Why the Tottenham penalties were correct – and why Liverpool fans are whingers

Kane Klopp

Liverpool fans have always been rather an irritating lot. The combination of hubris and inconsistency, as well as constant bleating about “heritage” and history as though somehow this renders the modern success of rivals such as the Manchester clubs less worthy, lead to popular conceptions of this group as probably the fan base other fans most love to hate – “football supporters think you are either tiresome, cringeworthy or both.

So it has been particularly enjoyable not only to watch the draw that Spurs battled to in front of the Kop last weekend, but also the whingeing that poured through social media in its aftermath from fans, players and manager alike. Other than maybe Barcelona, few football supporters come at things from such a moral high horse and, as with Barcelona it is great to see them get their comeuppance once in a while. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why all their players end up moving there.

Therefore let us examine forensically the two controversial incidents from the match, through some of the most common refrained heard from excitable Liverpool fans in the few days since.

1. “Kane was offside the moment Dele passed the ball”

The implication of this is that the moment the ball left Dele’s foot, the referee should have blown for an offside against Tottenham. This is simply factually wrong and demonstrates a lack of understanding about the offside rule and even Klopp was guilty of this mischief in his post-match press conference where he said:

… there is a new rule, I don’t know exactly? I don’t know who played the pass but in the moment the ball left the foot of the Tottenham player, Harry Kane is offside.

It is true that Kane was in an offside position when the ball was passed, but this is not the same as actually being offside. For the latter to be the case, Kane actually has to play the ball – in other words, had the ball not come off a Liverpool player, Kane would only be offside at the point when he received the pass and played. There is absolutely no requirement of the referee to call an offside before this point and it would be wrong to do so – players are constantly in offside positions through the match, which is why the rule was clarified to only include situations where a player in an offside position is “interfering with play”, and why today players who are in an offside position but not anywhere near the ball are not called for offside.

Kane offside

(Incidentally Klopp should know better and actually gets away with murder in a lot of his post-match comments, but let’s leave that for another day.)

Case for Liverpool: 1/10

2. “Kane was interfering with play at the point when the pass was made”

This charge has slightly more legs, but only slightly. Clearly, Kane is in an offside position but the referee deemed him not interfering with play. These are the situations which come down to referee’s opinions and it seems questionable to assume that Lovren necessarily struck the ball because of an awareness of Kane being behind his shoulder. If you look at the replay, Lovren seems to be all over the place and there is more than enough space for the referee’s opinion to be that Lovren played the ball purely because that was his instinct, not because of any perceived goal-side threat. In such situations one assumes that a seasoned referee’s opinion and read is as good as anyone’s – certainly VAR would not have resolved this question one way or another.

Case for Liverpool: 4/10

3. “Lovren was not playing the ball on purpose”

 At this point we have to accept that after the pass commenced from Dele, it ended up being (mis)played by Lovren and quite possibly by another Liverpool player also, first. Therefore the question is whether Lovren played the ball on purpose as per the official rules on exemptions for offside, which state:

A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent who deliberately plays the ball (except from a deliberate save by an opponent) is not considered to have gained an advantage.

First, let us be clear that the purpose of this wording is designed to make sure that this exemption does not apply to completely accidental deflections and rebounds, the kinds of things where a ball hits the back of someone’s head inadvertently and so on. It is not supposed to cause a nuanced consideration of how professional footballers at the top level play.

In this situation Lovren clearly went to strike the ball and, due to being a simply terrible footballer (as we saw at Wembley earlier in the season), mis-kicked it. It was not an inadvertent deflection, just a crap piece of play. As such, it takes quite contorted logic to try and make the case that the exemption does not apply. Yes, it does not fall under the initially intended rule designed to exempt offsides from back-passes, but yes it falls under the strict laws of the game – the ball did not continue towards the Liverpool goal due to an accident.

Leaving this to the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) in their official statement, it seems pretty clear:

The interpretation of “deliberately” kicking a ball considers whether a player has intentionally tried to kick a ball – it does not consider whether the ball ends up where a player may have wanted to kick it.

