issue has been further magnified by a lack of fans in stadiums; we can now hear every instance where players shout upon going to ground. 

While this issue is reasonably prominent in the English Premier League, it’s a particularly damning experience watching Champions League and Europa League football and listening closely whenever a player ends up lying on the turf. There always seems to be at least one prominent yelp of apparent pain, or of indignation from teammates or coaches. 

Burnley manager Sean Dyche has been particularly vocal in his criticism of this aspect within the game, and it’s not hard to see why. Yet, he has tended to be ridiculed whenever he discusses the issue. He is told he is out of touch, that he is is moaning too much about one particular issue. For me, he’s bang on the money. 

Football is headed in a dangerous direction if players continue to be rewarded for rolling around the floor screaming. Dyche’s most recent example (Alexandre Lacazette shrieking after a mediocre foul earning a Burnley player a yellow card) is a prime illustration of this issue. 

Another case reared its ugly head in Barcelona’s 1-1 draw with Paris Saint-Germain three nights ago. Layvin Kurzawa and Antoine Griezman both went in with high feet for a ball in the PSG box. The former won the ball first, being too quick for the Frenchman. Upon losing out in the battle for the ball, Griezman fell theatrically to the floor, letting out a howl of pain. Falling for the trope, referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot (Lionel Messi missed, vindicating Kurzawa). 

Of course, this matter wouldn’t be so pressing if referees were brave enough to say no to these players. In the vast majority of cases, they aren’t this strong-minded. They are continually fooled by players’ overexaggerated acting, and fail to reward players who try to stay on their feet despite being fouled.

Image Credit: Daily Advent

This, naturally, leads us onto another issue in football; the appalling standard of refereeing. Officiating in football has surely never been at a lower level, and it seems that every match we watch at the moment brings at least one bewildering decision. There are basic mistakes being made game after game at the highest levels of football, and it leaves us fans sitting at home wondering what the differences are between these referees and we common folk. If we can see these decisions are so blatantly wrong, why can’t they?

In a link to the first problem, we can also be frustrated by referees continually giving fouls and cards after players roll around on the floor screaming. We could see the most innocuous incident still result in a yellow card if a team appeals loudly enough for it. Referees just seem unable to cope with pressure, seemingly unable to resist reaching for their pockets. On the flip side, they seem unwilling to, or are incapable of, blowing for fouls unless players go to ground. 

Of course, these refereeing inadequacies should be ironed out with the help of VAR. Quite contrastingly, the technology is only serving to exasperate them.

Image Credit: Sky News

When it was first introduced in football, I, along with many others, claimed that VAR would ruin football. To say we have been proven right would be the understatement of the century.

There are so many problems with technology that is literally supposed to “assist” referees. The most glaring issue, of course, is the fact that it still gets decisions wrong even with the use of video and replays.

It is genuinely tormenting to watch a game of football on TV when the use of VAR is called upon. We will sit at home for three straight minutes as a seemingly obvious decision is mulled over for a bloated amount of time, before the wrong call seems to be made. This is no rare occurrence; just as poor refereeing decisions are made on a regular basis, so too are their VAR counterparts. This is embarrassing for the sport. If this technology cannot get simple decisions right upon rewatching them, then what is the point in having it? We would have much more sympathy for wrong refereeing calls if they weren’t further ridiculed by shortcomings with the technology as well.

Another massive problem with modern football, brought about by VAR, is the decreasing value placed on emotional reactions. This sport thrives on emotions, and wouldn’t be the same without them. When a team scores, we want them to celebrate. We want them to run to their fans, screaming with the passion we’ve come to expect. We don’t want them to stop still, high-five their teammates and nervously await the outcome of a VAR review. Unfortunately, the latter is becoming ever so common.

The prime example for me came a few years ago, before VAR was implemented in the Premier League, when Manchester City faced off against Tottenham in the Champions League. Raheem Sterling scored a last minute winner, seemingly sending his side through to the semi-finals. City’s players went wild, their coaches and manager going crazy, running around like headless chickens in their celebrations. Tottenham players collapsed to the floor, defeat staring them in the face. Not one player asked for offside.

VAR intervened, and after a delay, offside was indeed given. All those celebrations, cancelled. Those emotions, wiped out. Tottenham players didn’t know what to do at full-time. They still felt as though they’d lost, but all of a sudden they were victorious. It felt undeserved, even though it wasn’t. City players had victory snatched from under their noses, ruining what would have been one of the great dramatic Champions League knockout wins. 

