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The Premier League’s controversial handball incidents analysed

15 hours 14 min ago

Not for the first time, what is or is not handball turned into one of the dominant talking points of the Premier League weekend. 

It is difficult to keep track of a law which appears to constantly be tweaked and interpreted differently and, week after week, supporters are watching a handball be given in one game before seeing another, apparently very similar, incident in another match go unpunished.

This weekend, there were question marks about the decisions to award penalties to Arsenal and Luton Town due to handballs by Cristian Romero and Joao Gomes respectively. 

There have now been four penalties awarded for handball so far this season, which makes up 22.2 per cent of those awarded so far this season – in keeping with a growing trend in the top flight. 

Separately, a handball by Anthony Gordon – which led to Newcastle’s first goal at Sheffield United – also caused controversy. 

But what exactly are the laws and, just as importantly, how are they being interpreted this season by the Premier Game Match Officials (PGMOL)? 

The Athletic has looked at some of the most recent high-profile scenarios relating to deflected handballs, ones that strike the hand from close range and handball in the build-up to goals, to try to explain them. 

Handball in the box from close rangeNicolas Jackson, Chelsea v Liverpool

What happened?

From Dominik Szoboszlai’s corner, Luis Diaz flicked the ball towards goal. Jackson jumped behind him and the ball struck his arm. 

What does the law say?

The key part of the handball law for this situation is this: “A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation.”

Players have to use their arms to jump, so it can be argued that Jackson’s arm is in a “natural” position and the action is justifiable in the striker making his body unnaturally bigger. 

“Proximity” as a mitigating factor is also important to be considered – the speed and how close he is to his opponent.

Was it the right decision?

Considering the mitigating factors mentioned above and the position of Jackson’s arm appearing to be natural for a jumping motion and not outstretched away from his body, it looks like the right decision was made.  

John Egan, Sheffield United v Manchester City

What happened? 

Jack Grealish tried to cut the ball back to Erling Haaland at Bramall Lane, but the ball was blocked by Sheffield United’s John Egan.

What does the law say?

The same part of Law 12 is applicable: “It is an offence if a player touches the ball with their hand/arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger.” 

Was it the right decision?

Yes. This was underlined by PGMOL chief Howard Webb when he was discussing some of the season’s early talking points with Michael Owen recently.

“The arm of John Egan is pretty significantly away from his body,” Webb said. “He’s looking to block the ball with his legs, his body, his head. But to do that action, the arm has to come away from his body. And it comes away significantly.”

James Ward-Prowse, Luton Town v West Ham

What happened?

A late corner from Luton – 1-0 down at the time – was swung into the West Ham box. As Ward-Prowse jumped in the air, the ball struck his arm before being cleared to safety.

What does the law say? 

This again comes back to Law 12 and the body being in an unnatural position. Ward-Prowse is jumping, so his arms will need to be up to a reasonable degree, and the fact he does not appear to be looking at the ball when it hits his arm suggests there is no deliberate attempt to use it.

The fact he sees the ball late, as it comes over bodies ahead of him, makes it similar to the Nicolas Jackson incident.

Was it the right decision?

Former referee Mike Dean believed it was correct not to award a penalty, although he acknowledged that had the original decision been to award one, it would not have been overturned.

Cristian Romero, Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur

What happened? 

From an Arsenal corner, the ball fell to Ben White, who directed a shot towards the Tottenham goal. Romero attempted to block the shot, but the ball struck his outstretched arm. 

No penalty was initially given but, after VAR Paul Tierney sent Rob Jones to the monitor, a penalty was awarded. 

What does the law say?

This comes back to Law 12, as highlighted above.

Was it the right decision?

It can be argued the proximity of the shot is very close and that Romero’s arm position is “natural” to provide balance as he attempted to block White’s shot. 

However, it is outstretched, which makes the centre-back’s body unnaturally bigger. White’s shot is also on target, so it is stopping a possible scoring situation. 

In that context, the awarding of the penalty was probably understandable – although there was a good reason why this decision provoked confusion…

Cristian Romero, Tottenham v Manchester United

What happened?

Romero was involved in a similar incident, this time against Manchester United, only with very different results. 

