EPL GW8 Review: Whose League is it Anyway?

City and Liverpool are the pundits’ predicted Top 2, but have shown no certainty of this in the opening 8 games leaving the door open for… well basically everyone.

The Etihad was home to the biggest game of the season so far and it is fair to say it did not live up to its hype. The match was reasonably exciting for the fans, with Liverpool starting really brightly and pressing City’s back four with their own front four (I am yet to see it, but presumably the media have been all over the Liverpool Fab Four / Beatles puns). There was action and chances, but neither team showed the levels needed to be worthy of their hype, and the biggest stars of the league struggled to get going at all. The game had 2 penalties, one missed, in a 1-1 draw. Compared to regular 2020 matches, this was hugely understated. The second half wore out into an avoidance of defeat and the stalemate meant Leicester remained top on a weekend that saw Liverpool, Southampton and Spurs all appear at the summit for at least a few minutes. With Villa’s 3 points from the Emirates, Chelsea purring and score lines seemingly determined by the roll of a dice… the Premier League could be heading anywhere. Except Fulham.

Match of the Weekend: Palace 4 Leeds 1

As discussed previously, the International Break can be a good time for teams out of form to recover, and a bad time for teams in for form who lose momentum. I think this break has come at a perfect time for Roy Hodgson, as I am concerned his aged heart cannot take the excitement of a 4-1 win without a significant recovery period.

This is Palace’s first 4 goal haul since the final day of the 2018/19 season, and that was just last day madness as they entertained with Bournemouth for a 5-3 win. Selhurst Park has been short of this kind of entertainment for too long, with an emphasis on being organised and not giving anything away more prominent than creating chances and scoring goals. That being said, Palace showed they have the talent going forwards that – on their day – will cause havoc in the opposition’s final third – mainly because of the lightning pace in Zaha and Eze.

What Hodgson and Palace did extremely well, was to pick a team with the objective of counter-attacking as quickly as possible, having numbers across the full width of the pitch. It’s Leeds’ biggest frailty at the back. Bielsa plays high octane football, trying to get more bodies than the opposition in every area of the field, but that risk leaves space down both wings, and areas for midfield runners to exploit. Hodgson was brave in selecting Eze as part of a 3 man midfield, which worked perfectly on the break. Leeds were not going to change their approach, and ultimately that cost them. Hodgson showed his 448 years of experience, and may have shown a few other sides how to stop the Leeds United steam train.

But of course! No ‘Match of the Weekend’ could be complete without outrageous VAR controversy. So here it is…

Taking the rules to one side for a moment… there is no football fan in the world who wants to see this goal ruled out for offside. Not one. It’s ludicrous. Bamford is doing his very best to stay onside, time his run, communicate with his team mate… and then my word what a delicate finish. It’s tormenting the football gods that we are disallowing goals that tick so many positive boxes. But…

He’s offside. It’s mind-blowing that we have developed and evolved a sport, a religion if you will, over almost 200 years in the United Kingdom, then we introduce “3 Men and a TV” and the world goes to pot (okay, VAR didn’t cause Covid). I will no doubt get into an in-depth piece on VAR and the what, where, when, how and why but for now I will attempt to simplify this as much as possible.

VAR was brought in with the intention of resolving a percentage of decisions that were unanimously agreed to be incorrect. Unfortunately a lack of foresight meant “we” did not consider the huge number of incidents that actually occur within a game that would become hotspots, nor did “we” consider the difficulties and knock-on effects of having to create “black and white” rules on subjective matters such as handball.

The latter was a problem instantly – it was always going to be – but the use of VAR on handballs for attackers meant a rule change, initially to disallow all goals that hit the arm, now to disallow goals only where it hits “below the t-shirt line”. We changed the handball rule. We haven’t changed the offside rule – not in any way. Bamford would not have been offside last season, nor prior to VAR, but since his armpit / imaginary t-shirt cuff (he’s wearing long sleeves!) is now able to score a goal, he is now offside.