Case for Liverpool: 3/10

 4. “Kane dived for the penalty”

Now onto the meat and drink of the incidents. Subsequent to the event, Kane has both admitted that he drew the contact, whilst Karius – and this is quite important – admitted that contact was made. In these circumstances, under the current refereeing environment, any challenge which a goalkeeper makes where they fail to get the ball is a poor challenge. To be clear, any time where a goalkeeper comes for a ball and fails to do so properly, leaves them exposed by definition to having committed a bad challenge – the very definition of a foul.

As that well-known Tottenham fan Jamie Carragher said on Monday Night Football (focusing principally on a similar incident involving Delafeu and Courtois):

When goalkeepers come out like a train, like he has – like Karius has – I’ve got no sympathy whatsoever. If he’s complaining about it, don’t come out like a lunatic … It was a poor decision to come out; Karius’ was as well. If there is a problem with attackers leaving their legs in there, then goalkeepers need to do something different.

My mind harks back to last season’s FA Cup semi-final between Tottenham and Chelsea, when Son’s mistimed sliding tackle gave away a penalty in much the same situation. A goalkeeper who, in missing the ball when coming out for it, makes contact with an attacking player, has committed a foul as per the rules. End of.

Case for Liverpool: 2/10

5. “Jon Moss was not sure about the decision”

This charge is linked in part to the slightly bizarre moment when the referee appeared to ask the fourth official for extra information, then did not bother to pursue this line of enquiry. The BBC’s transcript of the conversation with the linesman did seem to indicate some confusion, but the PGMOL statement also seems to put this to rest, noting that the conversation over whether Lovren had touched the ball was misrepresented:

Eddie Smart, having identified that Kane was in an offside position, correctly sought clarification on whether Dejan Lovren had deliberately played the ball. His question created some momentary confusion when Eddie asked if ‘Lovren’ had touched the ball. Moss knew a Liverpool player had touched the ball but not that it was Lovren.

There was also some manufactured controversy over why Moss had asked the fourth official for anything when he was not entitled to do so since VAR was not in action, but this is quite a sideshow which Moss has in any case admitted was “misguided”. Importantly though, he followed through on his own original opinion, as he is supposed to do.

I hate to break the news to Liverpool fans but the vast majority of refereeing decisions in a match are matters of opinion. They are not only entitled to act on such opinions but are indeed paid to do so. It is perfectly obvious that in complicated situations, referees are not going to be 100% sure of what happened but their job is to go with their instinct and the point of a seasoned professional referee is that they get these things right most of the time – as they did in this case.

Case for Liverpool: does not even justify a response

6. “Lamela dived for the penalty”

More meat and drink. To be honest this incident has barely been even controversial amongst the commentariat and much of the initial reaction seemed to be due to poor camera angles about what had happened, possibly informed by lingering bias against “latin players” and their record in this. But a closer inspection, as was done on the BBC’s MOTD2, shows it was actually a pretty hefty kick up the backside by Van Dijk on Lamela, and as Mark Lawrenson (another well-known Tottenham fan) put it clearly there:

Don’t get me wrong, Erik Lamela does extremely well and he’s very very clever. He just gets himself into a position where as Van Dijk is going to kick the ball he kicks the back of his leg, and yes that’s a penalty. Is that not a foul anywhere else on the pitch? So it’s a pen.

The threshold Lawrenson describes is of course important: the rules a are specific in saying that there should be no higher or lower threshold for what constitutes a foul within the penalty box as outwith. Again, however clever Lamela has been in positioning, if Van Dijk had undertaken such a piece of contact on the half way line, it would have been given as a foul and a free kick. A poor challenge is a poor challenge anywhere. Not being intentional is not an excuse; nor is the fact that Lamela appeared to go down heavily (although again from certain angles the kick seems more substantial that it did at first anyway).

Frankly, if the first penalty had not caused so much furore it is doubtful that the second incident would really cause any controversy whatsoever. ESPN’s Ali Moreno was one of many commentators who felt it was bizarre that it was even being talked about; whilst on The Football Ramble’s Luke Moore noted that:

… if Liverpool fans want to complain about that, I suggest they complain as well in turn about the VAR penalty they were awarded when Salah hit the ground like a ton of bricks with minimal contact, and that was overturned and awarded as a penalty.

