The rules of the beautiful game have changed a lot over the years and many would have scoffed at the idea of video-assisted refereeing only a decade ago, but here we are.
Protection of the players tends to be the motive behind most modern rule changes, with referees now more inclined to blow their whistle for dangerous play as the spectrum has broadened for what is classified as ‘dangerous’. But there are two players on the pitch who always get preferential treatment – the goalkeepers.
Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool was a fantastic watch for the neutral as the play bounced from box to box, but within were two eye-catching events at opposite ends of the pitch involving either side’s goalkeeper.
Firstly, a typical Arsenal build-up on the edge of the 18-yard box saw the ball spread out to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the wing who, looking up, curved a cross towards the head of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Reds custodian Alisson charged from his line to punch the ball away but the Gunners man had already made contact with the ball and, as it arced just past the post, the Brazilian clattered into him at full force. Nought but a goal-kick was awarded by Andre Marriner and there was no appeal to sway that decision in any way.
Later on, Unai Emery’s side were defending a corner and, as it was hooked in towards Virgil van Dijk, Bernd Leno took a page out of Alisson’s book and came sprinting out to try and clear his lines. In an almost carbon copy of the previous event, the centre-back beat the goalkeeper to the ball and his attempt struck the post – but not before the Dutch international took a big hit from the Arsenal shot-stopper. Once again, there was little in the way of protest as the match officials saw no foul and allowed the match to continue.
Neither Mkhitaryan or van Dijk were hurt in the respective collisions but they can count themselves lucky. These two, almost identical, situations pose the question of whether goalkeepers should be made more culpable for dangerous play and it is well worth the debate.
Two of the shortest goalkeepers in the Premier League are Manchester City’s Claudio Bravo and Spurs’ Michel Vorm, but both still clear the 6 foot mark. As number ones are given a licence to use their physicality in the box to protect themselves and their goal, there is a risk of injury to anyone who gets in the way should they decide to come for the ball, as they tend to be the largest players on the pitch.
The first question to be asked is whether an outfield player crashing into another with such force would be punished by the referee, regardless of attempt to get the ball. The answer is undoubtedly yes.
In the modern game red cards for ‘excessive force’ in challenges are not uncommon; if a player goes into a challenge too strongly, regardless of whether the ball is won or not, the referee can brandish a red card if he/she feels that it was unnecessary to use the force that they did.
A recent example of which is Jamie Vardy’s dismissal in the Premier League clash with Wolves. The Leicester man is renowned for his tenacity and aggression in chasing the ball down but, as the England striker left Matt Doherty in a heap, referee Mike Dean felt that there was a little too much in the tackle and promptly sent the number 9 for an early bath.
Players who lead with their arms as they go up for headers are risking punishment by the referee and, although they are naturally going to go in fists first, goalkeepers should not be a total exception.
Despite the FA’s best attempts to stamp it out, diving is still prominent in the beautiful game and it has made defending a much more difficult task as players become reluctant to put a foot in for fear of the attacker ‘buying’ a foul.
If a ruling is introduced to make goalkeepers more accountable then it would have a big impact on the way the game is played.
A team’s final line of defence, ‘keepers are put on the pitch to give their maximum effort in preventing the ball from hitting the back of the net; a reduction to what goalkeepers can do within the laws of the game would severely affect their ability to do – at least in certain situations.
If protecting players is a priority then it is a surprise that the FA aren’t trying to smooth out this inconsistency already. A good solution would be to punish goalkeepers if they don’t make contact with the ball when going to punch it away and then take out the man, as was the case with Alisson and Leno.
When an outfield player goes to make a challenge, they attempt to calculate if they are going to be successful and by sliding in, for instance, they take a risk. There are currently few strings attached for goalkeepers as the worst that can happen if they mistime their punch is that the ball drops in the box to be potentially converted, but even then it is likely that there will be a number of players between the attacker and the goal.
Goalkeepers should be punishable in the same way that outfield players are for mistiming challenges, as coming for a cross should count as a challenge, but with simulation still very much part of the game it would be a difficult task for the rule-making heads at the FA. It seems this blatant hypocrisy will stay in English football for the time being.