WE NEED HELP! This system has so many flaws, but it also needs cooperation and support, not for everyone to consistently slate it and demand better. You’re entitled to think its shit, I am not disagreeing, but the constant changing or rules to manage the reaction of fans is not the way to solve the problem and evolve the sport. How did the VAR official decide where his t-shirt line was? I feel the simplest solution for now is to take the offside point from where the attacker is grounded i.e. feet. Sure, he might reach out with his head and score a header, but fuck it. Let’s just celebrate a goal for a change! Fans want clarity. VAR is seeking clarity. Even if handball did become every time the ball hits someone’s arm, at least players would know the rules, and it would become consistent (he jokes, knowing referees are incapable of consistency).

Man of the Weekend: Harry Kane

So far this season, the media have RIGHTLY sung Kane’s praises, discussed how his game has evolved, improved, and how his stats are incomparable to any other player in the country. We have known for some time that Harry Kane is lethal within the final third of a football pitch, no one-season wonder, whether you see how he does it or not, his numbers are truly remarkable – only Alan Shearer and Sergio Aguero reached 150 Premier League goals faster, they were both in title winning sides that created chances for fun.

This season, we have also seen Spurs be… Spursy. Or at least that’s what we have believed it to be. The late goal conceded against Newcastle was a fluke incident, but they should have put the game to bed – Spursy. The miracle comeback from West Ham may have been a one in a million, but they should have put the game to bed – Spursy. Losing points from winning positions will hurt Spurs, but what we haven’t seen enough of at White Hart Lane, is winning ugly and winning late. True hallmarks of title challenging sides. Twice Kane has stepped up to earn these late goals, assisting at Burnley and heading the winner this weekend at West Brom with minutes to spare. He is shouldering a lot of responsibility at the club, for his country and with huge pressure to reach the numbers we expect him to, yet he seems to turn up week in week out and delivering. Spurs and England fans have every right to believe they have a World Class centre-forward to deliver trophies.

Result of the Weekend: Arsenal 0 Aston Villa 3

“This topsy turvy Premier League season cannot have been kind on many punters’ pockets – Aston Villa are my biggest nemesis – they’ve accounted for 3 of my 7 failed predictions so I’ve chosen to avoid them like the plague” Feudball, October 2020.

Make that now FOUR of my failed predictions. Since I stopped including Aston Villa in my tips, I completed back to back wins… but I forgot their unpredictability, and outright ability, and they proved both in a big way in putting Arsenal to the sword.

What is the more impressive about Villa’s excellent season, is they look like they deserve it and that there’s more to come. Ollie Watkins, the two goal hero, has expressed this himself that he can reach further levels. Questions will be raised, and challenges will come, but they’re regularly keeping clean sheets in the games they do win, regularly creating chances in games they do not. They are beating good sides in Liverpool, Arsenal and Leicester and should be considered a threat to all teams as we move into the winter stage of the season. The biggest threat for them will be keeping their key players fit. Losing Mings will be devastating. Barkley, Grealish and McGinn have gelled perfectly, and Watkins is by far and away the best forward at the club.

In Form: Chelsea

Last week I nominated Hakim Ziyech as the In Form prospect within the Premier League, this week… it’s the whole Chelsea attack. I mentioned how if they can keep their balance right, they’re a threat to all trophies available to them this season – admittedly with huge amounts of luck in Europe – but they’re not conceding goals, and every one of their players is a threat and looks like scoring right now. Ziyech again was instrumental, but Abraham, Werner and Mount also made big impacts on the game.

Sheffield United are currently not the most difficult of opposition, but they did give Chelsea a fright in going 1-0 up, and it speaks volumes for the young Chelsea side that they were not derailed. It should not be underestimated figures such as Thiago Silva, Aziplicueta, Giroud and Lampard himself have on this dressing room. The four of them have won the world’s biggest trophies and understand success.

Chelsea will return from the International Break with four matches against very hard working sides in Newcastle, Spurs, Leeds and Everton, with Champions League games thrown in too. This will really challenge their squad and ability to keep performing when games are thick and fast, but whilst they’re keeping the ball out of their net, they’re going to keep collecting points and produce a title challenging campaign.

