Referees have had enough (been told someone else has had enough) of grappling in the box. We are seeing penalties all over the shop for the weakest of shirt pulls or cuddles at corner kicks already and it could entirely change the face of the Premier League.
Many will think it is long overdue. The needless holding at set pieces has been a gripe for a long, long time. But, why this specifically? What has caused this witch hunt? There isn’t the same concern for evident obstruction when the ball is in open play. The sport has developed over the past couple of decades and it has seen a complete change in the way defenders are allowed to behave.
Naturally, this suits some more than others. Last year there was a notable leniency from officials which allowed certain types of players to prevail, as they could dominate physically in ways that were previously deemed unfair.
Often, allowing a harder type of football gives an advantage to teams who are well-drilled, over those who possess the greater individual talent. Teams set up to compete can stifle even the most gifted of footballers if they are allowed that little extra wiggle room before a booking, or can make tackles from slightly more challenging angles than before.
Most evident in Stoke’s clash with Manchester City, referees are clamping down this year. The obvious penalty decisions are being awarded, but even softer fouls are being given in open play that were being waved on last season. It is reducing the level of impact the teams that are looking to bully physically can have and allowing the technically supreme to dominate as they have more time in possession.
Obviously, the refereeing leniency last season was most evident in Leicester City’s success. Their pair of central defenders, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, were excellent throughout the season, but much of their tight marking, no nonsense defending would be getting called up this season. Fouls will be given more often and cards handed out quicker. Not to single out the reigning champions, by any means.
Tactical fouling will also see yellow cards brandished quicker if the referees continue along this path. Full-backs will not have the save opportunity to stifle players like Eden Hazard or Mesut Ozil with regular ankle taps as they may have done last season. The game is changing in the Premier League and it can only give the wealthier teams greater opportunity to dominate, without having their star players under threat physically.
Last season’s football was hardly like a return to the 1970s, but referees were allowing more to go under the radar than they had previously. It might not have even been a conscious decision, but it certainly enabled perceived weaker sides to compete harder than they could have before.
The other answer to a decrease in Premier League upsets, of course, is that the top four or five teams this season are significantly better than they were last year.
Although they are, they will be given a helping hand by some refereeing protection. The refereeing approach could just as easily change mid-season, but early indications suggest we are seeing a markedly different set of guidelines for the league’s officials.