I am not fan of whataboutery, but glasshouses and stones comes to mind. The foul component of the kick on Lamela is pretty indisputable.

Case for Liverpool: 2/10

7. “Lamela was offside when Llorente played the ball”

Now we get to the least discussed point of the whole episode, but ironically the one with the most grounds for questioning. Looking at the evidence, Lamela is probably offside by the width of a human foot, so I will not argue otherwise. However in the overall scheme of things, this kind of decision is well within the typical margin of error in football matches at the highest level and the very fact that people have barely mentioned it speaks in part to an acceptance that small errors like this are not abnormal and typically even themselves out over the course of a season. If Liverpool fans really want to moan though, this is the part they have most grounds to.

Lamela offside

 Case for Liverpool: 5/10

******************

So much for the technical analysis. Now, far be it for me to let popular support influence how one views decisions, but it is worth looking at the professional commentators and punters, and their opinions of what went on. Clearly, the PGMOL has given its own opinion that Jon Moss was correct – although Liverpool fans have been heard to allege that “of course they will protect their own!”, cue much eye-rolling. But Dermott Gallagher, seasoned referee and watching in the Sky TV studios, said the same thing:

In the debrief after the game, they’ll be told that they made the big, match-changing decisions correct on the day.

I will be fair and note that Mark Clattenburg, another pundit through his column, disagreed. Let’s see what everyone else thinks – the “court of public opinion” as Harriet Harman would call it:

Picture1

Note: “LOTG” refers to the opinion that the decision was technically correct as per the laws of the game, but that the strict application of the laws in this case made a mockery of the spirit of the rules.

Overall, a case of all is fair in love and war …

Why Barcelona are still not learning their lesson

Messi sad

Ousmane Dembele has just arrived at Barcelona for a “club record fee” of €105m plus add-ons which could take the total paid to around €140m, far eclipsing even the official updated €86m paid for Neymar that the club had to admit to two years afterwards (although the real cost may still be somewhat higher, and we may never know). Whether Dembele can emulate his predecessor in footballing terms is anyone’s guess; but more intriguing is the fact that he may emulate the superstar as a future exit – curiously, Barcelona seem not to have learned their lesson and set a buyout clause of only €400m.

€400m may seem a lot, but this summer has shown that numbers we could barely believe have a habit of becoming reality; if TV revenues increase, the figure will not seem excessive. But in any case, and more importantly, it is already not very high in the world of preventative buyout clauses. If any proof be needed that Real Madrid are better run than Barça at the moment, it can be seen in the buyout clauses currently in place. Not only is Dembele’s price, their newest signing, still way below the sums set by their arch-rivals, but so are all the rest of the squad – by some distance, too. Eight of Real’s stars have clauses higher than Lionel Messi, the best player in the world. Suarez and Busquets look at snip at just €200m.

Real Barca transfers

Source: Gab Marcotti via ESPNFC.com, updated for Asensio, Isco and Dembele

Why have Barça been so remiss and what explains this imbalance? Well first, to be fair, the Barça squad is just that much worse than Real’s. Other than the MSN, most of the others have passed their Pique (lol) and their clauses were signed in another era. Having said that, Cristiano Ronaldo’s €1bn clause was set as long ago as 2015, a full year before Neymar (Barcelona’s youngest and most marketable star) was set at only €200m rising to €250m over three years. Is it perhaps that Barcelona do not have the pull to get players to agree to prohibitive buyout numbers? Or is the board still arrogant enough to believe that players go to Barcelona for its “philosophy”? Either way, it is a failing of their fiduciary duties which would be prosecutable under UK company law.