Out of Form: Leeds United

Despite an exciting start to the season that has seen them accrue fans across the country, Leeds are not accruing points to keep themselves out of a relegation battle. It’s fair to say that their start has been challenging with Liverpool (a), City (h) and Leicester (h) but they’re conceding far too many goals in their pursuit of happiness and it’s costing them points against other sides – they’ve conceded 4 goals on 3 occasions this season, and that puts too much pressure on the attack to recover the deficit. Also consider that, Bamford – who has a reputation for not taking his chances – is responsible for 60% of Leeds’ goals – so if he starts failing in front of goal more regularly, they will need to find goals from elsewhere often enough to overturn the 4 goals conceded.

That being said, Leeds are still looking far more healthy than the teams below them, and we’re looking at their poor form with a view that they’re capable of being a Top 10 side. There’s no need for panic at this stage, but conceding that many goals to a side like Palace, and only one win in 5, doesn’t sound like things are going well.

Leeds will return from the International Break by hosting Arsenal on Super Sunday. Expect them to be full of running, passion, and determination as ever when that kicks off, and with Arsenal’s recent run they will also be looking to get on the front foot and exploit those same spaces that Palace did.

🎵 Stop-in-the-name-of-VAR; Before I cause you harm 🎵

It’s one of the greatest, purest joys of console football. You’re chasing down an attacker… you see the linesman’s flag go up but the referee is yet to blow for the free-kick… so you Captain Crunch that mother fucker onto a stretcher, knowing you’ve already won the free-kick, and the Xbox / PS4 knows not to actually injure the player because that ‘Time and Space’ isn’t real… like the video below… CRUNCH.

Prior to this weekend, tensions and questions were rising regarding the possibility that someone in real life was likely to get a serious injury from linesmen not flagging when they believe players were offside – running the risk of a sprinting forward meeting a sprinting goalkeeper and WHAMMO. Well, those people are not wrong – but they’re late to the game. This unnecessary risk of injury has been a problem in the game since the advantage rule was introduced in – according to Wikipedia – in 1903.

“1903 – A referee may refrain from awarding a free kick or penalty in order to give advantage to the attacking team.”

It’s not the concept of the ‘Advantage’ rule that anyone disputes, the question is on the construct of the laws of Physics on ‘Time and Space’. During an ‘advantage’ or ‘phase in play’ whilst VAR are analysing various camera angles to bollocks up another decision – is this time real? Or a multi-verse that becomes instantly irrelevant and void once a decision has been made that takes us back to the future? Confusing. Oooh… we have some real life examples to consider thanks to James McLean, Jordan Pickford and Richarlison.

James McLean, Ireland vs Wales, Sunday 11th October

The scene, heading into the final 10 minutes Wales are awarded a corner with the scores at 0-0. Although just an international friendly, it’s a local derby and comes with international bragging rights. James McLean picks the ball up from the corner and launches into a counter-attack. He’s fouled, and in the momentum of his sprint and being pushed off balance, he lunges forward to win the next ball (images above).

The referee gives the free-kick to McLean and Ireland, then chooses to caution McLean for a late tackle – a late tackle that effectively does not exist – as a free-kick was given. It’s only a yellow, so in this instance the referee has deemed this ‘time and space’ to exist, and exist within the linear timeline – multiverse – of real time. To make matters worse, this is McLean’s 2nd yellow card and he’s sent off.

Time after Offence: Real
Severity of Following Offence: Yellow Card

Jordan Pickford, Everton vs Liverpool, Saturday 17th October

Jordan Pickford, Everton and England’s #1 – and since Saturday’s take-down of Virgil van Dijk (VVD) – possibly a club legend to the more hardcore Toffees, and certainly on the Christmas Card list to those hardcore City and Utd fans. The challenge above is nothing short of reckless and dangerous. Look at it. If that’s the height and stance having gone through VVD, how high was he at the point of contact? VVD we know has suffered a serious ACL injury and could be out for the whole season. Pickford should very obviously be sent off ; wait what?

In this incident, ‘Time and Space’ did not exist after the point at which VVD himself was deemed offside from the prior phase of play. It would appear, as defined by the referee at Goodison Park that either:

A) VVD was offside and therefore any event that occurred after this was instantly erased from time like an Avenger in Infinity War.

B) Jordan Pickford’s challenge is not a red card offence – nor even a yellow card offence – as McLean had been booked the previous week.

Fair enough, whilst we do demand consistency from the law makers to the rule administrators to the referees on the field, when a different referee from a different football association has such an awkward decision to make, we as football fans can accept some discrepancy. Right? It was a different referee, the same referee would not show inconsistency : wait, what?

