Why rule changes happen – but we never get the one rule change we need

by Tony Attwood

There is an article in Le Matin, (the Swiss newspaper that is, not the long-defunct French publication), which looks at some of the developments being suggested for football, such as the automatic detection of offside using technology rather than assistant referees.

The writer of the piece notes that Julian Nagelsmann, the “progressive coach” of Bayern Munich, “made a name for himself by advocating the installation of an enhanced communication system between the staff and the players, which he intended to wire up with microphones – similar to that which exists in the American NFL.”

And as ever with journalists who want to argue, but don’t have an argument, the newspaper then uses exaggeration to ludicrous levels in order to avoid any serious discussion of a new idea.   They ask, “What’s the next step? Implanting a chip in the players’ brains to better control them? Ah, some people are already thinking about it…”

That’s not to say I would be in favour of, or against, the introduction of the American style system of coaches being able to talk to players during the game, but rather before writing anything, I would like to know about how such a system had affected American football.

But Le Martin ploughs on and reaches its conclusion

“Just as you never touch a referee, you should never touch football. Trying to change it is the best way to destroy it.”

Which is, when you come to think of it, rather odd.

Consider the introduction of substitutions – has that been all bad?    They didn’t make it onto the scene until 1965, and if nothing else, they have stopped managers exacerbating the injuries of players by keeping them on the pitch rather than having them go down to 10 men after an injury.  Plus, to my mind at least, some substitutions can really transform a match going nowhere.

Or what about the decision to limit the number of replays in cup ties?   What about our four match semi-final against Liverpool in the FA Cup at the end of a long and griding season?  OK, it was exciting at the end, but I am not sure it did that much for the players – and of course a lot of us who were there at the time couldn’t get to every game.  It’s quite impossible now – and I welcome that.

Or how about giving players their own number in the squad – a bad thing or a good thing?   It was nice in a way to know that the number 11 would always go charging up and down the wing, but then tactics changed and some teams stopped using wingers, so that notion faded away.

The point is, the game now is nothing like it was in the past, and each change has been introduced step by step.   Take yellow cards – prior to their introduction in 1970 there was no warning system other than the wagging of the referee’s finger, and he could go on wagging that all afternoon long if he wanted.   Sendings off, as a result, were very rare, and some thugs could go on crippling players match after match.

And what about the offside rule?  Prior to August 1925 there needed to be three players behind the attacker who received the ball for the attacker not to be offside.   That was changed, and the number of goals went up dramatically.  Reducing it from two players to one didn’t have so much impact, but it helped a little.

There are many, many more such changes that have been made year after year – I haven’t even mentioned VAR yet – and by and large the aim is to make the refereeing more accurate and the game more attractive.

Which brings me to a different point.  All this chit-chat about rule changes which the media digest with anxiety and consternation each time one arises… and yet never once have I seen a call for the reform of the refereeing system itself.

The Premier League has far fewer referees available in relation to the number of games played, than other leading European league, and yet no one questions that or proposes a change.

Yet as we showed last season, the referees who awarded most fouls against Arsenal per game got the most Arsenal games to referee.

Fractionally under half of all Arsenal’s league games last season were handled by just five referees – and “coincidentally” they were five referees who handed out the most fouls and yellows per game against Arsenal.  The rest of the games were taken by nine referees whose average number of fouls and yellow per game against Arsenal was much smaller.

Surely one reform we could have would be no more than two games per referee.  All the Premier League needs to achieve that is five more referees.

And yet curiously that is never a reform we hear called for.  It’s a funny ol’ game.  

2 Replies to “Why rule changes happen – but we never get the one rule change we need”

  1. Tony
    Thanks for once again calling out the obvious bias in the way the PGMO operate. Sometimes your questions re the system actually slip into the mainstream media. How can they continue to escape any sort of scrutiny or oversight? They operate in total secrecy! That alone says a lot.
    I asked recently and I’ll ask again if there’s been any study of the bias by the (mostly) Northern refs toward Arsenal and other Southern teams? Arsenal get the same refs over and over again. Any from the London area?

  2. Big thanks to you guys for doggedly trying to keep the game honest.

    The Premier league has world class stadiums/coaches/players but second class referees.

    Why not let the clubs nominate/veto the match officials?

    If a ref has a shocker the fans can let their feelings known to the the clubs.

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