5 March ~ Nemanja Vidic should have been sent off for his foul on Gabriel Agbonlahor in Sunday's Carling Cup final. Aston Villa's manager, Martin O'Neill, said it. Villa's players thought so too and their fans were convinced. Even Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that Manchester United got a lucky break after the Serb conceded the penalty from which James Milner gave Villa the lead.

Well, that's received wisdom for you. According to the rules of the game, Phil Dowd undoubtedly erred by failing to at least caution Vidic. Yet the referee unwittingly gave credence to the notion that the law concerning fouls committed by the last defender is inherently flawed. Vidic was the last man and his trip on Agbonlahor prevented a goalscoring opportunity but it was clumsy rather than cynical, an instinctive reaction to stick a leg out once the ball had been played past him. Villa got their goal and while it may be pointed out that penalties are no sure thing, the same applies to the initial chance.

Football risks referees punishing a defender's ineptitude. If he runs the risk of giving away a penalty and being sent off for an honest attempt to dispossess an opponent, then a defender is forced to strive for unreachable perfection. Human error will always exist, so it would be of greater benefit if the authorities concentrated more on cynicism and how to compensate the sinned against adequately.

In April 1998, United needed to beat Newcastle to keep up with Arsenal in the title race. As stoppage time approached it was 1-1, and United were camped in Newcastle's half when Rob Lee led a breakaway. Clean through on goal, yet outside the area, he was pursued by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who mercilessly brought him down. Perfectly calculated, it prevented both a goal and a penalty, and saved the draw. Solskjaer walked but the free-kick was missed. Arsenal won the league, yet only by a point. A free-kick for Newcastle was not equivalent to Lee's chance and surely there was a case for a penalty to be awarded or, even more radically, allow the midfielder another free run at the goalkeeper. Solskjaer wouldn't have done it again if that had been the sanction.

This was no isolated incident. In 2002 Michael Ballack was hailed after Germany's World Cup semi-final with South Korea for intentionally halting a dangerous attack with a lamentable trip just outside the area. A booking ruled him out of the final, but he stayed on the pitch to score Germany's winner minutes later. Some hero.

By contrast, Ballack's compatriot Jens Lehmann was sent off for bringing down Samuel Eto'o in the Champions League final between Barcelona and Arsenal in 2006. Although Ludovic Giuly rolled the ball into an empty net, still the referee gave Barcelona a free-kick and Lehmann a red. Barcelona would have preferred the goal and, given that Arsenal's ten men nearly won the game, the decision favoured neither side.

Altering the rules as suggested would leave refereeing decisions down to personal interpretation, but they already are now – where one sees a last man commit a foul, the other spots a covering defender. Whichever way Dowd reached his decision on Sunday, at least common sense prevailed. Jacob Steinberg

Comments (27)
Comment by tratorello 2010-03-05 11:24:26

Who's "common sense" though?

Surely common sense is down to personal interpretation, as it stands "last man foul = sending off" is open to as little interpretation as possible, if only referee's would stick to it!

Clumsy or deliberate, both end up having the same effect (see also Ryan Shawcross's tackle), why shouldn't players be punished for being clumsy?

Comment by Mouth of the Mersey 2010-03-05 11:37:47

"If he runs the risk of giving away a penalty and being sent off for an honest attempt to dispossess an opponent, then a defender is forced to strive for unreachable perfection."

Not really. The defender is forced to consider other options as the one under consideration carries too much risk. This element of risk has been enhanced by the attacker's skill in getting goal-side - even then, as Phil Neville showed in shepherding Rooney towards the touchline at Goodison recently, defenders have options. Vidic's card count is ridiculous for a player in a team that enjoys huge possession advantage and is seldom defending (113 starts, 11 as sub, 23 yellows and three reds). He is cynical in his ineptitude.

Comment by Mr Beast 2010-03-05 11:41:11

The tackle might have been clumsy.

The shirt pulling that preceded it was cynical. Leaving Vidic on had nothing to do with "common sense" because Dowd didn't apply any.