Rushing out to block Alejandro Garnacho’s shot, Romero’s right arm was outstretched and the ball smashed into it. 

This time, however, no penalty was given, prompting an angry outburst from United midfielder Bruno Fernandes, who demanded an apology from the PGMOL.

What is the law? 

It follows the theme of the handball incident above. The decision is whether Romero made himself “unnaturally bigger” and it was not a consequence or justifiable of his actions. 

In this instance, referee Michael Oliver deemed Romero was close enough to the shot to warrant not giving a penalty. The arm was outstretched and while it could be argued it was “naturally positioned” due to the player needing to balance, it was actually in a similar position to Romero’s arm when he gave away the penalty against Arsenal. 

Was it the right decision? 

This is all about subjectivity. If Oliver gives a penalty on the pitch, then it is unlikely it would be overturned. 

Proximity is a key factor and unlike the penalty awarded against Arsenal, Romero was further away from the goal when the ball struck him. Even so, it highlights how frustrating it can be for supporters given the apparent inconsistency.

Handball via a deflectionJoao Gomes, Luton Town v Wolverhampton Wanderers

What happened?

With Wolves resolutely defending their one-goal advantage despite being down to 10 men, Gomes attempted to close down Issa Kabore’s cross from the left side of the area.

The ball initially hit Gomes’ leg before deflecting onto his outstretched arm.


Referee Josh Smith awarded the penalty because the ball struck Gomes’ arm, which was deemed to be in an unnatural position. 

What does the law say?

Law 12, relating to handball, states: “It is an offence if a player touches the ball with their hand/arm when it has made their body unnaturally bigger. 

“A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation. By having their hand/arm in such a position, the player takes a risk of their hand/arm being hit by the ball and being penalised.”

From that description, it can be argued that it was correct to award a penalty because Gomes’ arm is in an unnatural position. 

However, in the 2023-24 season’s Competition Guidance handbook from the Premier League and PGMOL, the section named ‘Mitigating factors’ mentions “a clear change of trajectory when played by the same player”.

PGMOL guidance said Smith and VAR John Brooks deemed Gomes had not “played” the ball with his leg but it “deflected” the cross, so the change of trajectory was irrelevant. 

Was it the right decision?

Given the mitigating factor of the change of trajectory when played by the same player, it is understandable why Wolves fans were frustrated. 

There is reason to argue his arm is extended “naturally” to stay balanced. Gomes made a conscious effort to block the cross, therefore it could be deemed he attempted to play the ball. 

However, deliberate play means a player has control over the action and outcome, and a block is different. The referee can take a deflection into account, but the position of the arm remains a determining factor.

Handball in the build-up to a goalSander Berge, Nottingham Forest v Burnley

What happened?

With the game finely poised entering the final stages, it appeared Berge had provided a potential game-winning assist. 

He raced onto a ball from Josh Cullen and controlled it to get away from Scott McKenna. On closer inspection, the ball appeared to brush his arm to help him control it and the goal was ruled out after a VAR intervention. 

What is the law? 

The law here is simple. It is an offence if a player “deliberately touches the ball with their hand/arm, for example moving the hand/arm towards the ball”.

Following the game, Burnley assistant manager Craig Bellamy was seen speaking to referee Rob Jones, who appeared to signal an exaggerated movement of his left arm to mimic what Berge had done to control the ball. 

Was it the right decision?

Berge’s arm movement towards the ball is minimal, so the question is whether it is deliberate and if there was intention behind it. There also appears to be little contact with the ball.

McKenna’s lack of appeal is interesting given he is as close to the situation as possible, but Jones, after watching the incident on the monitor, deemed Berge deliberately used his arm to control and gain an advantage.

Anthony Gordon, Sheffield United v Newcastle United

What happened? 

The Newcastle attacker drove to the byline and tried to cut back inside. In doing so, the ball bounced up and brushed Gordon’s hand, which helped keep the ball in play. 

He then squared it to Sean Longstaff, who scored. 

What is the law?

The interpretation for goals scored that involve a handball has changed this season. The law now states that it is an offence if a player “scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental, including by the goalkeeper or immediately after the ball has touched their hand/arm, even if accidental”.