That’s not what football is about. Very, very few people want to see these miniscule decisions fussed over, officials scrambling to dictate every tiny on-pitch ruling. No real football fan wants a team to spend a full minute celebrating a goal, just for it to be chopped off because a player’s pinky finger was offside.

VAR’s obsession with ruling out goals for minute offside or handball decisions is incredibly frustrating. Of course, they do tend to be correct calls. On occasions, however, even these supposedly black and white decisions can be argued with. When Timo Werner had a goal disallowed against Liverpool recently, VAR used two different parts of Werner and Andy Robertson’s arms when drawing their lines. For Werner, it was a part of his arm that, if he used it to score, would most likely be given as handball. There needs to be some sort of consistency, and there is none. 

When unnoticeable handballs are awarded after no complaints whatsoever from opposing teams, that’s when we know something is wrong. If no opposing player, no opposing manager, no opposing fan or no official notices a handball, there should be no case for it being awarded. 

Yet again, VAR has led us into an era where fans are being denied the thrill of watching goals due to an overarching desire from football’s governing bodies to deprive the game of everything that makes it the best sport in the world. Fulham boss Scott Parker hit the nail on the head recently when he spoke of the apparent need to “control” every little aspect of the game. As he said, it’s ruining the game and taking us in the wrong direction.

Image Credit: VG Tips

This allows us to seamlessly progress to our next problem – the handball rules. It’s difficult to nail down exactly what’s wrong in this case because the rules are changing so frequently, but that’s part of the problem. With rules being chopped and changed on a regular basis, players, referees and fans are struggling to get to grips with things.

Obviously, VAR causes a lot of these issues by picking up handballs that aren’t even noticeable to the naked eye. On the other hand, the fact that the rules dictate some of these handballs be penalised, even with VAR, is laughable.

Let’s look at the rule that states that any handball in an attacking move whatsoever, whether accidental or on purpose, whether striking an elbow or skiffing a pinky finger, will result in a goal being disallowed. The ball could quite literally graze an attacker’s thumb on the halfway line, and a goal in the same phase of play will still be disallowed after a VAR check. This is a ridiculous rule that is sending football into a new dark age.

As if it wasn’t bad enough, this rule is also incredibly biased towards defenders. According to this rule and its implementation so far, defenders can get away with murder in their attempt to prevent the opposition from scoring. There have been countless scenarios where defenders will perform what appear to be blatant handballs that deny attackers clear goalscoring opportunities, but are let away with it because there hand is in what is deemed to be a “natural position”. 

Moments later, a forward will score but have his goal disallowed because a defender pushed him into a position where he accidentally shaved the ball with the palm of his hand. If that isn’t a completely backwards rule, what is? Why should a rule favour attackers over defenders?

This will be clear for you to see when you watch football again. Attackers will be penalised for the ball striking their shoulder (supposedly allowed) but defenders get away with it striking their elbow while their arms are above their heads. The double standards are staggering. 

Of course, the constant rule changing doesn’t help the pundits and commentators who are paid to discuss them – and that leads us on to our next problem.

Image Credit: Daily Mail

A poor standard of commentators and studio pundits has been plaguing our sport for a long time now. There are barely any out there who can genuinely be classed as being ‘very good’ at their job – Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Alan Shearer are among that select few. On the other hand, the likes of Jermaine Jenas, Michael Owen, Martin Keown, Danny Murphy and Andy Walker are among the worst in their profession.

It’s not good for our game’s broadcast image to be dominated by so many people who are genuinely clueless when it comes to different aspects of the sport. Keown sounds out of his depth at the best of times (recently stating that Martin Odegaard signing for Arsenal would add direct competition for Granit Xhaka was a particular highlight). Jenas has as much football knowledge as a ten-year-old FIFA player, while Danny Murphy analyses the game in a similar manner. Walker’s greatest talent resides in relaying exactly what has happened on screen in a dramatic voice and taking home a pay package. These men are genuinely stealing a living.

So why are they allowed to do this? Because they’re ex-players, of course. The favouritism with which retired footballers are treated when it comes to attaining media jobs is truly astounding. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of fully trained media staff out there who are highly knowledgeable about football. Do we reward their years of hard study by giving them the jobs they deserve? No, we hand these roles out to ex-players with no media education and a lack of common sense.

