*I’d like to preface this by saying I’m not an Arsenal fan, nor do I hold any emotional connection to Arsenal Football Club in any way*
So what did you make of the controversial decision in last night’s enthralling Champions League knockout clash? You know, the scandalous moment that could redefine the way we look back on this season, these teams and the individuals involved years from now?
What you don’t remember? Seriously? Come on... The moment that may have been as decisive in deciding the tie as Nani’s sending off against Real Madrid last week. How can you not remember?
The truth is, the reason why you don’t remember is because nobody mentioned it.
In the wake of Nani’s dismissal, the aftermath seemed to resemble a frantic diplomatic event à la the Cuban missile crisis. It became a mad scramble as the world’s media congregated to see if Sir Alex Ferguson would hit the figurative red button, letting off a verbal cloud of condemnation showering anything and everything in his wake with spite.
In the end we learned Ferguson was so “distraught” by what happened that he sent out his Secretary of State for Extenuation, Mike Phelan, who spoke so somberly that if you had tuned in to watch the next show and just caught the end, you’d have thought someone died. Seriously. Read these quotes from Phelan and the sullen tone he in which he delivered them:
“It's a distraught dressing room and a distraught manager. That's why I am sitting here now.”
“I don't think the manager is in any fit state to talk”
“We are extremely disappointed and wondering what has happened and why it has happened.”
Even Owen Coyle wasn’t that melancholic when Fabrice Muamba had a heart-attack at White Heart Lane last year.
Similarly, every man and his dog had their say on the decision and what would have happened if things had gone differently. We saw replays from every conceivable angle, and everyone who’s ever kicked a football had a camera shoved in their face as they were asked for their interpretation. It was mad.
What the Nani incident reinforced was that there is nothing the media covets more than controversy. There’s always a myriad of opinions and perspectives that can be taken, perpetually fueling the fire and keeping it burning for days.
So why didn’t we see this in last night’s game. You know, the one with the massive, game-changing decision? In case you’re ripping you’re hair out at this point, I’ll fill you in.
In the 56th minute, with Arsenal one up chasing the two more they needed to pull of the miracle, Tomas Rosicky hit a through ball that deflected almost immediately off a Bayern midfielder and set Theo Walcott away, one-on-one with Manuel Neuer. The flag went up.
Upon review Walcott was onside (it was close but definitive).
When they showed the replay Gary Neville, who has established himself as the most credible, straight-talking pundit in the business, provided this review of events:
“Ooh that was close”
That was it. I’ve just provided you with the entire coverage of the incident. It was never brought up again on commentary. It wasn’t revisited after the game—in the studio or in today’s write-ups.
And in many ways, that’s part of the problem.
Imagine if instead of being incorrectly flagged offside, Walcott was shooting and the incorrect judgment had been made as to whether the ball had crossed the line. If that decision had gone against Arsenal, players (who wouldn’t have any more idea than the officials whether it was the right decision) would have surrounded the referee in a red mist of being wronged. Arsene Wenger would have been stomping up and down the touchline and all the post-match questions would have related to the incident.
No one will remember what happened in a few weeks if it ever even crossed their minds.
What’s even more bizarre is that everyone remembers the goal-line decisions. Chelsea and England fans can vividly recall the Luis Garcia goal in the Champions League that was given and the Frank Lampard World Cup strike that wasn’t. However, if you ask fans to recall offside decisions that require almost identical judgements from linesmen and are often equally significant in terms of allowing or denying a goal, they’re often stumped.
The obvious reason for this is that goal-line decisions are much more decisive. On the front page of a paper you can put up a magnified image of whether the ball had crossed the line and damn an official for literally single-handedly denying you a goal.
No one plasters pictures everywhere of whether someone was onside. It’s also not so damning for a linesman, as by making the wrong decision they’re still only allowing or denying a chance at goal rather than critically deciding whether to award a goal when in hindsight everyone can tell definitively.
Also, in most offside cases, play is pulled up before the offside player gets the chance to score and the goalkeeper, seeing the flag, stops playing. This makes it impossible to know whether or not a goal would have been scored and releases the linesman of blame, unlike the hindsight of the goal-line rulings.
But when you think of what happened last night and the potential impact compared to the Nani decision, they’re very similar.
Nani’s challenge wasn’t deserving of a red, at least not in my opinion, and Walcott wasn’t offside. Both were judgements made by officials that I thought were wrong: one objectively (you can’t argue he was offside) and one subjectively (you can argue Nani’s tackle was a red but I disagree).
If you think about it that way, the offside was the worse decision. It was definitively incorrect. It’s inarguable.
The next thing to consider is the impact of the moments on the games. Obviously, the Nani dismissal crushed United and Real never looked back, scoring twice and controlling the game after the decision.
What would have happened if Nani hadn't been booked? No one knows for sure, but United were controlling the game at the time, having already scored and were on course to finish the job.
From this perspective it’s understandable why Ferguson was upset. His strategy in dropping Wayne Rooney and playing a tight counter-attacking style was working perfectly until the red card wrecked United’s ability to do anything in attack. Real overpowered them and they crumbled under the pressure.
Now consider what would have happened had the flag not gone up against Walcott?
The first thing that must be said is that you can’t judge what would based on what actually happened. After the flag went up, Walcott did play on but clearly knew the play was dead and dropped his speed and intensity allowing players to catch up with him. He lackadaisically prodded the ball across the box intended for Olivier Giroud. Forget that happened as it wouldn’t have in real time.
Had the flag stayed down, Walcott would have been through on goal with a great chance to score and cut the deficit to a single goal with over a third of the game still to play.
Would Walcott have scored? I have no idea. Neither do you and neither does Walcott.
And therein lies the problem with the current enforcement of the offside rule.
The game is officiated as though the linesman is always right when often they aren’t. It’s different to refereeing the game, when many decisions are subjective (the Nani incident being case in point). But when it comes to the offside rule, there is no grey area. You’re either offside or you’re not. In fact many television companies even have neat pieces of technology that bring up superimposed lines to make those judgements even easier.
With the capability to work out every potential offside correctly and with the significance of those decisions with players often going through on goal, it all points to a logical conclusion.
And this logic should provide the solution. Instead of letting the linesman decide whether or not it was offside, which is always going to produce errors and controversy, just let play continue.
Unless it’s so blatantly clear to the point where even the players know there’s no point continuing, just let play unfold normally (This would also kill off one of the other most annoying things in football: when defenders all put their hands up as though they’re clearly more informed than the lineman and act like they’re just making life easier for him).
If nothing comes of the move (the player doesn’t control the ball and loses it, the player shoots wide for a goal kick) just play on with no advantage gained. However, if something noteworthy does come from the move (a goal, an attacking free-kick, a corner), then when the ball goes dead have an official by the monitor to review the footage and swiftly provide the referee with the correct decision.
If the player was onside, then you can play on according to what happened from the move. If they were offside then you can nullify the result, award a free kick and move on. No controversy, no incorrect decisions and one of the most annoying flaws in the officiating of football solved.
It’s inevitable that referees are going to be under spotlight because fouls and cards are always going to be subjective. However, there are decisions that can be fixed to make both the game and the officiating more efficient.
We’ll never know whether Theo Walcott would have scored and what would have unfolded over the rest of the game had he done so. Maybe Laurent Koscielny’s late goal would have been the winner rather than valiant consolation. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened. What I know for sure, however, is that I’d have liked to have found out.