Sheffield United’s defeat at Man City hints at football’s next controversial rule change

This Premier League festive period has exposed the fact that football’s 156-year-old rule book and the 21st century technology used to enforce it are an imperfect match, at best. The spate of goals ruled out for contentious offsides has reignited the debate around VAR, its implementation and its limitations. A number of games were affected and Manchester City’s win over Sheffield United was no different.

Like several others over the last week, it featured a goal ruled out for tight offside. This was not another ‘armpit’ offence. Lys Mousset strayed further beyond the last defender than Teemu Pukki, Jonny, Dan Burn and Wilfried Zaha and was off by half of his right foot. It was the correct call, if not an obvious one. The more interesting and contentious decision was the award of Manchester City’s first goal.

Sergio Aguero gave the champions the lead in the 52nd minute, but only after referee Chris Kavanagh obstructed John Fleck while he was attempting to receive a pass from Oliver Norwood, causing Fleck to give away possession. Video footage showed Kavanagh briefly raising his whistle to his lips but he ultimately decided play could continue. Kevin De Bruyne happily accepted the ball and slipped Aguero through United’s unset defence to go on and score. 

Chris Wilder was furious but the goal stood and, like the Mousset decision, this was a correct call. A new rule was introduced in June decreeing that play should be stopped if the ball touches a match official and a team starts a promising attack, the ball goes directly into the goal or the team in possession of the ball changes. But Kavanagh did not touch the ball, instead only obstructing Fleck, and there is no rule related to officials impeding players. 

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According to the letter of the law, nothing went wrong. But, as with so many of these recent contentious calls, the question we should ask is more whether this went against the spirit of the law? After all, were the rules not just changed to prevent referee interference from giving one team an unfair advantage?

Football’s lawmakers, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), devised the new rules for the 2019-20 season and also published their explanations for the changes last summer. Some of their justifications run for several paragraphs but the one relevant here is just one line long, reading: “It can be very unfair if a team gains an advantage or scores a goal because the ball has hit a match official, especially the referee.”

It is difficult to see how that same logic does not apply to the Kavanagh incident. If a match official obstructs or makes contact with a player attempting to receive or play the ball and possession is then lost, how is that different in principle from the ball deflecting off them? It is a little fuzzier than simply whether the ball hits an official or not, but incidents like Sunday’s are fairly clear-cut and would benefit from a common sense approach.

Of course, you could look at this specific case and criticise Norwood’s choice of pass. Yet the irony is that he found his target in Fleck, who then lost the ball due to being obstructed by Kavanagh. Had Norwood hit Kavanagh, United would have had a better chance of regaining possession through a dropped ball.

It may sound like too freak an occurrence to bother legislating against, but then again we are talking about a rulebook which now specifically prohibits goalkeepers from throwing the ball into the opposition’s net – a task you would think is already precluded by either the existing handball rule or human biology. 

And referee interference happens often enough to be accounted for anyway. It is mostly accidental, like when Pedro Proenca pushed Ireland’s Keith Andrews to the ground at Euro 2012. It can happen on purpose too. French referee Tony Chapron was suspended after kicking a player during a Ligue 1 game between Nantes and Paris Saint-Germain.

Interestingly, Wilder revealed that he spoke to Kavanagh about the incident after the game in the referee’s office at the Etihad. “He was very open and honest about what he said to me,” the United manager said. “Whether the PGMOL say anything that’s up to them but the referee was open and honest about what he thought about that. I’ll keep it between me and him. Put two and two together and you’ll get the answer.”

It would be wrong to speculate on what Wilder and Kavanagh said, but it was difficult to argue with the questions Wilder then posed. “Does it affect the play? Does he affect John Fleck and the bodies around him? I’m not saying he should be invisible and float about the place but he played a part and do we want referees playing a part in an opening goal? Do we want people to do that?”

To that final question, most if not all football supporters and neutral observers would say ‘no’. Outlawing any sort of interference by match officials would be a minor change – especially when compared to the introduction of VAR, the new handball rule and even changes to the defensive wall at free-kicks – but Sunday showed that it is one for the game’s authorities to consider.


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