The Rational Ref

Soccer referees urged to take action over obstruction at set pieces

Players are so set in their ways at set pieces that referees have to pull together to get rid of holding, pushing and blocking

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 4:18am

The trouble with set plays is that players are set in their troublesome ways. At corner kicks, players are so conditioned to holding, pushing and blocking that they have inadvertently contributed to the problem of obstruction. So what happens when push comes to shove?

Over the Christmas period some English Premier League referees attempted to clamp down on holding, pushing and blocking. The change was sparked by an earlier match when referee Mark Halsey's non-intervention led to Everton's Marouane Fellaini headbutting Stoke's Ryan Shawcross, who had been obstructing throughout the entire match.

So within 10 seconds of kick-off at Stamford Bridge last Sunday, referee Phil Dowd signalled his intention by awarding a free kick against Aston Villa over an off-the-ball incident where Chelsea's Juan Mata was obstructed when racing towards the penalty area. Players instantly got the message because there was very little grappling at set pieces during the match.

Despite this proactive intervention by referees, former player-turned-commentator Martin Keown believes players are now used to being held and blocked because match officials have let so much go.

"There will always be shirt-pulling in the box. Sometimes it's just a natural instinct. You use it as a brake to slow down an attacker," said Keown, who draws the line at what he calls wrestling. "I never put two arms around an opponent like Shawcross does. It's not defending, it's tag wrestling. I was on the receiving end of a player like that, too. It was a game against Lazio and Alessandro Nesta was wrestling me to the ground at every free kick and corner. I tried to tell the referee but he did nothing."

The problem is that at the highest level of the game, top referees rarely penalise players for holding at set pieces and if they do, it is usually in favour of the defending team. It is always safer to give a free kick to the defending team as opposed to a penalty for the attacking team. Unfortunately many referees all over the world resort to this soft-option form of officiating.

Everton manager David Moyes is a voice of reason in calling for consistency in tackling the problem. "It's not part of the game. But the only people who can stop it are the referees. If they think that it is OK, then they have got to tell us," Moyes said.

Ironically, in Everton's next match Moyes' words came back to haunt him. In the first five minutes against West Ham, Everton's Victor Anichebe obstructed the West Ham goalkeeper just as teammate Leon Osman rose to head the ball, from a corner, into the net. Referee Anthony Taylor whistled for a foul against Anichebe.

Coaching players to "stand on the keeper" at corner kicks is a poor tactic. Anichebe's case proves this. Even more senseless is when a defender puts himself between the keeper and an attacker. The defender blocks the attacker, who is trying to block the keeper, who is being blocked by his own teammate.

Since everyone is now pushing and holding each other, referees find it difficult to correctly call a foul. Cue for soft-option officiating. Sometimes in these situations - before the ball is put into play - referees will whistle and call out the culprits to warn them. The players then return to their positions, ignore the warning and resume their tussling. Most referees then turn a blind eye, which is the main reason why this has become a habitual problem. To be effective, referees must not hold back and instead take appropriate action - for example, by awarding a penalty or free kick and cautioning players who continue wrestling as the ball is put into play.

Defending teams should just allow opponents to obstruct the keeper. This gives the referee a clear view of a foul on a keeper and no excuse not to whistle for a free kick. Done consistently, the time-honoured tactic of "standing on the keeper" will hopefully cease to be part of the set routine at corner kicks.

Referees who are willing to consistently clamp down on holding, pushing and blocking will succeed in changing the behaviour of players. However, referees must pull together on this and consistency is the key.

Regrettably on Boxing Day, in allowing West Bromwich Albion's winning goal to stand after Marc-Antoine Fortune clearly obstructed QPR goalkeeper Robert Green, match referee Chris Foy cancelled out Dowd's good deed and Moyes' festive wish for a clear message. In tackling obstruction, it is two steps forward and one step back.