Sunday, 9 January 2011

Some Thoughts on Manchester United vs Liverpool and the Bigger Issues it Raised

Today's FA Cup tie between Manchester United and Liverpool, like any football match, contained key turning points, namely, a controversial penalty decision and red card. Watching the match, you see such events unfold and can already predict the inevitable furore and debate that will follow.

People will always be divided on such key incidents and with them larger discussions will usually arise concerning the state of the game and the problems that seem to haunt it. Berbatov dived. Didn't he? There was contact from the defender, albeit very minimal. No one would condone such blatant acts of 'simulation' and yet it can be argued that if a defender is going to be foolish enough to stick a leg out in the box then he should expect the worst. Nevertheless, it was not a penalty and it was an example of a footballer cheating the referee with ultimately decisive consequences.

Likewise, Gerrard's tackle on Michael Carrick, that left Liverpool down to ten men for an hour of the match at Old Trafford, will too split opinions. People say that we want to see strong challenges in the game, it is part of its attraction. Others would argue that he did, indeed, use unnecessary force and warrant his punishment. Gerrard left the ground and lunged in, in what was surely an honest attempt to win the ball and increase the urgency from his team. It was, ultimately a dangerous tackle which deserved the red card, in my eyes at least.

Liverpool fans will say that Howard Webb single-handedly cost them the match. Others would say that they beat themselves by making the mistakes that we see impact games week-in-week-out. These debates are, of course, the reason we love football. Such differences in opinions, interpretations and preferences towards the game of football is why it can and does dominate so much of our time.

Moving past that aside about the virtues of football chatter, let's look at the wider issue raised in the game today. Simulation. Berbatov's act of simulation, diving, cheating or whatever you may want to call it proved to be the decisive moment in the match. The Bulgarian has claimed that there was enough contact to force him to go to ground but the replays appear to clearly contradict that. The only way, in my opinion, that such incidents can be eradicated from the game is through severe repercussions.

If the FA or FIFA want to help remove this problem then a firmer stance must be taken. Fining Rivaldo a fraction of his weekly wage for rolling on the floor, clutching his face in the 2002 World Cup when a ball struck him on the shin (which in turn saw his Turkish opponent given a red card) is barely a deterrent. A slap on the wrist for Theo Walcott's dive yesterday, regardless of the fact he went on to apologise for it, is not an example that needs to be set. Stronger sanctions must be implemented, for example, a new fair play system that would prevent these acts of simulation from being so commonplace.

Such a system would have to involve cases being reviewed by a governing body after the match and then suitable punishments awarded. This may include suspensions for players, which would increase for repeat offenders, and reductions in prize money for clubs. Thus after today's match, Berbatov could be given a one match ban (or perhaps his first and final warning) and Manchester United could be fined 5% of their FA Cup prize money.

That hurriedly thought out system may never work but the fact remains, changes need to be made. There will more obvious cases of diving throughout the rest of the season, some will be met with a yellow card for the simulator, some with a foul being unjustly awarded and others with a simple gesture from the referee for the player to return to his feet. Either way, it is an issue that ought to be addressed so as to prevent it from detracting from the other aspects of the game that we want to talk about.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...


  1. Interesting points, but as with the Walcott incident, players are told to go down whenever a defender moves a leg to win the ball.

    I agree something needs to be done, but I think it is a case of referee's (and assistants) to be stronger and not be taken in by the blatant cheating we see every week. If they were stronger, and didn't pander to the more well known players demanding free kicks and penalties, there would be much less diving.

    Incidently, Gerrard is one of the players who, in recent years, has benefitted the most from diving in the area to gain an advantage.

  2. Completely agree, Stephen. I think that the referees do need to be much stronger in dealing with situations of simulation. But I also feel that a review system should be set up because it can often be very difficult to see things once, from just one angle and at normal speed and be confident enough to accuse a player of cheating. If the repercussions are more severe and regular then an example can be made of players guilty of diving or acting (like players rolling on the floor after being flicked on the ear) etc. Then, in turn, we may get closer to eradicating this rubbish from the game.