Time after Offence: Imaginary
Severity of Following Offence: Red Card

Richarlison, Everton vs Liverpool, Sunday 17th October

Christ. Both of these challenges were in the same game? What was this, the Merseysi… oh… In truth this was quite a tame Merseyside Derby, no punches thrown, not many 50/50s to write home about. These two incidents stood out like a two-footed, studs showing tackle in the middle of the field.

Richarlison’s “tackle” was reckless and dangerous and was rightly deemed a Red Card. There were little to no complaints from Everton and an apology after the game. Thiago, making his Premier League debut, was the victim and despite finishing the game is expected to be out for a few weeks. The right decision was made. Right? Well…

Moments before Richarlison’s foul – milliseconds in truth – a free-kick was awarded to Liverpool for a foul by Mina. Theoretically, Richarlison’s foul did not exist in ‘Time or Space’, or at least the same referee earlier in the game did not punish Pickford for his challenge when ‘Time and Space’ were in question. So… which is it? It must be – because referees are always consistent – that the referee in question, nor his VAR team, considered Pickford’s challenge to be a Red Card. We know they considered it, because they reviewed the VVD Offside because of a potential Penalty from the Pickford challenge. That means that it’s also not been considered as a ‘Yellow Card’. Are you for real?

Time after Offence: Real
Severity of Following Offence: Red Card

The (Actual) Laws of the Game

So with three contradictory incidents within a week, two with the same referee and VAR, perhaps the actual Laws of the Game can direct us to what the truth is, what the decisions should be, and then who we can point our fingers at to call them out.

SENDING OFF OFFENCES – Serious Foul Play
A tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent or uses excessive force or brutality must be sanctioned as serious foul play. Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force or endangers the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play.

So we can all agree, Jordan Pickford’s challenge is definitely a Red Card.

There’s no definitive talk of Time Travel, the Time Stone, Laws of Physics, Time and Space or Dr. Strange within the Football Association’s Laws of the Game – so it’s hard to get a definitive right answer on what DEFINITELY SHOULD HAPPEN. However… the opening gambit to Disciplinary leads us to believe that all Yellow and Red Cards should be awarded regardless of ‘Time and Space’ of their misdemeanour, resulting in the following:

DISCIPLINARY
The referee has the authority to take disciplinary action from entering the field of play for the pre-match inspection until leaving the field of play after the match ends.

If, before entering the field of play at the start of the match, a player or team official commits a sending-off offence, the referee has the authority to prevent the player or team official taking part in the match (see Law 3.6); the referee will report any other misconduct.

This says to me that ANY offence caused by a player, manager, or affiliated club member should be dealt with at the time, and that ‘Time and Space’ do exist within the football universe. This is a given for serious offences such as violent conduct, but it’s noteworthy for players receiving Yellow Cards, as they can rack up to Red Cards and suspensions.

The FA declared on Monday that Jordan Pickford would not receive retrospective action for his challenge, as the officials – both on field and VAR – handled the incident at the time. This statement was offered to prevent further discussion and expectations, but did not provide the required clarity on what is right – what should have happened. However by stating that the Officials had the opportunity to officiate on the incident, they’re doing two things: One, they’re allowing the referee team to control the game. Two; they’re backing their referee team rather than causing discontent amongst the ranks. Unfortunately, that means that both referee and VAR believed this WAS NOT A YELLOW OR RED CARD.

What fans really need, what stakeholders really want – is accountability. We want to know what the right decision should have been, so we can be confident in knowing what should happen next time – how players should approach future incidents – what is right. Instead, we’re scared to admit we were wrong, in case of libel action or a loss of confidence in the Officials. It would be a lot more reassuring if Referee HQ could take ownership of these controversial decisions and provide a black and white answer. We wait in hope… in the meantime, here’s how play should have resulted:

James McLean:
Free-kick to Ireland (Morral’s Foul)
Yellow Card awarded to McLean

Jordan Pickford:
Free-kick to Everton (VVD Offside)
Red Card awarded to Pickford

Richarlison
Free-kick to Liverpool (Mina’s Foul)
Red Card awarded to Richarlison