As Gordon was not the goalscorer, this does not apply to him and therefore it is whether the handball is deemed deliberate by the officials. 

Was it the right decision? 

In line with the law and interpretation brought in this season, then even though Gordon appeared to gain an advantage, he didn’t do so deliberately and as he was not the goalscorer, it was not disallowed. 

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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Are Arsenal the main threat to Man City? How low will Chelsea go? – The Briefing

Mon, 09/25/2023 - 05:15

Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday this season The Athletic will discuss three of the biggest questions to arise from the weekend’s football.

This time around, Manchester United won but didn’t convince many people they have fixed their problems, Manchester City looked like they were going to steamroll Nottingham Forest but were eventually made to sweat a little, and Luton Town collected their first point of the season.

We will ask what sort of shape the chasing pack are in, just how bad will things get for Chelsea this season, and whether sacking Paul Heckingbottom would make any difference for Sheffield United…

What did this weekend tell us about the chasing pack?

The thing that was most striking about the north London derby was how similar the two teams were.

Both looked incisive and thrilling in attack. Both had moments of defensive vulnerability. Both dealt with adversity, in their own way. And both showed that, after key men went off — Declan Rice for Arsenal; James Maddison and Son Heung-min for Spurs — their teams ultimately can be quite brittle.

But it was also striking how close they looked in terms of quality levels. Arsenal will (justifiably) argue they have a season or so of good form behind them, whereas Spurs have only six games. But on this evidence, it would be pretty tough to confidently say who is going to be better for the remainder of the season.

It’s a testament to just how quickly Ange Postecoglou has made sense of this very new and young set of players. The sample size is small but this game perhaps provided evidence that their hopeful start to the season isn’t just about good vibes and stirring oratory.

Maddison suggested as such, after the game: “Neutrals talk about Tottenham, they often say: soft, weak, bottle it, Spursy, all that rubbish. The last couple of weeks show we might be going in a slightly different direction.”



The Premier League's controversial handball incidents - analysed

This is not necessarily to suggest Arsenal are weaker than they were last season, when they pushed Manchester City until the last few weeks of the campaign. They had some key players out injured and are still trying to incorporate the new additions and new ideas that Mikel Arteta has brought in.

Spurs Son and Maddison impressed — but Spurs coped when they went off too (Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

Will they push City again? The season so far, and this weekend specifically, has suggested what we already knew: City are the heavy favourites to win the league again, but if anyone is going to push them then it won’t just be Arsenal this time.

Take Liverpool: their defeat of West Ham was their fifth league win in a row, the only points they have dropped this season coming in that slightly odd game against Chelsea on the opening weekend. They have managed to replace their entire midfield more effectively and efficiently than most could realistically have hoped. Their strikers are scoring. The defence remains a bit of a concern, but it is worth pointing out that only City have conceded fewer goals.

And then there’s Brighton and Aston Villa. Nobody legitimately expects either to seriously trouble City, but their victories this weekend showed, in different ways, why they are at least genuine contenders for the top four.

How bad is it going to get for Chelsea?

What words of comfort could you offer the Chelsea fan in your life?

The new home shirt is quite nice? How about all that clever amortisation, eh? At least Sheffield United, Luton and Burnley are all so bad you probably aren’t going to get relegated?

The most convincing version of this you could offer, before their defeat to Aston Villa, was that they had actually been playing quite well — or at least better than their results suggested. And even after the Villa game, you could just about continue that thread. Sure, they’re not winning games, but they’re creating chances and thus, in theory, the wins will come.



Jackson ban exposes Chelsea's grim reality - Pochettino is not getting his message across

The trouble is, there are only so many times you can say that before it starts becoming pretty hollow. Because this isn’t just a momentary loss of form: Chelsea haven’t been good for about 18 months now. They have collected 49 points from 44 games since the start of last season, and just 25 in 2023.

In the league table of this calendar year, they would be fifth from bottom, above only Everton on goal difference, and last season’s three relegated teams plus this season’s three promoted teams.

It’s not great.

We all know the caveats. It’s basically a brand new team, with the only starters from the Villa game that were around this time last year being Conor Gallagher, Raheem Sterling and Thiago Silva. All of the new players are very young, making the task of integrating them all even more difficult. There’s a new manager, who will need time to settle in himself.