  3. Don't agree with this one Dom. For me it's a penalty everytime Agger stuck him leg in like an idiot, Berba felt contact, of course he is going to go down. Why wouldn't he? This is a results business and you need to help your team win. Someone catches you in the box you go down. Everyone won't agree with that but that's the game we have today.

    If I was playing for Celtic against Rangers and was in the penalty box, some defender sticks his leg out, no matter my stature or feelings of being a cheat etc. I'll be going down.

    The Berba challenge today, if you look Agger takes away Berba left foot, he then lands on his right foot, tries to plant his left, but cause it's been hit, it's at an angle and he falls, surely a pen.

    The problem is, we have numerous angles, slow motion replays, and we still can't agree. So what chance does Howard Webb have?

    Gerrard tackle was a red plain and simple, you just can't do that.

    The other issue I would bring up, for the Liverpool fans moaning at the Berbatov decision, have a look at their own captain for the last four years...he's never done that in the box has he?

  4. Ok, yes I would never be as naive as to suggest Berba should not go down, with the game being the way it is. As you say, it is a results business and you do everything in your power to help your team get the right results.

    However, lines must be drawn. There may have been contact. But, I ask you, was the contact enough to make him fall to ground? No, he could clearly have stayed on his feet (in my eyes at least). Did he fall to ground? Yes. Therefore that is simulation. He simulated the contacted being so impeding that he could no longer stay on his feet.

    I think it speaks volumes that people's reactions to these things are, 'I would have done the same'... or, 'if there is even minimal contact you should go down and milk it to get the penalty'. That there is the very problem with attitudes in the game. Win at all costs, even when the cost is honesty and integrity. I don't think that is good enough.

    But you are right, it is wrong to expect Webb to be able to get these things right all the time. As I said to Stephen, that is why I think a system needs to be implemented to punish such incidents after the matches with the benefits of replays etc. If strong enough, such punishments can deter people from such acts. And you are right, Gerrard has been diving around opposition boxes for the last decade so there is hypocracy in criticisms of Berba but that is just part of being a football fan, we all do it. And it was a red card, no doubting that.

  5. Regarding your "system" how easy is it to determin what amount of contact happens, how much contact is needed to bring someone down.

    Example 1: You are Usain Bolt and are running very very fast, the smallest amount of contact on your legs would be enough to bring you down.

    Example 2: You are a big lumbering CB not moving very fast, it would take more than a small kick to the leg to make you fall down.

    So who decides how much contact is enough. Only Berbatov himself is going to know how hard his leg was caught.

    I think the contact was minimal, but the truth to me can be seen in his left foot, it is moved out of position and he tries to land it, and then falls when it doesn't land correctly, and it was Aggers kick that caused that, to me that says penalty.

    The other issue is, if all of this is stamped out of the team, the increased number of articles that have been written and comments made over this talking point wouldn't exist. Human error keeps people like us in articles to write.

  6. My two cents worth on this:

    Firstly, nice article Dom, agree with a lot of your points..

    Secondly, I think that Andrew is wrong when he says Berba feels contact so it's a pen - he feels minimum contact from a player who obviously shouldn't be dangling his leg anywhere near him in the first place and went down after a second or two, when he realised he wasn't going anywhere... It's also a tell-tale sign when someone scratches their head that they're lying - as the right honourable Fat Sam pointed out... No doubt about Gerrard red, silly challenge but felt Rafael should have had a talking to as well for his two footed challenge a minute or two before (but he won the ball)

    Oh and the way to resolve it in-game is to consult your assistant in this case. Webb ignored him even though he had a clearer few from the touchline.

    @Andrew - If your a big lumbering Bulgarian how much contact does it take to bring you down? Probably the same as it would a big, lumbering CB and not Usain Bolt, or Theo Walcott at Leeds.