Furthermore, Barcelona really have encountered a perfect storm. The inflation in this year’s transfer window has hit them just as an irreplaceable star has gone. To be clear, buyout clauses work very differently from normal transfer fees in terms of distorting the market. This is because a normal fee is, these days, usually paid out over a number of years; so that a transfer fee of €222m might only be about €55m per year. The rest of the market (though not the idiot fans) will “know” that the extra money available to the club who has just sold their star asset is only €55m at that point. But with a buyout, the money arrives instantly, meaning that the market is aware of both an entire €222m overhang, as well as the necessity to frantically spend most of it on a replacement. Furthermore, buyout clauses are by their very nature “supernormal”, higher than market valuations. This means that in turn they are causing inflation above normal market values when the money is spent in turn. In other words, it is not just usual “football inflation” (see my previous) but a buyout-driven super inflation. Barcelona this summer have become a footballing version of Mansa Musa I.

Of course in today’s world, only a few clubs are true “buyers”: Real Madrid, who do so from their own resources, and then PSG and Man City, who do not. Barcelona have ultimately been left on the heap as just another “selling club”, the dreadful epithet that even Man Utd had to understand when they lost Ronaldo to Real all those years ago. Barça just have not learned their lesson.

Are transfer fees really exploding?

camp_nou_coreografia_mes_que_un_club

With Neymar’s transfer to PSG, the football media has moved from just excitable to the swooning and fainting associated with young Victorian debutantes laying eyes on returning officers of the Household Cavalry. The “world record” (we will get to this in a moment) has seen the football experts go into overdrive in trying to explain how it is that so much has been paid, and how it can be justified.

Among the more interesting commentators were the crew on last week’s Guardian Football podcast, specifically award-winning Jonathan Wilson who made a couple of insightful points. The first was the likening of the football transfer market not to the clichéd and overused Dutch tulipmania of the 17th century, but to a more subtle historical event that I had not heard of before, the Indian horse market of the same period. Although Wilson does not spell it out, the point here is not that best-in-class assets become expensive (Neymar for €222m is comprehensible); it is rather what Mourinho has been warning about, that mediocre asset prices get dragged up too and that is where things become unsustainable. In other words, the Man Utd’s of this world will always spend top dollar; the real danger is when Middlesbrough are doing the same.

The second intriguing point surrounds the role of Qatar in the Neymar move. Barcelona have for many years irritated a majority of neutral fans with their holier-than-thou attitude about all matters football. It does not take a hard-core royalist like myself to be sickened by the constant nonsense about being “mes que un club”, or the self-indulgent refusal to have a shirt sponsor for so many years. But recently, the club have taken to criticizing Qatar over the forthcoming World Cup – the very people they finally took their blood money from when the caved into for money. Was this criticism a result of failing to agree a new sponsorship deal? Was PSG’s bid for Neymar driven by a Qatari government keen to demonstrate they still had retaliatory power? Both, it seems, may be a firm “yes”. Well, it couldn’t have happened to nicer people …

But really, how big a transfer fee is Neymar, anyway? Clearly a direct comparison of nominal fees is useless; so is a basic use of inflation to recalculate them. Only one analysis I have seen attempts to bring fees into historical perspective, the excellent Paul Tomkins’ blog. For the purposes of analyzing which transfers have had what impact, Tomkins and his team have used a form of “football inflation” based on average transfer prices from year to year, and inflating the nominal figures this way. Since football inflation has far outstripped CPI, this produces a top ten looking something like this:

Tomkins table

Source: https://tomkinstimes.com/2017/07/shock-transfers-now-cost-more-plus-top-100-signings-after-inflation/

Now, I like this approach. It has much to recommend it. However I believe it understates the impact of TV money on the psyche of football clubs – Tomkins’ analysis looks at correlation between the two but does not integrate them. I believe that – for the Premier League at least – another interesting way of looking at transfer prices is rebasing nominal transfer fees against the growth in TV deals. In my model, “inflation” is based entirely on the growth of TV deals struck over time (which have grown at an impressive 17.2% CAGR since 1992). In particular, I think this better reflects the thinking behind those headline-grabbing, record transfer deals as opposed to the median ones. The thesis being, that record transfers experience inflation different to normal transfers.