“We are not the Chelsea that won the Champions League or Premier League,” said Mauricio Pochettino before the game. ”We need to accept that it’s a project. An idea, but that we are going to build something for the future with time.”

Which is all very well, and you wouldn’t expect Pochettino to say anything different, but the question is: how bad is this going to get? And how bad will Chelsea allow it to get before they do something about it?

We’ve all been working on the assumption that it’s going to come together at some point, that this disparate collection of talents, assembled for an astonishing amount of money, will click sooner or later. But what if they don’t? Should we accept that, for this season at least, Chelsea are just bad?

Would sacking Paul Heckingbottom make any difference?

It was difficult not to laugh when, with the score at 7-0 to Newcastle, Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom brought Chris Basham on in place of James McAtee. Shore it up, keep things tight, let’s win the last 15 minutes lads, what we have we hold.

In fairness, they only conceded one more goal after that, so maybe it worked.

It does feel quite churlish to focus on the losing team when a Premier League side has just scored eight times in a single game. Particularly when those eight goals came from eight different scorers, the first time that has ever happened in the Premier League era, and the first time it has happened in the top flight since Liverpool beat Crystal Palace 9-0 in 1989.

Newcastle were incredibly impressive and showed a ruthless streak by pressing on even when the game was already comprehensively won. And all of this after their first Champions League game in 20 years, in Milan on Tuesday night. It was a bit of a shame they didn’t push for double figures, given that hasn’t happened in England’s top division since 1963, but you can’t have everything.

This was the heaviest league defeat in Sheffield United’s history (Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

But this is shaping up to be a heroically bad intake of teams in the Premier League. The promoted trio have managed three points between them from a combined 16 games, Luton picking up their first at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday. Members of Derby County’s 2007-08 team, holders of the record low points total with 11, might be sitting up and taking notice, wondering: is this the year?

Sheffield United might be the worst of the three. Burnley play decent enough football and have a few genuinely exciting performers, and while Luton’s squad is basically a collection of Championship players, their style of play will also cause a few problems.

Admittedly, Sheffield United did push Manchester City and Tottenham pretty hard and without some late goals, it would all look quite different. But you can’t escape a defeat like this.

There was talk last week that Heckingbottom was on thin ice, with former manager and club hero Chris Wilder ready to return and take his place. The likelihood of that happening has surely increased after such a humiliation, but you have to ask: would it make a difference?

Heckingbottom is far from a perfect manager, but even if the perfect manager existed, they would have to do quite a job to make a competitive Premier League team from the resources available. It was impossible not to sympathise with him earlier in the season when he was bemoaning Sheffield United’s transfer activity; it is far from ideal when your club sells your two best players and does not replace them until after the season starts — and even then, only with players from the Championship.

Teams have recovered from similarly bad starts before and stayed up. Maybe Wilder (or someone else — Neil Warnock is available…) can discover some of that old magic from a few years back. But it would take one of life’s great optimists to think that it could happen with this Sheffield United team.

Coming up
  • If the Premier League is all just a bit glitzy for your tastes, then you’re in for a treat this week as the big boys rough it with the scruffy lot from the EFL. Or, to put it another way: it’s the Carabao Cup third round.
  • If it’s a giant killing you’re after, then what about Exeter City, paragons of fan-ownership virtue, facing Luton? Or maybe Ipswich Town, one of the most impressive teams in the Championship this season, hosting Wolves? Maybe Salford City vs Burnley, which is sort of, vaguely, nearly a derby (but not really)?
  • If it’s just all-Premier League affairs for you, Manchester City travel to face Newcastle, Brentford host Arsenal and Manchester United play Crystal Palace.
  • European football more your thing? Great news: there’s a full midweek round in both Spain and Italy, with a couple of games in France thrown in too.
  • Finally, without wishing to be the bearer of bad news, a word to the wise for next weekend, because there’s only one Premier League game televised next Sunday: Nottingham Forest vs Brentford. The reason? Apparently, it’s because the TV people want as much attention as possible on the denouement of the Ryder Cup. Golf! Honestly, it’s a scandal.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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