  7. Very true, Andrew. My 'system' is a very rough idea and thus, as you have quickly exposed, is not without flaws. We must remember though, there are far more blatant cases than this one which would be more easily punishable. As I say, the example in this match relates to the wider issues and debates and that is how I have used it. The actual incident, as you have pointed out, is not so clear cut. For me, it wasn't a penalty and was an example of simulation on a more subtle level.

    I don't think that stamping this out would end debates. Human error would still be rife enough for arguments to go on. I think it is an unwanted talking point we can do without. 'Was it a penalty?' That question would live on without the growing trend of players knowingly trying to fool the referees through unsportsmen like behaviour.

  8. A few brief points:

    - Contact doesn't equal foul.

    - Equally, a soft penalty is still a penalty.

    - Winning the ball doesn't mean that it isn't a foul.

    - Whether Gerrard, or any other player, has dived in the past, is irrelevant. (Unless we are making the argument that players getting away with it builds a culture where it is ok to go down easily).

    - The Gerrard tackle was a red but then many would argue so was the Rafael one on Mereiles. If Rafael's tackle on Mereiles had been a Wolves player on Berba at OT, it'd have been at least a yellow...

    - I think the wider issue is that Webb consistently errs towards Manchester United in big games.

    I've blogged before that generally United do well out of referees (probably true of all larger clubs, to be fair). A couple of seasons ago they had two men sent off - both for headbutts. No professional fouls all season? No second bookable offence? No fouls on the last man? No denying of a clear goalscoring opportunity? All season? Hell, not even a wrong call all season! That's either astonishingly clean, quite lucky or, possibly, some kind refereeing from time to time.


  9. The Gerrard comment was little more than to highlight the hypocracy of many footballers/clubs. Rafael's was not a red card. He did not slide in, nor was he doing near the player's legs. It looked bad but in reality Mereiles was not in danger of getting hurt. Can't argue with your first three points. Each incident must be judged on its unique merits. I don't think that detracts from the point that measures ought to be put in place, where possible, to try and take a stand against simulation, diving, acting etc.

    I am cautious to buy into the standard theories of OT being the centre for a refereeing conspiracy. Firstly, Man United get more decisions because when they play at home they usually dominate their opposition so are more likely to:
    a) Win penalties through sustained pressure, more time in the opponents box and quality strikers able to force defenders into fouls/mistakes.
    b) Not be forced into mistakes giving away penalties or get red cards.
    Nevertheless, the crowd must influence things, as any homecrowd does - especially at the big clubs with the big crowds.

    Webb may have made a wrong decision but I remember not so long ago, Rob, you saying that we must accept that refs are humans and mistakes. Do the rules change when it is against your team? I have read your latest post concerning decisions at OT and I think that if you look at a lot of football clubs across the country over the past few seasons you could pick many examples of them being on the receiving end of favourable decisions.

  10. We absolutely must accept that refs are humans and make mistakes - but if they consistently make mistakes the same way (which Webb, at Old Trafford, on recent evidence, seems to) then we should at least investigate that further. Just because they are human doesn't mean we shouldn't consider matters. I'm not saying that he should be struck off or demoted or not referee big games as it happens.

    I looked at the last number of times that Webb has refereed at Old Trafford and, in each case, big decisions went United's way. That isn't to say he's biased but there may be an issue if he is seemingly swung by crowds or if there is a perception of bias (which a number of managers have alledged).

    I made exactly the same points in the linked article (linked in my blog piece) regarding United's dominance at OT. I'm equally conscious of conspiracy theories - I'm not saying that, as such, I'm saying Webb seems to consistently give marginal calls to Manchester United (often in big games). That may be a problem.


  11. It's amazing what Berbatov can do when fouled...


  12. theyre all cheating fannies, and like you say, until there are proper punishments - ie red cards for diving and retrospective bans or points deductions - nothing will change. how come 'momentum' affects footballers' balance so much more acutely than rugby players? because they're wankers.

  13. Controversy is part of the games and I have to admit that it adds a little of spicy to every game.

  14. Nice post, things explained in details. Thank You.


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