On the red card and the penalty...

Seeing what has gone down in the EPL the last few weeks, I thought I'd discuss some general football content for a bit. The thing about this greatest of sports is that because there are less scoring plays than in rugby or baseball or basketball or even ice hockey, every single one takes on far greater importance than almost any try or home run or three-point shot that you care to mention. To digress for a second, it also causes far more importance to be attached to luck than in any other sport. One lucky bounce can determine an entire season, whereas you'd be hard pressed to successfully argue that point with other sports (except maybe boxing or other combat sports, where one lucky shot can potentially knock anyone out). With all of this in mind, I don't think that referees honestly understand the impact that penalties and red cards can have on an entire campaign, let alone one skirmish.

Now, don't get me wrong. The first thing that people might think is that this in response to the Manshit United game...but, it simply isn't true. What actually caused this to enter my mind again (I say again because I never fail to ponder on this point six or seven times a season) was the red card issued to Jussi Jaaskelainen, and the mind-blowingly horrendous penalty/non-penalty calls in the Newcastle vs. Fulham match (and when I agree with that lunatic Souness, you know I feel strongly about it).

Also, don't get me wrong and assume that I have the same mindless hatred for referees that everyone else does. Believe it or not, Mike Riley aside, most of them are actually very good at their job. I freely admit to almost never being able to tell the difference in normal time between a foul and a dive. I've been watching sporadically for about 10 years, and I've been a rabid fan for at least 6. But, I still can't do it...sometimes, I can't even tell from the slow-motion replay. And, in the Jaaskelainen case, it was such a borderline call that a referee is going to have people calling for his head no matter what he does. I understand their plight, and can even talk from experience somewhat. I served one summer as an umpire in my old town's baseball Little League. Now, for those of you in England or other locales, everything you've heard about our parents is true...get little Jane or Johnny onto a sporting field, and the parents become a rabid, mindless mob of pure short-sighted evil. I had one parent try to get onto the field to attack me, because I called his little boy out on strikes (for any Englishmen present, it's sort of like getting their wicket taken).

With that out of the way, like I said, I still don't believe that referees or the authority figures of the game (going all the way up to that creepy old bastard in charge of FIFA) understand just how devastating a frivolous call in this respect can be. While nobody has apparently ever worked out a statistical method of tracking this stuff, you have to assume that a penalty or having an extra man (especially from the 70th minute or before) correlates to a much higher chance of winning. I'd love to find out, but I don't have the slightest idea of how to go about it. Anyway, I feel that both should only be saved for extreme instances...it should be sort of like how our justice system (theoretically, anyway) goes...you're innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

I'm not advocating that referees be shy about resorting to either. Actually, I think they err just as much in the realm of not giving them as they do with producing the card or pointing to the spot. A penalty, in my estimation, should only be given when an absolutely obvious scoring chance is denied to the attacking team. With the Jaaskelainen "foul", there was no guarantee that the attacking player was going to score...at least not in my view. And, the most important fact to me was that if the first contact came right on the line...you can't conclusively say (especially in real time) that he handled outside the area. And, if you want to say it's a penalty because of contact in the box, can you conclusively say that that the keeper didn't get to the ball first? That it was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a play that robbed the attacker of a real chance to score? Look, if Pierluigi Collina called that a penalty, then I'll believe him. Even if Major League Soccer's Brian Hall pointed to the spot, I wouldn't argue that much. But, for a guy who I believe is a rookie EPL ref to be that sure...I'm sorry, I just don't agree (though I do admit that I'm wide open to my own "if you haven't heard of them, that doesn't mean they aren't good" argument from the Crystal Palace match report).

Even worse, I think referees who call a penalty for an inadventant handball on the line by a defender should be caned. Many of my USA-supporting brethern wanted Hugh Dallas' head for not calling the spot kick against Germany in the World Cup quarterfinal (Torsten Frings was the man in question, right?). I think most of us, having had time to digest the loss and realize what a great step forward it was for our boys, would admit that a penalty there would have been amazingly harsh and stupid. However, since I also support Celtic, I generally tend to want Hugh Dallas' head anyway. Heh. All kidding aside, penalties for things like that and obvious dives in the penalty area (Hi, Rooney! Hi, van Nistelrooy! Hi, just about everyone in Serie A!) are infuriating to the discerning fan. Well, they're infuriating to everyone except the beneficiaries, but realizing the true impact of such calls makes it even harder to swallow...especially in matches where you have no rooting interest, and are just trying to enjoy the game.

