Premier League handball controversy – it was the right decision and that’s the problem

The Premier League has been engulfed by a handball storm. The rule needs to change.

Eric Dier handball

“Whoever’s involved in this, stop it, because you are ruining football for everybody.”

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Jamie Carragher may have executed his speech with the tone of a parent at the end of their tether with a pesky child, but in just one sentence he unified a polarised nation.

Football’s lawmakers, those undemocratically elected preservers, defenders and bastions of the beautiful game, may have unleashed a beast this weekend. Carragher’s rant felt like a turning point.

Revered Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson slammed the rejigged handball rule on Saturday, branding it “nonsense” that is “ruining football”.

Little did we know then, worse was to come.

The dying stages of an Alamo-esque 90-minute barrage from Tottenham against besieged Newcastle concluded with Andy Carroll nodding the ball down onto the arm of a backward-facing, leaping Eric Dier.

Intentional? Not even remotely. Penalty? Absolutely.

Callum Wilson dispatched a penalty that had more people wishing it to leave Earth’s orbit than any taken since England’s 2018 World Cup shoot-out with Colombia. Yet, nobody on the pitch was at fault. Wilson did his job, the referee followed the guidance, the letter of the law, so too did the remote-based VAR bunker. Simply, what happened, was meant to happen. It was the correct decision – and therein the problem lies.

In 2020/21, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) instructed that if the ball strikes a player who has made their body “unnaturally bigger” then they will be punished.

Intent features nowhere in the current rules. The fact Dier’s back was turned and was merely jumping at the time is irrelevant.

IFAB also deems that the arm being above the shoulder is very rarely a “natural” position, other than when a player is falling. It is a fact that Eric Dier, on Sunday 27th September, was correct to be punished for handball. The rules were applied correctly. Anger at VAR is misguided, rage at the referee is plain wrong.

This is not to say that referees are perfect, nor does it vindicate VAR – instead anger should be directed at IFAB’s new rule, which appears to have achieved nothing but turmoil, and added nothing but greater pressure on beleaguered referees.

They’ve detracted greatly from the game without enhancing anything, fans’ blood pressure levels aside. What are the pros of the system? Why make the change? I’d love to offer a balanced argument at this stage, but there is no redeeming quality.

The cons are obvious. Unprecedented levels of penalties have been awarded in 2020/21 so far, and the number will only sky-rocket as players begin to understand the ease at which they can now bag one.

Eric Dier Tottenham
The offending moment that has sparked a backlash among fans, managers and players
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Newcastle, the benefactors in Sunday’s game, despite Steve Bruce’s anger at the rule, were poor on the day, they lacked invention and sharpness throughout the team. They had zero shots on target until Wilson stepped up for the penalty, but they had already claimed for several penalties prior to the one given. Yet the new rule gifted them a chance that many more teams will now take, even if they don’t believe in the validity or fairness of the law.

The average male human arm dangles at around 65cm. There are approximately eight of them to aim at in a four-man defence (10, shockingly, in a back five, with limbed midfielders also prone to drifting back into the box). Suddenly, those 10-12 arms have become ripe targets for teams at the bottom.

Why, when you’re struggling at the bottom, lacking a bit of form and can’t find the net to save your life, wouldn’t you start launching balls at defenders hoping for a slice of luck that it hits a hand?

The end to the Tottenham game was loaded with drama – ideal for broadcasters, perfect for the headline-writers, painful for the fans who want to see matches decided by skill, or lack of it, as opposed to technicalities.

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