Naturally, the old pros in their television studios were outraged. As Manchester City were awarded an early penalty against Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday night for Danny Rose’s involuntary handball, the immediate reaction suggested that some great sacrilege had occurred, some rupture to the fundamental fabric of the game they had grown up playing.
“Anyone who knows football knows that isn’t a penalty,” Rio Ferdinand fumed as Rose slid in to block Raheem Sterling’s shot.
“Your arms are a part of your body,” Jermaine Jenas insisted, presumably displaying the sort of vital, deeply privileged footballing knowledge to which Ferdinand was referring. “You can’t just chop them off.”
“Where do you want his arms to be?” Joleon Lescott asked. “If he puts his arms by his side, he doesn’t have his balance. So we’re asking the defenders to learn whole new techniques in defending.”
The thing is, they were right. VAR is going to change the face of defending as we know it. And with no real prospect of a roll-back in the spread of technology, the only real question is how quickly the defenders can adapt.
Jan Vertonghen was standing just behind Rose when the ball struck his arm, and initially he thought nothing of it. The ball cannoned away for a corner, none of the City players appealed for a penalty, and only when the words ‘Penalty Review’ appeared on the big screens, to loud groans from the home crowd, did anyone realise what was happening.
“It was extremely weird,” Vertonghen said. “No-one expected it. They didn’t even appeal for it. That’s VAR. It’s takes a lot away from the game, I think. Football is always a very emotional game, and VAR is changing that a bit.”
Rose was a little bemused by the incident, but above all relieved that courtesy of Hugo Lloris’s penalty save from Sergio Aguero, the handball hadn’t cost his side a goal. “I’ve just gone to block the shot and it’s hit my arm,” Rose remembered. “But it wasn’t intentional. I didn’t think my arm was outside my body, but the referee said it was. I’m just lucky that Hugo saved it.”
Rose’s reference to the arm being “outside the body” was a best attempt to decipher the ambiguous new rules surrounding handball in the VAR era. The old convention of “deliberate handball” – a decision that requires referees to be telepathic – is gradually being supplanted by a new rule that penalises defenders if their arm is outside “a natural silhouette”. This is the rule under which Presnel Kimpembe was penalised for Paris Saint-Germain against Manchester United in the last-16 and Nicolas Otamendi for City against Schalke in the same round.
In short, unless your arms are by your sides, or directly in front of your body, you are risking a handball, regardless of whether or not it was deliberate, or even – and this in many ways is the most contentious part – whether you could have done anything about it.
A couple of months ago, in the Asian Cup final, Qatar were awarded a penalty against Japan when Maya Yoshida rose to head away a corner, the ball flicked off a Qatari opponent and into his arm, which was raised. There was no question that Yoshida could have reacted quickly enough to get his arm out of the way, but it made no difference: Qatar were awarded the penalty, scored it, and ultimately won the tournament.
“The rules need to change,” Yoshida later insisted. “Otherwise, every time the ball touches an arm, it will be handball. I think that’s too much.”
Increasingly, we appear to be moving towards a point where a ball hitting the arm in the penalty area is assumed to be a penalty, in the absence of any persuasive contradictory evidence. This is particularly true is the ball is travelling towards goal (which is probably what saved Trent Alexander-Arnold against Porto on Tuesday night, when the ball ricocheted away from goal and into his arm).
All of which poses a thorny question. How on earth are you supposed to defend these days?
“It’s a good question,” Vertonghen said. “So many things look like a penalty in slow motion. The PSG-United game [the Kimpembe incident]. I think we have to change the way we defend. We all need to adapt. Players and referees. Sometimes you can’t do anything else other than put your body on the line. It’s important that referees think like football players sometimes.”
Vertonghen revealed that VAR was already beginning to have an influence on Tottenham’s training. The increased incidence of penalties being given for grappling in the area, he said, had forced them to reconsider the way they approached defensive corners and free-kicks. “You can’t even touch anyone,” he said. “Before it was quite physical, but in a fair way. But now you are too scared to get close to someone.
“Everything looks like a penalty now. We are not pulling people down, but even a small touch – if you watch it 20 times in slow motion – will give so many more penalties. I think in the Premier League over the next few years, you will see at least 20, 30, 40 more penalties.”
Meanwhile, if diving or leaping to block a shot carries an elevated risk of handball, might we eventually reach a point where defenders are forced to stay on their feet, or even defend with their arms hidden behind their backs?
“Yeah, I think it’s going to go that way,” Rose replied. “It *is* unnatural to try and defend a shot with your arms behind your back, and I’m not sure that would be something the manager would be promoting us to do. But there’s not much I can do about it. I have to learn.”
Among defenders, and ex-defenders, you get the sense that this is yet another rule change in favour of attackers, and on that basis you may be tempted to sympathise with it. Advocates of the new rules argue that blocking a shot with an arm – regardless of intent – has always been grossly unfair, and that if they want to avoid giving away penalties, defenders should simply be getting themselves into better positions in the first place.
But this is a slightly simplified view. There will continue to be grey areas – for example, over what constitutes a “natural silhouette”, or whether attackers may actually start trying to knock the ball against defenders’ arms, especially from point-blank range. Aerial challenges open up a whole new area of debate. “The referees at the Asian Cup explained to us that the arms have to be in a ‘natural position’,” Yoshida said. “But you can’t jump without moving your arms. We will have to jump like this [pins hands to his sides]. It’s ridiculous.”
For Rose, however, it was hard to feel too resentful. “Some days they’ll go for us and tonight it went against us,” he said. Above all, he was pleased no real damage had been done. “I’m grateful that Hugo saved it, and we’ve kept a massive clean sheet, and we’ve scored at the end,” he said after Tottenham’s 1-0 win. “Because if Man City go 1-0 ahead after 13 minutes, it would have been a long evening for us.”
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