Of course, this leads to completely un-educational analysis during half-time and full-time slots. Instead of insightful opinions on styles of play, tactics and player roles, we get heated opinions on whether or not a red card should have been given. Roy Keane and Graeme Souness epitomise this side of punditry; their overly strict personalities can make for entertaining viewing, but require very little nous for the game. At times, it looks like their presence is purely for show; we rarely learn anything from them (unless we are force-fed their overly biased opinions on certain teams and players).

This problem stems from a deeply ingrained obsession our sport has with giving ex-players roles in the game they haven’t fully earned.

Image Credit: Daily Express

This leads us on to the final major problem in modern football; ex-players being appointed as managers solely for that reason. We are witnessing this more and now nowadays, with the decisions rarely being vindicated. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has supposedly done a decent job at Manchester United. However, that’s the problem – decent shouldn’t be tolerated at a club like United, and yet Solskjaer has led us to believe it should. Battling for second place, exiting the Champions League group stages and losing in a League Cup semi-final shouldn’t feel like a successful season for a club of this stature, and yet it somehow does. That’s testament to the lowering of standards which can occur by hiring a sub-par manager.

Frank Lampard was handed the Chelsea job after one full season in management, and while he did well at bringing through a number of young players, he never really looked like taking Chelsea to the next level. Mikel Arteta at least gained some valuable experience working under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, but he has yet to really make a statement in his Arsenal role.

Looking further afield, Andrea Pirlo has struggled in his first season in charge of a Juventus side who had previously won nine league titles in a row. Zinedine Zidane has won every trophy possible at Real Madrid, but there is an argument for that being down to his willingness to let the most talented footballers in the world play an enjoyable game without really implementing a high volume of tactics. Neil Lennon has recently been ousted from the Celtic job after a troubled season in Glasgow.

Now look at these names mentioned above and ask yourself the following question; do you honestly believe any of the managers would have been handed these roles if they hadn’t played for the clubs earlier in their careers?

Solskjaer’s managerial career previously consisted of managing Norweigan side Molde and being relegated with Cardiff City, while Lampard had only coached in the English Championship with Derby. Arteta, Zidane and Pirlo had no first-team coaching experience before being handed their current jobs. 

So why does being an ex-player give these men such an unfair advantage? Their CVs are severely lacking compared to other well qualified candidates, as is the case with media staff. A common reason given is their “knowledge of the club”, but that hardly seems to have helped Pirlo or Lampard’s cases. Zidane has vindicated his appointment with a plethora of trophies, but Solskjaer and Arteta have a long way to go in that regard (the latter did win last season’s FA Cup, to be fair). 

Now, there have been examples of this type of appointment paying off. Guardiola himself had only managed Barcelona’s ‘B’ team before taking on the mantle of first-team coach, and that risk was obviously rewarded. On the other hand, the Spaniard is clearly a generational genius who has developed a number of genuinely revolutionary tactics – it’s difficult to imagine Solskjaer or Lampard doing the same thing.

Ex-footballers need to do much more if they are to attain big footballing jobs. Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t work his way to the top by being handed a Manchester United job he hadn’t earned. Jose Mourinho climbed the managerial ladder by working as Bobby Robson’s scout before applying for jobs himself. Arsene Wenger managed elsewhere before arriving at Arsenal, developing his coaching style until it was refined enough to take on a bigger challenge. 

None of these ex-players have done that. They are being handed luxurious jobs on a silver platter and, without the skillset required, and crumbling under the pressure. They don’t have the experience of these situations to get themselves out of ruts. The sooner this trend is brought to a halt, the better.

Image Credit: Breaking The Lines

Football is the greatest sport in the world, and yet it is heading in a direction many of us feel uncomfortable with. We don’t want officials that appear to be more ignorant to the laws of the game than our drunk friends at the pub. We don’t want VAR using a microscope over every miniscule decision – and still getting them wrong. We don’t want idiotic handball rules, and we certainly don’t want underqualified pundits and managers being given top jobs. It’s giving the sport a bad name.

Hopefully, more people start to see these issues. The more that do, the better, and the sooner proper change can come about. Football is a sport built on emotion, and that is being stripped away celebration by celebration, knee slide by knee slide. Let’s get back to the way football was a few years ago – back when we might have moaned a bit, but at least it was over something worth moaning about.

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