Comment by JacobSteinberg 2010-03-05 11:50:57

Tratorello - I refer to interpretation in the last par - how often are we surprised when a referee fails to produce a red for what we think is a last man foul?

The episode that sticks out in my mind is a group game between Italy and Germany in Euro 96. Casiraghi went through and was fouled by Kopke. To everyone's surprise Kopke stayed on and saved Zola's penalty - Italy went out. The clip is here:

There is a different sort of clumsiness too - Shawcross broke someone's leg, Vidic tried to stop someone scoring a goal and ended up conceding anyway. Teams would rather lose a man than a goal anyway.

Comment by JacobSteinberg 2010-03-05 11:53:50

MOTM - In fairness to Vidic, those reds did all come against Liverpool. He does seem to suffer from some sort of mental breakdown when he plays them.

Also the second one would have made a good example in this piece - a cynical foul to stop Steven Gerrard going through last year at OT. Committed outside the area, it obviously stopped a penalty and a goal. Although Aurelio scored the free-kick, would it not have been fairer to give the red card and a penalty?

These acts are worse than when you've simply been duped.

Comment by tratorello 2010-03-05 12:04:45

As Mouth of the Mersey said it's all to do with judgement and risk assessment, Vidic didn't have to make a challenge, he could've not fouled Agbonlahor and let him get a shot away and hoped that it went wide or his keeper made the save.

It annoys me that we've achieved a point in football where we'd rather players fouled and cheated than do nothing when they don't have the opportunity to make a fair challenge.

Clumsy or cynical, 1st minute or 90th minute, Vidic's challenge should've (under the current laws) received a red card, there is no "common sense" interpretation, this is exactly the sort of black and white situation the law was brought in to deal with, whether morally it's right is neither here nor there (personally I think a penalty only in this situation would be punishment enough, but if the law is there the referee MUST adhere to it, isn't consistency what everyone bangs on about?).

Comment by Mouth of the Mersey 2010-03-05 12:08:23

Jacob - what is lost in justice is gained in certainty. I would like to see the automatic red card rule for fouls outside the box, but inside the box, I would like to see fouls treated like any other - after all, the goalscoring opportunity isn't denied, it is facilitated.

The advantage law played as in rugby and free kicks taken from the right place whenever the attacker wants to at their risk after signalling their intention to the referee.

Comment by Broken Clock 2010-03-05 12:08:43

Absolute rubbish Mr/Ms WSC writer.
Vidic cheated not once but twice. If Vidic hadnt been there to commit either foul then Villa wouldve had an attempt at goal. The covering defender may as well been in the carpark because without both fouls the shot wouldve been made long before he arrived on the scene.
The rules state a red card was required and even Fergie agreed. It must be a slow news day in the world of football for this rubbish to make the WSC front page.

Up your game WSC.

Comment by JacobSteinberg 2010-03-05 12:36:56

tratorello - If a defender on my team simply allowed Agbonlahor to breeze past him and get the shot away, I'd be furious. Vidic was within his rights to make the challenge but he was beaten by a piece of skill. I agree that under the current laws Vidic should have been sent off and I was surprised he wasn't - but this is where I suggest the change and that we give referees the opportunity to distinguish between certain fouls (and indeed punish the likes of Ballack for what I consider to be far worse foul).

Comment by tratorello 2010-03-05 13:03:19

I'm not suggesting that a defender let an attacker "breeze past him" but if the attacker gets goalside of the defender why should the defender's automatic thought be "Shit, he's past me, better bring him down"?

Fouling has actually become part and parcel of the game and this, in my opinion, is wrong.

Comment by tratorello 2010-03-05 13:05:12

Oh and I'd dispute that Vidic was "within his rights to make the challenge", Agbonlahor had beaten him and without the shirt pull followed by the "clumsy" tackle, would've left him for dead, I don't see why he had the "right" to do that?

Comment by Mouth of the Mersey 2010-03-05 13:14:41

tratorello - within his rights to make the challenge? Absolutely, but he should pay the price if it doesn't come off (or run faster, get goal-side and reduce greatly his chance of a red card for the challenge - just as Agbonlahor was trying to get closer to goal to reduce his chance of missing).

