While Fifa may have signalled the shape of things to come in football by trialling video replay technology at the Club World Cup in Japan, it’s the inconsistent application of some of the most basic rules in football which, in the here and now, continues to confound players, enrage supporters, and keep television pundits working overtime.
Liverpool legend and Sky Sports analyst Graeme Souness doesn’t have to think twice when asked what single change to improve the game he’d like to see introduced as a mater of urgency.
“If it’s a handball, it’s a handball,” he says. “I’d like to see this cleared up. It shouldn’t matter how far away you are: If your arm is away from your body and the ball hits you and that’s the first contact — it hasn’t come up off your knee or something — then it’s a penalty.”
Souness, who played for Sampdoria for two years in the 1980s, is dismissive of the concern that, if handball was simplified to that extent, more and more defenders would end up trying to defend crosses with their arms pinned behind their backs.
“They were doing that in Italy when I was playing there,” he says. “They’ve been doing that on the continent forever. Yes, it affects your balance and it will stop you turning as quickly but the alternative to that is we carry on with the same ‘is it or isn’t it a penalty?’ that we’ve got now, and where referees don’t know when to give them.”
While he’s at it, Souness would like to see the offside rule clarified.
“If a player is in an offside position, he’s in an offside position,” he says. “Is he interfering with play? I’ve seen goals given when a guy is standing 3ft wide of the goalkeeper when a shot is coming in — that’s got to influence the goalkeeper. But it’s allowed to stand. And I think that needs clearing up.”
One thing he is pleased about this season is the stringent enforcement of the law against players being manhandled in the box at set-pieces. Though he doesn’t think Leicester City will have welcomed the new regime.
“They’re paying the price for that because they manhandled teams,” he days. “And that should have been introduced years ago.”
From Leicester in the Premier League to Iceland and Wales in the Euros, Souness reckons that what was widely regarded as the year of the underdog was more about rising standards at the bottom than slippage at the top. “I think lesser nations are far more organised now,” he says.
“Players who would previously have been part-time players are now professionals. The improvement is from the bottom: Teams are fitter, more organised. Iceland doing well at the Euros — it’s not that they’ve produced a group of really good players who should be capable of beating England, it’s just that collectively they were a very difficult unit — and England were bad.”
The Republic of Ireland, he thinks, are another team who add up to more than the sum of their parts.
“Ireland have a good group of players but no obvious stars,” he observes, “and the manager is doing a great job in coming up with a way of playing that gets the best out of them. That’s what a manager has to do.”
But for all that he has detected a narrowing of the quality gap in 2017, Souness believes the elite clubs in European football are still a cut above the Premier League’s best.
“History tells you that,” he says. “English clubs haven’t threatened to win it for some time. It was a decade ago when the Premier League dominated the Champions League, and you have to accept that right now we’re a bit short of the two big Spanish giants — maybe three — and Bayern Munich.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you have in the Premier League. Money is not the only driver of where a club is going to go or what it can achieve.
"I think Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich would, right now, still be the three most attractive clubs you could go to because their history, the football they try and play and their size. You’re more or less guaranteed to win something at all those three clubs. The lifestyle and, yes, the money are also attractions at those clubs. But that is not necessarily the driver.
“Just because the Premier League pays more money is not going to get players to come from Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich”
Meantime, Souness is watching with interest, and even growing optimism, the transformation in his old club Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp. “It’s a very emotional club and he wears his heart on his sleeve, and right now they’re in love with each other,” he says.
“For him to take it to the next level, he has to get into the Champions League. How close are they to winning the title? I’m like most Liverpool supporters, I would have taken top four at the start of the season and now I’m believing a bit more that we go can go even further than that.
“But we’re only in December, there’s a lot more football to be played and anything can happen.”
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