When this principle is applied – the Pang Index – the following numbers are generated:

Transfer records re-based to Premier League TV deal sizes

Football transfers

The blue bars represent record transfer fees paid by English clubs since the Premier League came into effect in today’s money. The grey bars were record transfers out of England (as it happens, all to Real Madrid). In this context, I have thrown in the Neymar transfer for fun. Of course this is not a perfect comparison – European clubs have very different TV deal structures and have not earned as much as English clubs have anyway; moreover the likes of PSG are barely “commercial” clubs at all these days, throwing the numbers out. Nonetheless, it makes some sense: Neymar’s fee is probably the same as a proportion of the kinds of TV money sloshing around as Veron’s transfer to Man Utd was all those years ago. No-one old enough to remember, can really be in doubt that Shearer’s £15m fee shocked us rather more than Neymar’s (let’s perhaps forget Stan Collymore for a moment).

The basic lesson is: money is here to stay; it is growing at a pace; but it makes surprises more and more difficult. Already this summer, there have been several moves rumoured to be in the same ballpark (£131m for a 31-year old Ronaldo, for instance). Actually, for the bigger clubs, it seems superstars are getting cheaper, not more expensive.

A squad of two halves – the drag from Tottenham’s wage structure

Tottenham NY Post

Frustrations are beginning to appear around my beloved Tottenham Hotspur. Obviously, we have yet to make any new signings, even as all around us in the top six have done so – including from us with Kyle Walker’s move to Man City. It is well known that we have a shortage of money compared with our rivals – the subject of a neat video produced by Joe Devine last year. But, there has also been much commentary about how Tottenham are struggling to find the right kind of players to fit into the squad – especially as “understudies” to key players like Harry Kane and Dele.

The reality is that Tottenham faces structural problems of its own making. First, the wage cap in place is enforcing a concept of a First XI vs secondary players. Most clubs have some sort of wage structure in place, of course, but rarely at the top level is such a fuss made about it or is it so well known. A look at the figures as last season commenced (below) demonstrate this clearly: Lloris and Kane were the top earners but the whole first team plateau out before a sudden drop off as one reaches Trippier and Davies (both now ironically effectively first team players).

Tottenham wages

Source: sillyseason.com (http://sillyseason.com/salary/tottenham-hotspur-players-salaries-69471/)

Compare this with the three biggest paying clubs in the Premier League and the contrast is stark. It is not just the absolute amounts that are different; it is the distribution, and with it an entire philosophy of creating star players with a large pool of players below them. A new arrival at Spurs would question how inelastic the first team appears to be; a new arrival at Man Utd may know he won’t oust Paul Pogba, but the rest is up for grabs. Tottenham have allowed themselves to create too rigid a playing structure.

This leads onto the second structural point: no other team has quite such a disparity between the quality of our First XI and the bench. Title winning teams do not have a set first team; asking “who is willing to sit on the bench?” is to ask the wrong question altogether. The real measure is the quality of the first team squad – the 18 or so players who should be interchangeable in quality terms. This is more difficult for the striker position, since there is only one match day position available. But for the attacking midfield positions, where we play at least two (in the 3-4-2-1 formation) or three (in the 4-2-3-1), we should have at least n + 2 players of comparable quality competing.

So what is the answer? Well, one or two rumours have emerged which are of real interest: Iheanacho from Man City for instance, or Kovacic from Real Madrid (incidentally Ross Barkley is not the answer). But it seems like under the financial constraints we have, and under the wage structure we enforce, Pochettino is going to have to further rely on coaching youth players. It’s not a bad way to do it – Josh Onomah has had an excellent summer with the England U-20s, as has Kyle Walker-Peters; Harry Winks and Cameron Carter-Vickers already made their appearances last season too. I also believe that some players can be reinvented – Moussa Sissoko into a deep-lying central midfielder for instance.

Ultimately though, Spurs are going to have to rejig the way they pay their team even if they do not raise the total amounts being spent, and even to keep existing squad members happy. The current system reflects something static, sacrificing flexibility on the altar of stability. It might serve for another season, but what happens when our ambitions expand?