Comment by tratorello 2010-03-05 13:18:04

Exactly, he tried to make a "challenge" when clearly the risk was almost 100% that he would bring Agbonlahor down, concede a penalty and, in all likelihood, get sent off, remarkably poor judgment for an international class defender wouldn't you say?

Surely such folly deserves to be punished, and under the current laws that error is supposed to get a red card, which was mystifyingly absent in this case.

Comment by tratorello 2010-03-05 13:25:23

Also, as a last point when does "ineptitude" become "cynicism"?

Paul Scholes appears to have been rather "inept" in his tackling for some years now, it might be suggested that if he can't learn to tackle within the laws of the game then he should either stop trying or perhaps referees should clamp down on his, seemingly, cynical lack of aptitude.

Comment by multipleman78 2010-03-05 13:31:04

I understand what you are trying to say here. You feel its unfair to receive a red card for a genuine attempt at the ball. In this case Vidic was pulling at the jersey and thus was deliberately fouling and not just beaten by quick feet or lovely skill. However i must take you to task on a point you make near the end of your post.

Regarding the Champions League final of 2006. You say Barcelona and Arsenal would have preferred the goal to stand instead of Lehmann going off. You say that given the fact Arsenal's ten men nearly won the match that the decision favoured neither team. I disagree totally with this statement. Arsenal took the lead and nearly held on in this match but in the end, the extra man took its toll. Arsenal ran out of steam and were never the attacking threat that they so often can be. The decision did favour Barcelona, its just that it took nearly 80 minutes to prove favourable.

Overall i have never been a fan of the last man rule as it is so final. If someone has a chance to score, you have to decide as a defender, should i let him shoot or risk a red card and tackle. The tackle could be the slightest attempt at getting the ball but if its mistimed you are off. I have never liked that rule. It is not the greatest rule as we have seen on many occasions where a defender is last man and makes a well timed, perfectly executed tackle and the referee makes a mistake and awards a free kick or penalty and sends the defender off, who conceivably could have had a 100% success rate on tackles in the match and is walking down the tunnel.

Its similar to the death penalty arguement. The punishment fits the crime but should it be there as the risk of punishing the innocent by mistake is too great. Big matches like the Champions League final of 2006 are effectively decided by a rule that is just to harsh in my opinion.

I understand why its there. If you have seen old matches, you will see players being cynically chopped down when they are through on goal and that was certainly not good for the game and had to be stamped out but is it too much to ask a referee to decide what is a deliberate foul to stop a goal scoring chance and what is a genuine attempt at a tackle to win the ball that just wasnt successful? If that rule was in place, it would of course be open to players taking advantage of it by cynically bringing someone down but making sure it looked genuine. It is the same with any rule. There will always be players who will find a way to bend the rules to their advantage. Just look at players staying down, claiming injury, to stop other teams counter attacks for example but that is another arguement.

Comment by Roches P.A. 2010-03-05 14:25:06

I'm surprised that WSC has printed such a poor article, littered with conclusions that are plain silly.

Where to begin? Vidic pulled the opponent's shirt then screams in appeal to the ref as he hits the deck as though he is the victim. And this is clumsy rather than cynical play?

The incidents involving Ballack and Lehman appear to be magnified purely because they occurred in high-profile games.

Then we have the mention of the two words that undermine any discussion about fouls that deny obvious goalscoring opportunities - Common Sense.

And the reference to Arsenal only winning the league in 1998 by a point - Arsenal won the title in their third last game (Everton home) and duly sent the reserves to fulfill the final two fixtures (Liverpool & Villa away) whilst their leading players rested ahead of the FA Cup Final. The narrow margin of victory cannot be used to support an arguement like this. Actually, I'm struggling to see what point it's trying to make.

As Broken Clock said, c'mon WSC, up your game.

Comment by The Exploding Vole 2010-03-05 15:15:54

The referee has a difficult job to do, eh readers?

Comment by JacobSteinberg 2010-03-05 15:19:37

tratorello - The penalty wasn't given for the initial shirt pull - which I'd say is worthy of the red - but for the trip. In that situation, yes, there is nothing wrong with making the tackle. As Villa got their goal, what's the problem?

