UCL: A handball headache
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There’s nothing quite like a rule change to get football punters all in a tizzy - especially when they’re guaranteed to spark the age-old reactions of “it’s impossible to interpret”, “the letter of the law goes against the spirit of the game”, or when the use of technology is “killing the game”.
Enter the handball rule and the use of VAR (video assistant referee).
UEFA actually introduced the “new” rules last season when the knock-out stages were played after the Covid interruption, while different European leagues have been enforcing variations of them to different degrees in seasons past already.
But the enforcement of the new handball law in the English Premier League this year has sparked anything from outrage, to disbelief, frustration and resignation - of the sort usually saved for the likes of “it’s political correctness gone mad”...
In other words, a world of reaction borne out of little more, ultimately, than an unwillingness to change or adapt. Yet that is exactly what players in the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A have had to do.
The handball rule change
The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the sports rule-making body, started by more clearly defining the difference between arm and shoulder - therefore clarifying which part of the body the law applies to. That line has been drawn - quite literally - as the bottom of the armpit. Draw a line from that point around the arm, and anything above it is “shoulder” and below it open to penalisation.
Now this Blog post, as the title suggests, is meant to be about the UCL, not the EPL - but the furore the handball law is causing in the EPL makes it a handy (sorry!) place to focus on - for the time being. We’ll get back to UCL in a bit - we promise.
The important changes (there are others, but we’re not going into the minutiae here) really focus on three things:
1. Intent is no longer a consideration. No matter if the ball hits your arm by pure fluke, the letter of the law dictates you are penalised. Ask Tottenham fans what they think about that one. The Guardian described the Eric Dier penalty decision as “an absolutely ludicrous stoppage-time decision” that cost Spurs 2 points.
Presumably this then means there is no room anymore for referee interpretation in any given situation. Which should make refereeing across the board easier and more consistent. Right? Right? Doesn’t it always work out that way in the end
2. An outstretched arm - or where the arm is clearly away from the body and outside the "body line". This has got punters wondering how footballers are supposed to actually run. As in, physically run. Check out Sky Sports’ Ref Watch for the eternal “is this the law that’s at fault here, or is it the interpretation” question.
3. Making the body 'unnaturally bigger' and/or puts their arm above shoulder height. This plays into the controversy over the Tottenham penalty again as Dier had his arm raised at the time - as well as his back turned to the ball.
When a handball could work in your favour
Throughout the UCL competition, Cloudbet will be extending its no-commission bet offer across four matches every matchday, giving players the fairest odds on 1x2, Asian Handicap and Total Goals markets.
Bets placed on any of those those zero-margin games, are eligible for Handball Penalty promotion, which mens Cloudbet will award winning bets should your team end up on the receiving end of a handball penalty goal. And as we show here, there's a pretty high likelihood that at some point the handball and VAR factors will meet!
To illustrate how the promotion might works, let’s consider a hypothetical result: Juventus 3 (1 handball penalty goal scored) - 2 Barcelona
1) You bet on a draw - your bet would be graded as a win because the final score will be taken as 2-2 after netting out the handball penalty goal.
2) You bet on +0.5 Barcelona - your bet would be graded as a win (as the result would be considered Juve 2 - 2.5 Barcelona).
3) You bet on under 4.5 goals - your bet would be graded as a win as the result would be considered 4 goals scored after netting out the penalty.
… plus more VAR…
Although it was introduced to the Premiership last season, not a week has gone by this season without some VAR controversy.
Take a look at this list “Ranking the 8 most ludicrous decisions of the season so far” (dated October 18) from GIVEMESPORT, and every incident involves either a handball, penalties being awarded, and/or VAR - either being used to make a decision, or for missing an absolute howler (such as Jordan Pickford’s unpunished season-ending tackle on Virgil van Dijk in the Merseyside Derby). Our favourite is Manchester United's penalty awarded after the final whistle.
The main reason why VAR is grabbing so much attention - beyond its ability to affect score lines - is that FIFA has taken over implementation of VAR and ordered all leagues to apply strict interpretation of the rules to ensure consistency. This was undoubtedly aimed primarily at the EPL which had, until now, applied a looser interpretation to many laws.
Another is - you guessed it - that one of those laws was the handball, although FIFA has also insisted on more use of pitch-side monitors and clamped down on goalkeepers encroaching off their line at penalties, which is a perfect example of where VAR fills a very suitable role.
… equals more penalties
So far in the Champions League there have been six spot kicks awarded, with VAR playing a part in three of the decisions, though the handball rule so far hasn't been a contention.
UCL penalties so far
In Manchester United’s game against PSG, which saw the first penalty of the competition, United skipper Bruno Fernandes was given a second chance after his effort was saved by Keylor Navas, only to have the VAR judge Navas had moved off his line too early. Fernandes didn’t miss on his second opportunity and United rode out the game 2-1 winners. (Incidentally, Cloudbet offered that game at zero margin.)
French side Rennes scored their first-ever UCL goal after the VAR overruled the referees decision to play on after Martin Terrier was brought down in the box by Egor Sorokin, while Borrusia Mönchengladbach received a similar reprieve in their 2-2 draw with Inter Milan.
There were two penalties awarded at the Nou Camp when Barcelona saw off Hungarian side Ferencvaros 5-1, though VAR wasn’t required as Messi was clearly brought down in the first half, before Pique was shown red for a similar offence as the last man. There was no controversy either over the Manchester City Aguero penalty in their 3-1 win over FC Porto.
While it’s still early days in the UCL, we can look to other leagues for clues as to how this may play out over the course of the tournament.
Unsurprisingly, the handball law change does tend to result in the whistle being blown far more often.
In the 2019-20 Italian and Spanish seasons, in which the rules were strictly applied, the number of handballs blown for in Serie A rose from 37 to 57, while in La Liga the increase was smaller, from 35 to 48. In Germany, the number also spiked in the first season in which the law was applied, but fell in the next season as players started to adjust.
In the whole of the 2019-20 EPL season, there were a total of 94 penalties awarded, of which 19 were for handball - and after the first three weeks of the season, eight penalties had been awarded from a total of 30 games (though not one for handball).
After the first three weeks of this year’s EPL season, we’ve already had 20 penalties awarded, from only 28 matches - six of which (30%) have been for handball. Since the start of the 2006-07 season, the highest percentage of handball penalties in a season was 21.1% in 2008-09. And we’re way ahead of that marker.
The good folks over at thefootballfaithful.com have noted that at that rate, the 2020-21 EPL season is on track to award 271 spot kicks - absolutely destroying the current record of 112 in the 2006-07 season.
As far as the UCL is concerned, what we do know is that players in other European leagues have had more time to adjust to rule changes, the use of VAR and/or the stricter implementation of these rules - while the Premiership is obviously struggling to adjust. Will this have an impact on how well the English teams perform in this year's competition?
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