The Deliberate Rule

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Dale Johnson of ESPN does incredibly well dissecting the questionable decisions across the Premier League every weekend.

A large part of his feature this week focused on Liverpool’s offside goal against Aston Villa. As he points out in the piece, when the IFAB revised the ‘deliberate play’ law at the start of the season, they overcomplicated it by adding another layer of subjectivity to it.

The law states that “deliberate play” is about a controlled action. Does the defender have the chance of doing one of the following with control: – passing the ball to a teammate; – or gaining possession of the ball; – or clearing the ball (e.g. by kicking or heading it.)

As Dale points out, the ball came at Ezri Konsa from a short distance and was dropping behind him until he attempted to get his foot on the ball, while it came off his leg, just below his knee, to run to Virgil Van Dijk.

Konsa didn’t have time to coordinate his body and it was an instinctive action. So, per the law, Van Dijk is offside.

However, here’s my problem with this though.

Most defensive actions are instinctive, aren’t they? How often is a player truly in control of the situation when defending? It sounds like a stupid thing to say but really think about it.

If a player looks to run out and block a shot, they have zero control over what happens if they are fortunate enough to get in the way of the effort. We regularly hear commentators and pundits praising defenders for just ‘getting something’ on the ball to prevent an opportunity. If a player is lunging to divert the ball away from goal, they aren’t in complete control of the ball, are they?

Likewise with headers, if a player is challenged in the air but get to the ball first, they aren’t actually in control of the situation, right? Yes, they’ve won the header but they have no idea where it is going to land.

A shanked clearance when under pressure could spin the way of an attacker. Will that be called back for offside due to the player not being in control of the ball properly? What about a rogue touch? Defenders are notorious for taking heavy touches, what if one ricochets off them and into the path of a striker who is walking back from an offside position? Does the defender get away with it because they can claim they weren’t in control?

You could easily make an argument that most situations involving players having to defend can’t be classed as controlled. So why does the law make this such a key part of the wording?

I get why this law is in place. It is so if a defender is stretching to stop a pass from reaching someone in an offside position and he gets a knick on the ball, play isn’t reset. In that scenario it makes sense. They’re only forced to react to that situation because someone is offside, so they shouldn’t be punished for it.

But the situation at Anfield was completely different. Luis Diaz headed the ball backwards and had Konsa not gotten a touch, Konate was likely going to get a shot off from 12-yards out. Konsa sticks a leg out to stop the ball from finding a Liverpool player. He isn’t going to be in control of where the ball does but the point is the ball hasn’t just hit him, he’s moved towards the ball. That should reset the play.

The rule makers will likely address this after the season ends because this sort of thing causes too many problems. Ultimately, far too many defensive actions aren’t controlled for this to be a viable rule.

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