Most people don’t like change, and football fans are no different. Every time football makes changes to its rules, there are always some fans who aren’t happy. Sometimes, everyone is eventually convinced that the rule change was a worthwhile one – see the backpass rule and goal-kicks being taken within the penalty area, for example. Other changes, such as VAR, have such a big impact on both the sport and the viewers’ experience that they split opinion for far longer.
Part of the new refereeing directives that were brought in this season have been introduced to crack down on time-wasting, and these changes have caused a fair bit of contention already. The thinking was: discourage time-wasting by showing a yellow card to anyone deemed to be using underhand tactics to eat up playing time, and then add on any time that has been wasted at the end of games to make sure we as viewers get our money’s worth. Everyone should be happy, in theory, right?
Well, there were some genuine worries straight away, not least those of Manchester United defender Raphaël Varane, who took to social media to express his concerns that the players’ welfare was not being considered. Players, he said, were just expected to deal with longer games in an already packed schedule without any thought as to whether they could actually manage the extra workload.
On top of that, there were issues raised on these pages on how the new directives will favour the bigger clubs with greater resources to play longer matches, and better squads to deal with injuries caused by fatigue and suspensions brought about by the extra cautions. They also might not need to waste time as much as lesser teams, who might be clinging on for a vital point or three, which would mean even more to them than it might to another team. Both of those are reasonable concerns that are still valid five games into the new season.
Other complaints are rather less serious but still worth addressing.
Last week, Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom wasn’t happy with referee Peter Bankes’ officiating in the 2-1 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur, saying his team were forced to play a certain way because of the fear of punishment hanging over them.
“[Referees] are dictating how we play,” he said. “If you play to take goal-kicks from the back, you set up one way, and if Spurs go against that, that dictates the decision you make. We’re getting told to just play long – you can’t do it. Wes [Foderingham] got booked for handling outside the box and then you’re threatening him with another yellow [for time-wasting].”
It probably didn’t help that Heckingbottom’s mood that he had just seen his side concede two goals in the 98th and 100th minutes to throw away a 1-0 lead and slump to an immensely disappointing defeat, nor that he’d watched Bankes equal a Premier League record for the most cards dished out in a game.
But his point is worth discussing: sometimes players need longer than a few seconds to assess their options. They’re not always gaming the system and trying to eat up valuable time – and the time they ‘waste’ can just be added on at the end of the game anyway, right?
There are also less legitimate complaints from fans about consistency in the policing of time-wasting, and about players getting booked – and risking being sent off – for what feel like minor infractions like holding onto the ball for ever so slightly too long before taking a throw-in. Just ask Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu who received his first yellow card for exactly that on the way to being sent off at Crystal Palace.
Clearly, these changes haven’t been universally popular or without their problems. But are they having the desired results? And if so, are the negatives worth living with if the end product is better?
The aim of harsher punishments on time-wasting was to reduce how much fans and viewers at home would be forced to watch a game where nothing is happening. In Premier League games in 2022-23, the ball was in play on average for just 54 minutes and 46 seconds. This followed a trend in recent years – consistent across the European leagues – of the ball being in play less, with extra substitutions and VAR delays among the contributing factors to the longer delays to matches. So, the authorities decided to increase the injury time that was being played to counteract the issue and ensure viewers were still watching as much actual football as they used to.
The results have been stark, and although we are still only five games into the 2023-24 campaign and so we are looking at a very small sample size, there is an argument that those in charge of the game have done – so far at least – what they set out to achieve. Fans are being treated to more entertainment than ever before.
This season we have seen 18 goals scored in the 90th minute or later, which is four more than after five matchdays in any other Premier League campaign (14 in 2020-21). The seasonal average in campaigns before the current one is just 7.6, and let’s not forget 2023-24 is still one game off every team having played five games (with Burnley still to play Luton).
A goal has been scored in second-half stoppage time every 2.7 games so far this season, which is more frequent than any other season in the Premier League era, ahead of 2021-22, which saw a late goal every 4.5 games.
Four of this season’s injury-time goals have been winners, which means it has already matched 1998-99 for 90th-minute winning goals. Two of those late winners were scored last weekend, with Aston Villa joining Spurs with a winner in added time.
So, after the latest round of fixtures, we have now seen an injury-time winner scored in 8.2% of Premier League games this season, which is a higher proportion than in any other campaign.
The weekend’s action boosted the numbers with especially late goals. Douglas Luiz scored a 98th-minute winner from the penalty spot against Crystal Palace on Saturday, before Leon Bailey made it 3-1 with the third-latest Premier League goal on record (since 2006-07), at 100 minutes and nine seconds. That was only the fourth time since 2006-07 that a goal has been scored after the 100-minute mark, and one of the others – the second-latest – was scored only a few weeks ago by Arsenal forward Gabriel Jesus against Manchester United (100:15).
Heckingbottom’s dismay at watching his Sheffield United team crumble late on at Spurs would have been especially understandable given Dejan Kulusevski’s strike was the latest winning goal on record, scored after 99 minutes and 53 seconds. Spurs’ comeback was the latest turnaround in Premier League history, after they had trailed in the 98th minute. Meanwhile, Luiz’s aforementioned winner for Villa was the fifth-latest winner on record.
As there is more game time, more goals are being scored throughout games. The 2023-24 rate of 3.1 goals per game is the highest in any season in the entire Premier League era. That will at least in part be because we are seeing more shots on target per game (9.9) than in any other season.
The fact that a big portion of the extra minutes are in second-half stoppage time means we are watching more football played with greater urgency. The standard is so high these days, and squads are so deep that the football we are watching late on is high quality and extremely entertaining, too. More goals, more late goals and more drama. That’s what everyone wanted, right? Rejoice!
Well, that added game time combined with harsher refereeing means we are seeing more yellow cards given out than ever before, at 4.8 per game, as well as red cards (0.22 per game) and second yellows (0.12 per game). It’s up to you to decide whether you class that as entertaining or not, really.
There is also the fact that all four of the 90th-minute winners we have seen this season were scored by the team with the deeper squad. Spurs beat Sheffield United with £60m forward Richarlison coming off the bench to score one and then set up another. Villa, who have spent vast sums of money in recent years, saw off Palace late on. Arsenal beat United thanks to £105m midfielder Declan Rice’s winner (we’re aware United are hardly lacking in resources, but there is no question that their bench is weaker than Arsenal’s). Finally, Liverpool came from behind to win at Newcastle last month, having brought £85m match-winner Darwin Núñez off the bench (again, Newcastle are richer than most and weren’t exactly underdogs at home to Liverpool, but their reserve players are arguably no match for Liverpool’s).
Is it a good thing that strong teams are given more time to put more pressure on opponents, or would we prefer upsets to be likelier to happen? That’s a tough one to answer for the people making decisions about the future of the game.
The crux of the argument, however, is whether the end product better for all the late drama. As a matter of opinion, that one is never going to be something everyone agrees on. Let the debate continue.