I agree with you about Paul Scholes - I cringe every time I hear Martin Tyler chuckle after another Scholesy special. But he appears to just about operate within the bounds of acceptable foul play, so he never gets the many reds he appears to deserve.

multipleman - I know that Barca won the game but had Arsenal with ten men did take the lead and then Henry missed a host of chances to settle it. If he'd taken any, I doubt whether the man advantage would have made a difference. Teams generally find it harder to come back from a goal down than a man down.

Roches P.A. - I'm fully aware that Arsenal won the title with time to spare - that wasn't really the point, although it's not inconceivable that they would have lost at both Liverpool and Aston Villa. The point is that Solskjaer deliberately prevented a goal and a penalty to keep United's title hopes alive. In the end it didn't matter but at the time, the point could have made all the difference.

As for your quibbles about the other examples - they've been used because they are instantly recognisable. I could of course pick an example from West Ham's game at Everton last year, but no one would know what I was talking about.

Comment by Dalef65 2010-03-05 17:16:40

Maybe the author of this article is the one who deserves a red card.

Comment by multipleman78 2010-03-05 18:31:24

to jacobsteinberg. why are you saying that teams find it harder to come from a goal down rather than a man down. for me any decent side should expose a team with ten men. teams that dont are teams that arent thinking it through clearly especially if you have 70 minutes with an extra man like Barcelona did. You mention Henry missing chances. Wenger will probably tell you that he missed those chances as he was mentally tired from all the closing down of space he was having to do with a man light. Why do you think Larsson had such an impact? Fresh player, fresh mind against exhausted and over worked defenders. As for teams generally finding it harder to come from a goal down instead of a man down, this is based on what stats? Its easy to hear pundits and commentators say "it can sometimes be harder playing against ten men." I assume we can all list games where the team with fewer players have triumphed but that is because commentators remember those and not the countless games where the team with fewer men has been soundly beaten or has finally gave way near the end after such a hard shift. Personally, as a fan, i would always take my chances 1-0 down with 11 men that be 0-0 with ten men. I mean that as in the timeframe that Arsenal had. If there is only 10 minutes to go then yes, i would take the ten men but if its 70 like the case we are discussing then i would take my chances a goal down.

Comment by Humus B. Chittenbee 2010-03-05 18:33:30

@Vole-'The referee has a difficult job to do, eh readers?'

I agree, wholeheartedly. Add in to the truly difficult job of seeing everything at the breakneck speed of some incidents the fact that often the incident is replayed publicly so the stadium crowd can see exactly what 'really' happened, and the ref's job becomes nearly untenable.

I am American and I know my suggestion will be unwelcome in many quarters for many reasons...but...

Why NOT use 'instant replay' in those situations where play is ALREADY stopped? It takes a moment [or two, depending! lol] for play to be restarted anyway. Why cannot the 4th official have access to the replay and communicate with the match ref when the initial call was in error? Everyone in the stands [and on the field] is often seeing the replay and what the correct call should be. Allowing a human error [or the ref being unsighted] to stand so publicly, undermines the ref. and the game in general.

Comment by JacobSteinberg 2010-03-05 20:29:06

multipleman - It may have something to do with my own experiences of seeing my team play hopelessly against ten men this season. Anyway I believe statistics generally show that if you concede the first goal in the Premier League, you do not win. Also a late red card may not be so detrimental to a team as a late goal. Of course 11 men should always beat 10 but when has football ever been logical?

Wenger might tell me that but I would probably laugh in his face if he did. Obviously Larsson had a great impact but it wouldn't have mattered if Arsenal had put the game out of reach as they should have done. Arsenal had, what, ten minutes to hold on with to their lead which they should have extended? If Barcelona had lost the game I bet they'd have been complaining about the ref not just giving them Giuly's goal.

Comment by JacobSteinberg 2010-03-05 20:31:52

And also this was a game that was hugely anticipated by neutrals - arguably the two most attractive sides going head to head in the biggest game in Europe. What do we reckon, do referees have a duty to maintain the spectacle? The game was worse for Lehmann's sending off.