Red cards are a harder thing to pin down, though. I remember reading a stat one time that said that 75% of all penalty kicks result in goals. That is real, tangible, and I can certainly believe it. When you take into account that the average professional soccer match probably has an average score of one-point-something to one-point-something, any team on the planet is always going to be happy to have a free 75% chance at a goal. But, no one has ever crunched the numbers to determine exactly what being a man up gives you, statistically speaking. For one thing, getting a man sent off in the 89th minute is a far different proposition than having one sent off in the 2nd. You could of course conceivably concede the winning goal in the 90th, or nick a 1-0 win with a man down the whole game (the latter is possible especially when playing the Tottenscum). But, how many times have we seen a man sent off only for his side to earn a draw...or steal a win? What about when you get someone sent off up 3-0 or down 4-0? At that point, what's the difference? Also, the actual person getting sent off can determine a lot of things. If you get your central midfield engine sent off, that is far worse than having it happen to your center forward. Worst of all for most clubs is getting their goalkeeper sent off, as evidenced by the horrendous play of backup goalkeepers in the last round of EPL matches (that guy from Southampton, Blayley, needs a ticket back to Stockport County in the worst possible way).

Still, while it may be impossible to actually quantify, it's hard to imagine that a red card against doesn't adversely affect your side's chances in some way. While the immediate affect of a penalty kick is greater -- an almost certain goal, RIGHT NOW -- the potential damage of a red card is actually far greater...the degree of which depending on how early the card comes. Say you're winning 1-0, with several tough matches coming up. What would be the bigger nightmare scenario? Having an unfair penalty called against, almost surely resulting in a 1-1 draw and two points lost? Or, having a guy sent off...thus making you more likely to draw or lose the current game, and also having a player unavailable for those tough matches looming on the fixture list?

Let's take...oh....Everton with the examples above. They're still clinging to third place in the table (nearing the end of the first third of the season), and they have a stretch towards the end of the season that looks like this: Liverpool (away, and the Merseyside derby to boot), W.B.A. (away, and likely fighting for their lives at this point), Crystal Palace (home, but we know what kind of side they are now), The Champions (away), Manchester United (home). Assume that Everton is still at or near third place in the table...even call it fourth, for Champions' League qualification, how damaging would it be for a guy like Thomas Gravesen to be sent off before THAT run of matches? It could be the difference between third place and eighth. You may laugh, but consider this, in this brave new world of English football. Last season, fourth-placed Liverpool eked into the Champions' League with 60 points. Let's halt for a second, to consider that a 3-game suspension could cost up to 9 points in the standings. Last season, tenth-placed Birmingham City finished with 50 points...amazingly close to the 9-point margin I was talking about.

Now, imagine one club getting an important player unfairly sent off TWICE in one season.

Again, I don't mean to pick on referees, who have the hardest job in professional sports. I just wish that fans, referees and everyone associated with the game would keep in mind that decisions that affect a game to this extent should be handled with extreme care and discretion.

Oh, and as an aside, I've applied for the vacant Arsenal correspondent post at Soccernet. For your reading pleasure, here is the sample fantasy column I sent to them.

With the January transfer window now open, Arsenal fans across the globe are debating the merits of adding to the squad. While most sides could rarely go wrong with another warm body or two (given the usual problems with injury, suspension and poor form), Arsenal have the sort of problem that most clubs dream about.

In short, would buying now have an adverse affect on the young players on the verge of breaking through to the first-team squad? Sure, few Gooners are doing backflips at the prospect of more first-team appearances for the likes of Pascal Cygan (although the constant scapegoating is enough to get on any sane fan's nerves). However, if you buy someone now, where does that leave a young center-half like Philippe Senderos? Perhaps he'll be willing to wait two or three more seasons for his chance, but how likely is that, really?

The thing is, those of us on the terraces (or in pubs and living rooms here in the States) often lose sight of the bigger picture...it gets lost in our passion and our hope for the immediate future. Short-term reward is always nice, especially when it comes 49 times on the trot. However, my hope is that the men in charge of our long-term future keep their eyes firmly on that goal. Let's take a honest look at what we have, friends. Last season saw the Gunners go unbeaten in the league. Our Under-23 side has had amazing results in the Carling Cup the last few seasons. The present is already bright, the future already even brighter. Sure, Chelsea's emergence as our true rivals for the throne may have some of us wanting to match them, ridiculously-huge squad for ridiculously-huge squad. But, the truth of the matter is that our club has to run on a different economic model (which is completely fine with me, might I add). Whereas Chelsea can throw money at players they only have a marginal-at-best need for, Arsenal have to keep cost matters in mind.

Look at it this way. If you buy John Aboveaveragecenterhalf, you are spending money to gain a player. But, you are also spending potential...you are spending the development time, the precious few minutes that they already get for guys like Senderos, like Justin Hoyte, like Ryan Garry, like Gael Clichy. Sure, some will fall by the wayside...that's fine. Le Boss has always proven to be an impeccable judge of talent. Those that remain must be given their chance at becoming Arsenal first team players, or else why do we even have a youth development program in the first place? On the other side of the coin (quick, before Chelsea uses it to buy whoever this year's version of Scott Parker is), allowing our youth players to have first crack at replacing Cygan and providing cover for Cole and Campbell and Toure not only doesn't cost the side anything monetarily, it maximizes the potential of the young players we have here already.

The bottom line is that Arsenal has an embarrassment of riches already. Caving in to the idea of desperation replacements not only could be damaging to Arsenal's profits and the chemistry of the club, it would have a devastating effect on the future that Arsene Wenger is trying to create for us heading into the upcoming new era of the club.


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