Wednesday 18 May 2011

LOTG and Laws of Physics

The following two incidents occurred during the EPL match between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday 15 May 2011. The match finished 0—2.

The Referee was Howard Webb (see Webb Scrutiny, where HKRef mentions hope that Webb can bounce back for the remainder of the season). Of these two incidents, one was a poor decision and the other was a half-good decision. One is concluded directly from the Laws Of The Game and the other is determined from the Laws of Physics.

Luis Suarez's Petulant Kick

Liverpool forward Luis Suarez is a fantastic player. He also has a reputation for sometimes doing stupid things. For example, whilst at Ajax this season he was given a seven-match ban for biting an opponent's shoulder (see Liverpool's fine young cannibal).

On Sunday, Suarez did another stupid act; he kicked an opponent who was down on the ground. This was foolish and completely unnecessary. Credit to Spurs defender Michael Dawson for not reacting in kind to Suarez's petulant kick.

Webb was probably close enough to see Suarez kick Dawson

It is not 100% clear whether Webb saw the incident, but one good thing is that he was helped by the fact that Dawson and other players did not become needlessly involved. Players from both teams allowed the Referee to decide on the sanction, if any. This is the ideal: Allow the Referee space and time to manage and make a decision without any unnecessary interference and pressuring by players. So what did Webb do?

Webb cautioned Suarez. Did Webb in fact see the incident? Was Webb's decision correct in Law?

A famous example of this kind of stupidity and petulance is David Beckham's kick on Diego Simeone during the England and Argentina match in the 1998 World Cup. No one could justly complain when Referee Kim Milton Nielsen sent off David Beckham. These days, it seems we could do with more Referees who have courage to make the correct decisions, no matter how tough it may be at the time.

Instead, many Referees mistakenly believe they have to be touchy-feely and pally-friendly with players.

Notice also Webb's characteristic hands-on approach (or the touchy-feely method). Webb certainly does like to touch and handle players (compared with, say, Phil Dowd who prefers not to get needlessly involved).

John Flannagan's Charge

A fair charge is a shoulder-to-shoulder and side-to-side barge whilst attempting to gain space and control of the ball. Any other kind of charge is unfair and therefore a foul.

In the 55', Webb awarded a penalty against Liverpool right-back Flannagan who challenged with Spurs midfielder Steven Pienaar. Here are the freeze frames:

Was this a fair charge?

Many commentators and news reports said Webb's penalty decision was dubious and questionable (see BBC Sport, Guardian Football and Telegraph Football), with the emphasis that the challenge was a fair shoulder barge. Secondary to that, the challenge is claimed to have occurred outside the box. From the benefit of analyzing the freeze frames post-match (which all match Referees do not have in real time), Webb's decision was only half correct. It was a foul (i.e. an unfair charge) but contact was in fact outside the penalty area.

Take a look at Pienaar's body movement following contact with Flannagan. After the collision, is Pienaar's body moving sideways or is he falling forward? If sideways this would mean he was charged shoulder-to-shoulder and side-to-side. If falling forward this would indicate that he was charged from behind. From the freeze frames, although it may look as if contact between the players was shoulder-to-shoulder, on closer inspection Pienaar is actually just in front of Flannagan and because of this Flannagan's right side is pushing more of Pienaar's back rather than his left side. This is the force that pushes Pienaar's body forward (and also rotates it), indicating that he was pushed from behind. In contrast Flannagan's body continues to go forward (and not sideways), further indicating that there was no equal shoulder-to-shoulder collision.

In many incidents that involve players colliding, Referees should pay attention to the reactions resulting from the collision. Observing the collision of moving bodies can be revealing. The Laws of Physics really can help Referees.

Now, notice where initial contact was made. At the moment of contact, Pienaar's feet are clearly not in the penalty area and since contact was more to his back and left side, it is reasonable to conclude that contact was made outside the area. Contact did not continue in to the area because both players "bounced" off each other immediately after initial contact.

All this is pretty hard for Referee Howard Webb to see, particularly since there is a Liverpool player possibly hindering his view of the incident. Webb however can perhaps see the way Pienaar falls to ground. Therefore, Webb got the foul right and the location of the foul wrong.


As mentioned above: Of these two incidents, one was a poor decision and the other was a half-good decision. The former can be concluded directly from the Laws Of The Game, while the latter can be determined from the Laws of Physics.

Related Post

Sometimes, Referees Have To Rely On Intuition Alone

LOTG and Laws of Physics: Part 2


  1. The Suarez incident is one of many this season in the Premier League where the referee either missed blatant misconduct or refused to punish it accordingly with a red card. It's disappointing, but not surprising. It seems that referees in England have been told to take a more lenient approach towards players' excess and misbehavior and try to manage the situation and try to keep the players on the pitch. It's quite sad what has happened in England as refs are ignoring blatant red card offenses.

  2. Can we get over the idea that Howard Webb is a top referee? How he got a World Cup and Champions League Final where great referees like Franck De Bleeckere, Massimo Busacca, and Roberto Rosetti never did is a mystery.

    He is a good referee, but he is not elite. He seems to be more concerned about making friends with players and players liking him then about doing what is correct. I ask myself sometimes what you have to do to get sent off in a Howard Webb.

    This is the same referee who booked a player who got elbowed.

  3. In my opinion, the penalty decision was incorrect in both ways. I believe there was no foul.
    The attacker apparently stepped in the way of the defender who didn't do anything wrong - there was in fact should-on-shoulder contact. The ball was as far from one player as from the other one so nobody possessed it at the time of the challenge so why would you prefere the attacker? Both players went to the ground so why not a foul for defending team?

  4. Thanks for your comments. I have replied in the following Post: LOTG and Laws of Physics: Part 2.