So back to the original point - why not either give Giuly's goal or allow Lehmann to stay on, but give Barcelona a penalty instead of a fruitless free-kick?

Comment by multipleman78 2010-03-06 00:03:20

So now you would like to award penalties for fouls that happen way outside the box. A last man tackle can happen almost at the halfway line. I am sure we have all seen guys get sent off for cynical last man tackles very close to the halfway line. Perhaps they were last man and were robbed of possession. The penalty area is the penalty area and no penalty should ever be awarded for a foul outside the box. Please dont say how about a free run in on goal then because i hate that americanised way. I would hate all the players to stop and watch a guy play one on one with the keeper. How would you work rebounds if the keeper saves it? Referees dont have a duty to maintain the spectacle. They have a duty to apply the rules of the game. The players and managers are the ones who provide the spectacle. Also you are talking about all these missed chances by Arsenal. The simple fact is that he didnt take them and i am sure Barcelona had moments in the game where they could have scored too but didnt. Larsson's impact mattered, its no use saying it wouldnt have mattered if this had happened and this had happened. Henry didnt score and was punished to the maximum. Personally i like the fact Lehmann got sent off here because i am sick of seeing goalkeepers coming out of their box to face strikers. If they stay in their box they increase their chances of stopping the striker as they can still use their hands. Why they leave their box unless they are coming out to clear a ball is beyond me? Anything that can be considered a risky move should see a keeper stay where his advantage lies. Overall i know that you dont want games being ruined by sending offs so early in matches and i fully understand that as it can be detrimental to the spectacle. I really feel we should just say to the referee that he is to decide if the tackle was a deliberate attempt to deny a CLEAR goal scoring chance or just a genuine attempt to play the ball that was mistimed or a tackle that was simply beaten by a quicker and sharper opponent. As for statistics about teams losing 1st goal and then losing, i bet the same can be applied for teams who lose a man.

Comment by JacobSteinberg 2010-03-06 01:02:36

Actually I wrote that in the piece:

"A free-kick for Newcastle was not equivalent to Lee's chance and surely there was a case for a penalty to be awarded or, even more radically, allow the midfielder another free run at the goalkeeper."

It's a thought, nothing more - obviously it is highly unlikely to happen, but it couldn't hurt to try? Have you seen the Solskjaer clip? It redefines sneakiness. Would this ruling not force players to actually operate with a more honest code of conduct? If you've been beaten all ends up, then that's that, let the guy shoot - this is what rankles for me, that Vidic should be punished with a red and a probable goal, but Solskjaer gets a red and saves a goal for one of the most hideous tackles in living memory.

I agree that my suggestion is open to interpretation and your point about those on the halfway line is a good one. There I'd say that a penalty would be inappropriate but when you've got Lee just outside the area, that is just blatantly unfair.

Agree with you re the spectacle, just wanted to see your point of view, think you alluded to it in your first post.

I'm a great one for what ifs, there are a host of interesting ways to look at great moments in footballing history if one goal hadn't been scored and so on, but that's another discussion for another time. The fact remains that if Henry put away the couple of chances he had in the period of the game when Barcelona really didn't look like scoring, then we wouldn't be talking about Henrik Larsson now, we'd be talking about one of the great performances by ten men.

Lehmann committed an error of judgement - it is true he would have known the consequences of his challenge if it was unsuccessful and knowing the rules of the game the referee had little option (I maintain he could have just given the goal) but it doesn't have to be this way.

Of course no team wants to lose a man. But consider this - what would you rather, concede a match-changing goal in the 90th minute or go down to ten men?

Comment by jackofalltrades 2010-03-06 02:17:58

"Common sense ain't all that common" - Mark Twain

Comment by stuart77 2010-03-08 14:51:33

Possibly the worst article I have read on WSC.

Dowd was influenced by Fergies mind games, like Mourinho he is a master. Its rare to see a twelfth man, but will as close to a 12 aside if Man U play Inter in the Champs league.

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